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.The same can be asked about other instances of flippancy, some of them reminiscent, oddly, of the Borsht Belt. Writing of a second-century church father, for example, Visotzky tells us “Irenaeus kvetches about the Jews of western Europe”; he also reports that “the rabbis consistently kvetch about the empire.” We also learn that in the view of a Talmudic text, “the emperor may think he’s hot stuff, but compared to God he’s a schlepper.” Indeed.
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.Toward the end of his book, Burton Visotzky brings his message to bear on the present. “If the rabbis and other Jews took the best of their Roman culture and heartily imbibed Hellenistic civilization as they invented a Judaism to survive the destruction of the Jerusalem cult,” he writes, “then it can be an encouragement for us to do the same.” There is ample reason to doubt, however, that either educated Romans or contemporary classicists would think that an account of the best of Roman culture could legitimately omit epic poetry, comic and tragic drama, the philosophical treatise, historiography, formal oratory, statuary, and civil engineering, to name some items prominent in Roman civilization but not present to any significant degree in rabbinic culture.
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.
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Rome and Jerusalem
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.