Turnus Rufus, Rabbi Akiva, and the No-Win Scenario
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Jews always seem to have an unexpected reply up their sleeves. Turnus Rufus, a Roman governor posted in Judea during first half of the second century C.E., challenged the famous Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva to debate time and again, yet repeatedly found himself bested by the Torah leaders witty repartee.
One subject Turnus Rufus repeatedly harangued Rabbi Akiva about was the mitzvah of bris milah, circumcision. Altering the human body, and particularly the celebrated male physique, was anathema to Greco-Roman culture. Throughout Roman rule after the destruction of the second Temple, decrees proclaiming circumcision and other mitzvos punishable on pain of death circulated time and again. Nonetheless, the Jewish People continued to risk their lives to perform them.
While the decrees tried to cut down Judaism by brute force, Turnus Rufus tried to battle the mitzvah of bris milah on philosophical grounds. Rabbi Akiva was a beloved and honoured leader of the Jewish People. The Roman governor lusted after an intellectual victory against this most reviled of his enemies. Rabbi Akiva had been caught teaching Torah in public and sentenced to death, yet even as the rabbi sat under lock and key in death row Turnus Rufus sought him out with further questions:
The evil Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are better, things made by the Almighty or things made by flesh and blood?”
He replied, “Things made by flesh and blood are better!”
Turnus Rufus said to him, “But heaven and earth, can a human being make anything like these?”
Rabbi Akiva said, “Don’t talk to me about things that are above created beings, that can’t be controlled; rather talk to me about things that are to be found amongst man.”
He [Turnus Rufus] said, “Why do you circumcise?”
He replied, “I knew you would ask me about that, which is why I pre-empted and told you that things made by man are better than things made by the Almighty.”
Rabbi Akiva brought him wheat and cakes and said to him, “These are made by the Almighty and these are made by man. Aren’t these [cakes] better than the wheat?”
Turnus Rufus retorted, “If God wanted circumcision, then why doesn’t the baby come out circumcised from his mother’s womb?”
Rabbi Akiva responded, “Because the Almighty didn’t give mitzvos to the Jewish People for any reason but to improve ourselves with them.”
(Midrash Tanchuma, Parashas Tazria, 8)
Turnus Rufus wasn’t challenging Rabbi Akiva about circumcision alone. What irked Turnus Rufus was the diametrically opposing worldview that Rabbi Akiva and his nation represented. In Roman terms, Turnus Rufus had it all: women, prestige, money, power. His was the ruling class, the victors, the mighty Roman empire that had the spoils of the known world at their feet.
Yet, to Turnus Rufus’s great irritation, this small, oppressed nation, the Jews, would not relinquish their plucky sense of dignity and purposefulness. The “mighty Roman empire” did not fundamentally scare them. They would do their best to protect their lives, but they would not cower. No matter how beaten they were, they would not be beaten. Rabbi Akiva was on death row, and didn’t give an inch. Why?
After all, Turnus Rufus reasoned, humanity is a crumb in the great machinations of the universe. He thought human efforts were worth nothing against the great tide of time and space. “Heaven and earth, can a man make anything like these?” Why fight city hall?
For Turnus Rufus, the world existed as a hierarchy of power, and the forces of nature held the greatest power of all. In a way, he seemed to be explaining to Rabbi Akiva that just as he accepted that nature was more powerful than humanity, so Akiva should accept that Rome was more powerful than Judaism.
But Rabbi Akiva had the chutzpah to reply, “Don’t talk to me about things that are above created beings, that can’t be controlled; rather talk to me about things that are to be found amongst man.” To his Jewish way of thinking, nature was a workbook for fulfilling the dictates of the Torah, and in doing so, fulfilling human potential. The great challenges of nature, especially human nature, weren’t to be surrendered to in despair. Rather, to Rabbi Akiva’s thinking, the greater the challenge was, then the greater the opportunity for growth. Rabbi Akiva, like every Torah-true hero throughout Jewish history, never believed in the no-win scenario.
When Turnus Rufus asked whether Rabbi Akiva thought that what man produced could possibly be better than that which was made by the Almighty, Rabbi Akiva didn’t hesitate. Of course what human beings make of nature is better than the raw original materials! That is what the Almighty created nature for in the first place. “On the eight day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3)
When every event that comes your way is seen as a meaningful, purposeful opportunity to grow, nothing can beat you down. When all the world in its power and greatness is seen as a means to a personal relationship with the Almighty, no effort for goodness and morality is insignificant. The savage brutality of the Roman Empire has sunk into the sands of time, but the plucky Jewish People against all odds live on.