Commentary Magazine


Jews, Christians, Hellenists

To the Editor:

Professor Hadas (“Judaism and the Hellenistic Experience,” August 1956) limited his historical analysis to the “classic” encounter between Pharisaic Torah religion and Hellenistic humanism and touched only by implication on the perplexities of our modern situation.

The modern case differs, however, from the classic paradigm in at least two ways: (1) The challenge of modern humanism is even more intensive, since it touches upon the very right of Jewish existence and (2) our response is less forthright than the answer of Philo.

The difference is largely due to a contemporary of Philo, another Hellenistic Jew, a Pharisee reared in the Rabbinic Torah religion, who turned apostle to the Gentiles and brought to them the apocalyptic message of the crucified Messiah as a new Torah. Paul’s new Torah recognizes the Jew only in a special role in the universal drama of redemption. And the humanism of the West is the heir of Christian theology as much as it is indebted to the legacy of the Greets and Romans. Are not Augustine and Dante as much a part of our humanistic tradition as Plato and Vergil?

The Rabbinic Torah religion established its realm inside the bounds of Halachah refusing to participate in the ways of the world, Greek or Christian. This “sacrifice of humanism” may well inspire awe and terror—it is not lacking in heroic will. The Jew was forced to walk on a lonely road among the ways of the nations.

But we who claim to be the heirs of the Rabbinic tradition that separates the congregation from the world are very eager to share in the intellectual and even social life of our environment. We go to college and send our children to college, which inherited its legacy from the Greek gymnasium (not from the Pharisaic beth hamidrash) and continues the tradition of the medieval Christian university (not of the Talmudic yeshiva). Rarely, however, does someone admit that “the Hellenistic era appears to be more directly relevant to contemporary Jewish problems than any other period.” Hadas’s historical essay is a courageous statement in the confused state of our spiritual situation and thus worth more than a score of high-sounding theological or philosophical statements on the subject.

Jacob Taubes
New York City

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To the Editor:

Moses Hadas’s article in your August issue has attempted the difficult task of reversing the judgment of history. The historical reality is that the Jews, except for temporary truces ordered by political and practical considerations, were in a state of permanent ideological, if not physical, conflict with the Hellenistic Greco-Roman world. Nor was this so unenviable a situation as one might erroneously surmise from modern experience, for the Jews were engaged in a fight to the finish with Greco-Roman ideas, and they might have won had not the victorious role been taken from them by the parallel movement of the Christians. The bitter hostility to Judaism expressed by the most enlightened Roman thinkers cannot be interpreted as anti-Semitism, in our sense: it was the manifestation of real fear before a hostile and mighty force.

Now Professor Hadas tells us that coexistence would have been possible if the Jews had followed the suggestions offered in the letter of Aristeas to Philocrates. Professor Hadas has done a brilliant job of editing this document and making its meaning clear to the learned world, and he is entitled to stress its importance. It is legitimate, and stimulating, to speculate as to what might have happened if the Jews had taken advice from Aristeas; but if they did not, it was because they could not have satisfied the Greeks without losing their own identity—the best they could do, under the circumstances, was to follow the Emperor Claudius’s more peremptory advice to cultivate their own garden without trying to become Greeks.

As to Professor Hadas’s opinion that Aristeas provides a “classical model” for the survival of Jewish culture in the European world, a word of caution may be in order. During the Greco-Roman era, Jews and Pagans experimented with several formulas for coexistence; on the Jewish side there were as many shades of attitude to “assimilation” as there have been in the modern world. The Aristeas letter was over-optimistic—it came early in the history of Judeo-Hellenistic relations, before the Jewish question had become an explosive one, before there was a long history of violent anti-Jewish outbreaks. Professor Hadas declares that the policy of rapprochement which Aristeas advocated could have succeeded except that it “was halted by the Romans and by the special measures taken by the Jews.” On this he contradicts (as he himself avers) the prevailing opinion. It may be that Professor Hadas could not document his case within the confines of an article, but in the present state of the evidence one must agree with the historian Simon Dubnow that “between Rome and Israel there gaped an abyss. In the ancient world it would have been possible to attain a hybrid mixture of Jewish and Hellenistic culture elements, but this could never have developed into a true Judeo-Roman syncretism.”

This does not mean that a Jewish culture cannot exist in the frame of a Western culture; it can exist within Western culture as transformed by Christianity. However painful the history of Jewish-Christian relations may have been, the spreading by Christianity of Jewish values and ideas has made it possible for the Jews to be more at home in the European world than they were in the Greco-Roman one. The question of the mutual acceptance of Judaism and humanism depends on the given definition of humanism. If classical humanism as transformed by St. Augustine and St. Ambrose is meant, the possibility of mutual acceptance exists; but if one means by humanism a revival in toto of pagan culture, there can be no coexistence, and on this Jewish thought has always been clear. The intellectual question has practical implications: it is a fact that whenever in modern times there has been a rejection of the Helleno-Christian humanistic tradition, the survival of Jewish tradition and of the Jews as an identifiable group has become impossible.

Livio C. Stecchini
Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, New York

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