Greek Hebrew, Roman Hebrew Burton L. Visotzky offers powerful arguments and examples of Judaism's Hellenistic imprint.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It

By Burton L. Visotzky (2016, St. Martin’s Press) 245 pgs., including an index, a bibliography, black and white illustrations, and color photographs

The academic study of rabbinic Judaism in the past century or so has illustrated how Jews integrated elements of Greco-Roman civilization into Jewish culture and in so doing reshaped Judaism. The central place of the synagogue and the ritual and social activities that happen there, the rabbi as text interpreter and religious virtuoso, and the mindset that transformed exile into diaspora, what to us are the familiar characteristics of Judaism today, developed from what the Jews of the Greco-Roman period created. Burton L. Visotzky offers a powerful set of arguments and examples demonstrating the multiple social, religious, and intellectual levels at which this absorption occurred. It is true, though, that the adaptation of aspects from the culture of a political and intellectual superpower had already happened in the biblical period, when Mesopotamian culture left its imprint on every chapter of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, while Greco-Roman (Hellenistic) culture left the greatest mark on Rabbinic Judaism, it must be noted that Rabbinic Judaism was also influenced by the Persian culture of its time (especially that of the Sassanid empire). But it is no surprise that a book with the title “Aphrodite and the Rabbis” sounds more intriguing than “Mithras and the Rabbis,” Mithras being a Persian deity worshipped by Roman soldiers.

When Pope Francis made an official visit to Israel in 2014, he and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got into a tiff over whether Jesus would have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. They were both wrong: Jesus would have spoken Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. Perhaps the only question is how much Latin would he have understood. 

The rabbis were acquainted with Greco-Roman rhetoric and used that set of well-known bon mots and anecdotes (Greek chreia). Among the most famous rabbinic stories is the one about a non-Jew approaching the rabbinic pair, Hillel and Shammai, and asking to be taught all of Jewish learning while standing on one foot. Understandably, Shammai chases him away and serves as the foil to Hillel’s more welcoming response:

 

Once a non-Jew came to Shammai and said, “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai shoved him away with the builder’s cubit that he was holding. He came to Hillel, who converted him, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study!”

(Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a)

 

Hillel responds with the negative form of the Golden Rule, a platitude well-known in the Greco-Roman world, attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca and Jesus, contemporaries of Hillel and Shammai. The story makes the Golden Rule sound so rabbinic by insisting that there is commentary that must be studied:  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study!” Visotzky observes that the sharp-witted challenge of  “while I stand on one foot” may also be a Greco-Roman platitude:

 

“A man who was visiting Sparta stood for a long time upon one foot and said to a Spartan, “I do not think that you, sir, could stand upon one foot for as long as that.” The Spartan interrupted and said, “No, but there isn’t a goose that couldn’t do that.”

(Sayings of the Spartans 18)

 

I would suggest another source for “while I stand on one foot.” Raphael Jospe argued that the challenge is a bilingual pun on the Latin word regula, “rule, measure” and the Hebrew word regel, “foot.” The non-Jew is depicted as standing on one foot (regel). Hillel was known for formulating interpretive rules (Hebrew middot), and in the story, Hillel embraces the challenge by formulating a single basic rule (Latin regula, Hebrew middah) of human behavior, rather than Shammai pushing the convert-to-be away with an actual rod.

The rabbis adopted the dialectic model of reasoning from Greco-Roman rhetoric, and the pages of rabbinic literature pulsate with dispute, argument, and counter-argument. The rabbis composed lists of interpretive rules that were borrowed from the world of Greco-Roman rhetoric and adopted its terminology. For example, they used reasoning from minor to major in important legal matters, a fortiori reasoning, as the Latin goes, such as if it is permitted to cook on Passover but not to write, how much the more so on the Sabbath, when it is not permitted to cook. Even more striking is the use of what is called in Hebrew gezerah shavah, “an equation of equals,” a calque as awkward as a calque can be, from the classical rhetorical term syngkrisis pros ison, “an equation of equals.” It does seem sensible: if a particular word in a given context is hard to understand, then finding it elsewhere and inferring its meaning from the second context is an effective method. But the rabbis pushed this method further, and this is where it becomes problematic. Ancient interpreters of the Bible, the rabbis among them, assumed that the words of Scripture had a unique quality and that even the slightest word held more meaning than human language usually does and could be and needed to be decoded. Two verses that had the same word, even a word like the accusative particle in Hebrew, could be equated and, therefore, the two verses would be about the same matter. The rabbis used this method to make legal rulings, and this came close to a kind of interpretational chaos. By the 4th century, the rabbis halted this radical method of interpretation.

