Title: The Prince & the Emperors
By Dov S. Zakheim
Koren Publishers, 344 pages
Several decades ago while teaching Jewish History to middle school students I wanted to teach the biographies of the Tannaim and Amoraim and was frustrated by the lack of quality source material available in English. The Prince & the Emperors takes a significant step towards filling that void. In a thoroughly researched book, Dov S. Zakheim shares with us the story of Rebbe Yehuda HaNassi as taught by Chazal. To better understand Rebbe’s relationship with the leadership of the Roman Empire the author draws on modern historical research to present us the geopolitical tapestry upon which Rebbe and Antoninus interacted. The author also draws on comparisons with later historical figures and events, as well as contemporary politicians to enable us to better appreciate the events that shaped Rebbe’s life.
It is often a challenge when the story told by Chazal is at odds with modern scholarship. At the beginning of the book and again in an appendix the author presents and grapples with the challenge. Perhaps the foremost challenge is the identification of Antoninus, the Roman Emperor who appears in many stories of Chazal as a dear friend and possibly a student and convert of Rebbe. The historical timeline of when the various Roman emperors lived, as well as the historical record of which of them visited Palestine and would have met with Rebbe, do not lead to easy identification of who Antoninus could be. The author concludes, in line with many historians, that he must have been an amalgam of Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla.
The author maintains that the Gemara, written centuries after Rebbe lived, did not have accurate information and therefore had to invent certain parts of the story to have it make sense. As the author acknowledges, this is not an approach with which all readers will be comfortable. At times he uses a sharp knife to suggest that parts of a story are factual and others aren’t.
The author makes a number of statements about Orthodox Jews in general, or specifically charedim, without citing sources for his assertions (unlike most of the book, which is replete with footnotes) which are, at times, repetitions of stereotypical tropes (e.g. p. 168, p. 295) or simply inaccurate. His claim that charedim “treat the tales of the rabbis as literal unvarnished truth… even such stories as Rabba bar Bar Hana and R. Yochanan’s famous tales of sea dragons and other monsters,” is demonstrably untrue. Starting with the Ritv’a who states that these were dreams to the allegorical explanations of the Maharal, Vilna Gaon and Rebbe Nachman, it is quite evident that none of them takes these stories literally.
While we acknowledge the challenge of understanding some of the stories of Rebbe’s interaction with Antoninus, at times it might be better to remain with a question rather than to reject out of hand what Chazal are saying. After years of studying and contemplating Agaddata, I have seen that statements that once seemed bewildering to me can make complete sense when seen from a different perspective. As such, statements referring to stories as “preposterous,” and saying that they would only be believed by “the most gullible,” are more a reflection of the author’s biases than of an educated approach to the study of Agaddata. At times parts of stories are left out which results in the story being more difficult to comprehend.
None of this detracts from the wealth of Aggadic and historical information that the author shares, but the reader should understand that there are often deeper layers to the story than what is being presented.