Let My People Know

"The natural object is not necessarily the superior object"


"An abstract, clean-cut, primal nature, a true self, pos­sibly does not exist at all.


Finding the true self is not just a question of whether it is possible to undress completely, or whether undressing reveals a greater truth; there is also a need to understand whether this undressing is any kind of an achievement.


Is the creature who was stripped of everything better?


Is a person who reveals naked, shame­less desire superior?


Should passion be sublimated, to use Freud's expression?


Should it be changed and dressed?


Is that changed, dressed, more formal creature not superior to the other one?


One story that deals with this complex notion is the story of an encounter between Rabbi Akiva and the Ro­man ruler of Palestine, Tinneus Rufus (whom the Jews nicknamed Tyrannus Rufus).


The two leaders had a philosophical dispute, which on the one hand was con­nected with the spiritual collapse of paganism in

Rome it­self, and on the other, with the political friction between the Jewish population and the Roman rulers.


The Roman asked Rabbi Akiva which is superior: na­ture, or what people make of it—that is, what God does, or the handicraft of man.


Rabbi Akiva immediately answered, "What humans do is superior to what God does."


So the Roman asked, "Can man create Heaven and earth?"


"No," said Akiva, "we cannot create Heaven and earth, but when we speak about things that human beings can do, we do it better.


Look at a stalk of flax on the one hand, and the piece of linen cloth that is made from it; look at a sheaf of wheat, and look at a loaf of bread.


Which is superior?"


When the Roman came to this impasse, he asked, "Tell me, why are you circumcised?"


So Akiva answered, "I told you, what man does is better than what God does."


Tinneus Rufus wanted to make the point that the nat­ural world is superior, thus negating one of the basic premises of Judaism, that humans, too, bear a responsi­bility for this world, and that they are supposed, and even commanded, to make it better.


Rabbi Akiva did not allow him to develop his idea.


The Rabbi was not making a joke, nor was his just a tactical move.


Rabbi Akiva's stance has broad implications.


The natural object is not necessarily the superior object.


The natural creature it­self, the naked creature, is not always the superior crea­ture."

 –Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

From Simple Words, p.155-156, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz