ll people are either Jews or Hellenes,” wrote Heinrich Heine in 1840, “either people with ascetic instincts, a hostility to images, and an addiction to spiritualizing, or people with a cheerful and realistic nature and pride in developing.” Over the next century or so, a stark opposition of Judaism (or “Hebraism,” as Matthew Arnold was soon to call it) and Hellenism became, in its various versions, a familiar topos in the history of the West.
In some circles, it is alive and well to this day, and for good reason. Practitioners of traditional Judaism recall annually the brutal defeats of their ancestors by the Romans, who were inheritors, admirers, and imitators of the Greeks and in whose eastern empire (where most Jews lived) Greek remained the lingua franca. The defeats left a bitter taste in the mouths of the ancient rabbis. In the Talmud, for example, a scenario is predicted in which various nations, including even the once-brutal Egyptians, successfully present gifts to the messiah, but God rejects the overtures of the Romans, citing this verse from Psalms: “Rebuke the beast of the reeds, the herd of bulls . . . Who scattered peoples and delight in wars!” The judgment is still widespread among Jews that the conflict was one of mutually repellent worldviews, and not simply of a rebellious province against its imperial overlords in one delimited period.
In his highly accessible Aphrodite and the Rabbis, Burton L. Visotzky challenges that view and tells instead a story of the deep influence of Roman culture on the Judaism of Talmudic times. As he sees it, Israelite or biblical religion was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was only in the Roman period, when the Temple was destroyed and the hereditary priests (kohanim) were replaced by a new religious leader, the rabbi, that anything that can rightly be called “Judaism” emerged. The shift was indeed momentous. “The very emphasis on the revelation at Sinai as the signal event forming Jewish identity was itself a Roman-era novelty,” Visotzky writes. “During the biblical era the exodus from Egypt was the seminal event of Israelite history. Only after the Temple was destroyed [in 70 c.e.] and Judaism reconstituted around the Book did it become necessary to shift emphasis to Sinai.”
Facilitating the shift were two characteristically Hellenistic notions: “canon—the formation of a community around a shared work of literature,” and the “chain of tradition,” a notion developed by “Greco-Roman philosophical schools for passing on the authentic teachings of the previous generation.” The notion of a canon of literature obviously underlies the incorporation of certain (but not all) old Jewish texts into what became the Bible. As for the chain of tradition, Visotzky outlines a striking similarity among the chains in philosophical schools, in rabbinic literature, and in the genealogy of Jesus in the New Testament as well—hardly a coincidence.
Given this overarching cultural dynamic, we should not be surprised to find Greco-Roman influences, large and small, on rabbinic institutions and literature. Visotzky, professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, lays out effectively, if briefly, the remarkable patterning of the rabbinic Passover seder on the Greco-Roman symposium, abundant parallels between parables about kings in Greco-Roman literature and those about God among the rabbis, and a number of other enlightening connections. He also notes that by the third century c.e., political relations between Jews and Romans had warmed. In the fourth century, the Jewish patriarch in the Land of Israel sent his son to Antioch to study with a famous teacher of Greek rhetoric—a fact that belies the convenient notion of an inevitable opposition of cultures.
But, as Visotzky reminds us, it would be a capital error to assume that in the supposedly “rabbinic” period, all Jews adhered to the rabbinic interpretation of their religion. Indeed, the archaeological evidence gives scant indication of rabbinic Judaism—and some eye-opening evidence of beliefs and practices that may well have scandalized the rabbis. On a Jewish sarcophagus from Beit She’arim, a site in the Galilee where Talmudic rabbis were also buried, we find a depiction of the god Zeus in the well-known myth in which, taking the form of a swan, he seduces or rapes a princess named Leda. Similarly, a mosaic from a synagogue in Sepphoris, a town in the Galilee associated with the compiler of the Mishnah, depicts the sun-god Helios in his horse-drawn carriage. There and in other ancient synagogues, the zodiac is a prominent image—this despite the pointed Talmudic insistence that divine providence, and not the heavenly bodies, determines Jewish destiny.
In texts that reflect the Jewish practice of magic and medicine, the Greco-Roman heritage is especially pronounced. A good example is a text of this sort discovered in the Cairo genizah—a storage bin of discarded Jewish texts featuring the Holy Name that could not by tradition be destroyed by fire—that Visotzky believes “gives us a peek at Greco-Roman Jewish folk religion in Roman Palestine.” Here, the worshiper offers reverence to Helios and speaks of him as “Lord, radiant ruler” and the like. Exactly how the Jewish worshipers understood Helios—as a manifestation of, or alternative name for, the God of Israel or as an independent deity—is unclear. Perhaps the issue did not matter to them. Either way, a possibility that Visotzky raises to explain the zodiac imagery would seem to apply here as well: “The rabbis expressed their stern disapproval of the image, while the Jews in the synagogue seemed to enjoy the motif.”
Then as now, synagogue life seems often to have been rather different from what the rabbis wanted. Rather than speaking of a bright line between Jews and Hellenes, we would thus be better served by speaking of different types of Jews, living in close proximity to non-Jews and differing among themselves in the interpretations they gave to the Hellenistic heritage that willy-nilly pervaded their world.
The material Visotzky discusses is well known among historians of the Jews in antiquity, and the sharp opposition of Judaism and Hellenism, like other grand generalizations about cultures, is much less frequently heard in academic circles than was the case even a few decades ago. Aphrodite and the Rabbis does a service, however, in offering Jewish laymen a more complex, and perhaps troubling, picture than the one to which they may be accustomed. It also underscores the oft-neglected reality that a complete picture of Greco-Roman civilization must reckon seriously with the Jews’ particular adaptation of it.
A number of Visotzky’s own historical claims, however, can themselves be faulted. The idea that biblical religion was focused on the Temple, for example, neglects far too much of the Hebrew Bible and the texts that expanded it in pre-Roman times and forgets that for most Israelites, even in the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and its Temple were not conveniently available. Similarly, the idea that the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. occasioned a shift in central focus from the exodus to Sinai overlooks the vast expansion of Jewish law over the course of the biblical period itself and all the more so in the Second Temple period.
Visotzky’s notion that the formation of a canon of scripture was a response to the loss of the Temple is also too simple. Even if the idea of a closed canon of 24 books that eventually developed was influenced by the 24 books of the Homeric epics, as Visotzky reasonably suggests, the fact remains that Greco-Roman culture never developed a closed canon of literature at all. Nor should we ignore the evidence that certain biblical books commanded a foundational status long before the Romans destroyed the Temple. Already in Deuteronomy, a proto-canonical idea can be found to the effect that the community must be deliberately focused on certain texts—and will perish if it neglects them.
In short, Visotzky would have done better had he consistently borne in mind his own wise observations that the transition from biblical religion to rabbinic Judaism “was already under way before the time of the rabbis” and that the process in question was actually “a measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco-Roman culture that found its expression in post-70 c.e. Judaism.”
The author’s informal tone, which contributes to the readability of his book, is also at times excessive and causes him to miss the seriousness of the materials he discusses. About a decree recorded in the Mishnah that, in light of the destruction the Romans inflicted, forbad the use of bridal crowns, tambourines, and palanquins (i.e., covered litters) at weddings, he writes this:
Jews “got even” with Rome by not using tambourines! No more bridal crowns! Really? And fuggidaboud riding on a palanquin . . .
The response seems so feeble it’s risible. It’s as though modern Jews decided to forbid wedding caterers to serve mini-frankfurters to punish Germany for World War II. So there!
This is not analysis; this is mockery. What is risible here is the assumption that the prohibitions were intended to “get even” with the Romans. The likelier motivation behind the decree was to dampen the joy even of the happiest sort of occasion by recalling the enormity of the losses the Jews had suffered and the impossibility of unqualified happiness in the aftermath. The objective was not to punish the Romans; it was to remind the Jews.
