Commentary Magazine

Athens & Jerusalem

To the Editor:

In an era in which the classics of Western literature are sometimes dismissed as the outmoded works of dead white males, Hillel Halkin’s remarkable essay, “Sailing to Ithaca” [November 2005], shows how the Bible and The Odyssey can enrich our thinking about the most complex issues in life. Even more important, in my view, is what Mr. Halkin teaches about the world of the ancient Greeks and that of the Bible—Athens and Jerusalem, as the traditions they spawned have been called.

These were the two transformative civilizations of antiquity; no people encountering either for the first time could remain the same. The two were brought together methodically in medieval philosophy, creating a dialectic that has dominated Western thought ever since. Their places of meeting have seen creativity at the highest levels.

What was the secret of the encounter by which Athens and Jerusalem became more than just their already immensely powerful selves? Numerous studies have been devoted to this question, of which two of the most famous are by Lev Shestov and Leo Strauss. The focus has usually been on the tension between reason and revelation, between analysis and inspiration. But Mr. Halkin supplies a clue in a different direction.

Taking his cue from Erich Auerbach’s comparison of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca with the binding of Isaac, he suggests that Odysseus embodies the hope of restoration, of the yearning to return home, to a world in which everything has indeed changed and no one remains the same but in which, somehow, nothing is different. As Mr. Halkin writes, by the end of The Odyssey, “time and age are vanquished.”

The Bible, by contrast, suggests the possibility of reconciliation, of acknowledging change and guilt yet also of coming to terms with these burdens with the aid of an open-ended hope for the future. The Bible (if one may continue Mr. Halkin’s nautical metaphor) teaches us how to deal with the wake of the past that each pulls behind him as he heads into the harbor. This message would be synthesized by Jews of antiquity into the concept of repentance (teshuvah), having the power to reverse misdeeds and allow one to sail away safe and free from the wreckage one has inflicted on God, the commandments, others, and oneself. When these two broad concepts are engaged, when the hope of restoration encounters the promise of reconciliation, Athens and Jerusalem together create a world of intellectual ferment, cultural richness, and personal optimism—a world that, even in the 21st century, retains its power to move us.

Albert I. Baumgarten

Bar Ilan University

Givat Shmuel, Israel


To the Editor:

Back when I was teaching undergraduates instead of seminarians, I began my “Introduction to Religious Studies” course with Homer’s Iliad, not just to do my bit for cultural literacy but also so that I could teach Simone Weil’s famous essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” regarded by many as the finest interpretation of that epic ever written. Although I hardly have the expertise to claim that Hillel Halkin’s “Sailing to Ithaca” is the finest essay on The Odyssey ever written, I can at least say that if I were still teaching undergraduates, I would want to add The Odyssey to my syllabus, simply so that I might teach “Sailing to Ithaca” as well.

Both epics can prove highly disconcerting to modern sensibilities; but with the right depth of insight, it is still possible to show Hom-er’s greatness without either apologizing for his “sexism” or turning him into a parable for our allegedly more enlightened times. Mr. Hal-kin has restored my admiration for what genuine literary criticism can accomplish.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

University of St. Mary of the Lake

Mundelein, Illinois


Hillel Halkin writes:

I thank Albert Baumgarten and Father Oakes for their thoughtful and appreciative responses.

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