And then there is this way of describing a method of rabbinic biblical interpretation:
Later rabbis, bless their hearts, got absolutely slap-happy finding the same Hebrew verbal root all over the Bible and then inferring all kinds of stuff from one context to the next.
The technique to which Visotzky refers is in plentiful evidence in rabbinic literature, but is the adjective “slap-happy,” with its implication of irresponsibility and arbitrariness, really appropriate to a discussion of the rabbinic appropriation of a well-known Greco-Roman rhetorical technique? And does the condescension of “bless their hearts” not detract from the reader’s sense of the gravity of the issues at stake and the importance of the subject altogether?
If the author’s flippant style can perhaps be excused on the grounds that it helps bring alive to the reader a subject that is often presented in soporific fashion, the errors of fact cannot.
And then there is the “bromance” between a Roman emperor whom the rabbis call “Antoninus” (probably Marcus Aurelius) and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, or the way Visotzky describes the narrative in which Antoninus, having (as the text would have it) submitted to circumcision, showed the evidence to the rabbi: The emperor “flashed Rabbi Judah the Patriarch.” But the pièce de résistance left me, like the author himself, wordless: “the Rabbis ♥ Antoninus.”
If the flippant style can perhaps be excused on the grounds that it helps bring alive to the lay reader a subject that is too often presented in soporific fashion, the errors of fact cannot. Here are some examples. The “year of the four emperors” was not 66, as Visotzky writes, but 69 c.e. (The point is important to the subject because it was only with the ascendancy of Vespasian, the last of the four, that the military command in the war against the Jews was turned over to his son Titus, who finished off Jerusalem the next year.) A fortiori does not mean “to the major/stronger.” It means “from the major/stronger.” And the Latin expression abbreviated QED does not mean “thus it has been demonstrated” but rather “which is what had to be shown.” It is too bad that mistakes of this sort were allowed to mar such an interesting and accessible volume on such an important subject.
Whereas the rabbis could swim in the waters of Greco-Roman culture and survive as Jews, many American Jews seem to be drowning in those inviting waters of American society.
In fact, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the rabbis of the Talmudic period engaged in a far less restrictive embrace of the Greco-Roman heritage, somewhat as the Christians were doing (though not without dissension and conflict) in the same centuries. In that case, to say that they “heartily imbibed Hellenistic civilization” would not be so far from the mark. But that is not the path the rabbis took. One wishes the author had given attention to the possible reasons for the shape that rabbinic Judaism actually assumed.
Applying the message of Roman-period Judaism to American Jewry in particular, Visotzky observes, “Much as they swam in the waters of Greco-Roman culture, so we flourish in American society, transforming Judaism as we go.” The Jews may currently be flourishing in American society, just as he says, but is Judaism flourishing? Are all the adaptations that it has made to American society vitalizing it? Are not some of them, rather, enervating Judaism itself? The empirical evidence about the current degree of commitment of American Jews suggests a less sanguine view, one in which for many a high degree of acculturation and a correlatively high degree of illiteracy about Judaism itself have increasingly led to intermarriage and a loss of Jewish identity altogether. Whereas the rabbis could swim in the waters of Greco-Roman culture and survive as Jews—in fact, survive the demise of Greco-Roman culture itself—many American Jews seem to be drowning Jewishly in those inviting waters of American society.
What was the secret of rabbinic success? To Visotzky, part of the answer is “Roman Stoic stolidity.” He writes: “The very virtues the rabbis adopted from Roman culture were among the forces that allowed Judaism to survive against oppressive odds.” There is surely some truth in this, but Roman Stoic stolidity did not, at the last, save even the Romans. More than that, the word “oppressive” suggests an opposition—not diametric or total, to be sure, but an opposition nonetheless—that could not be overcome simply by asserting a value common to the two groups in conflict. Perhaps a better answer lies not in Greco-Roman culture at all but in the biblical legacy of covenantal religion, with its uncompromising insistence on practices that defined the Jews as a distinctive group, even as it allowed for the “measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco-Roman culture” Visotzky describes.