Jews saw how the Homeric epics were esteemed, and the division of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey into twenty-four books spurred Jews to creatively count the books of the Bible as twenty-four. (If you think that making the books in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament number twenty-four is easy, go find a Bible and try it!)

Hundreds of Greek words entered Hebrew, and Jewish society was trilingual, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. (When Pope Francis made an official visit to Israel in 2014, he and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got into a tiff over whether Jesus would have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. They were both wrong: Jesus would have spoken Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. Perhaps the only question is how much Latin would he have understood). A slight amount of Greek has even crept into the standard prayer book used by Jews today. Imperial etiquette called for the local population to line out along the road and cheer the visiting emperor by pointing at him and shouting ho kalos, “the good.” This proclamation has made its way into a string of verbs exalting the goodness of God in the Jewish prayer book. Even more strikingly, the gesture was adopted by Jews: synagogue practice even today is to point at the Torah scroll with the same motion.

Jews saw how the Homeric epics were esteemed, and the division of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey into twenty-four books spurred Jews to creatively count the books of the Bible as twenty-four. (If you think that making the books in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament number twenty-four is easy, go find a Bible and try it!)

Jews lived in a polytheistic environment and often struggled with how to maneuver through a world filled with idols. A rabbinic story about this gives Visotzky the clever title for the book:

 

Proculus son of Philosophus inquired of Rabbi Gamaliel, who was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite in Acco, “It is written in your Torah, ‘Let nothing that has been condemned stick to your hand’ (Deuteronomy 13:18). So what are you doing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite?”

He replied, “One may not reply to [a question of Jewish law] in the bathhouse.”

When they exited, he said, “I did not come to her territory, rather she came on to mine. It was not the case that they said, ‘Let us make a bathhouse as an adornment to Aphrodite.’ Rather they said, ‘Let us make an Aphrodite [statue] as an adornment for the bathhouse.’ Another thing, even if they said to you, ‘We will give you much wealth,’ you would still not enter your pagan temple naked or polluted, nor would you urinate in it. Yet this [statue of Aphrodite] stands before the gutter and everyone urinates in front of her!”

“The only prohibition is regarding images of the gods that are venerated as gods. That which is not venerated as a god is permissible to enjoy.”

(Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4)

 

The strangely named Proculus, son of Philosophus, probably meant to indicate a knowledgeable polytheist, somehow knows a biblical verse, with which he contests a rabbi. But the rabbi reacts pointedly. He starts by refusing to discuss Jewish tradition while naked in the bathhouse, affirming his Jewish piety. When they emerge, the rabbi belittles the behavior of the polytheists who themselves disparage their goddess, and he questions the piety of his interrogator. The rabbi concludes by articulating the principle that allowed Jews to come to terms with the polytheistic art in their midst.

But the relationship of Jews to Greco-Roman art went beyond this. Archaeological excavation of synagogues from the early centuries CE reveals the incorporation of motifs from polytheistic art. While depiction of biblical scenes containing figures, such as the Binding of Isaac, may inspire only slight surprise in light of the later prohibition of all figural imagery, the presence of polytheistic motifs is puzzling. The 6th century CE synagogue in Gaza had David depicted eerily similar to Orpheus: he is playing a harp, charming a snake, lioness, and giraffe, but the name “David” appears in Hebrew next to his head, lest the onlooker think he is Orpheus. But even more puzzling to us is a mosaic of a zodiac complete with the portrayal of the sun-god Helios driving his chariot across the heavens. That many of the ancient synagogues had such a zodiac means that Jews in classical antiquity had no problem with it. Synagogues in the major cities, such as Sepphoris and Tiberias, had zodiacs with Helios, and one could argue that the Jews in those Roman imperial cities were more assimilated. But even a poor town in the hinterland (Beit Alpha) had a zodiac in its synagogue, striking for its poor artistic quality. (I would add that the sound and light show for tourists at the Beit Alpha site today offers the plausible explanation that its inhabitants could only afford an art school failure for their zodiac). It could just be that having such art was considered the norm and its polytheistic background was ignored, or even unknown. Visotzky goes further in his explanation: he cites a manuscript called Sefer Harazim, the Book of Mysteries, that contains a prayer in Greek written in Hebrew letters invoking the god Helios. He suggests that in Greco-Roman Jewish folk religion, Helios was a pagan god identified as the One and Only God in the minds of Jews who viewed him in their synagogue mosaic as a convenient pictorial stand-in for the monotheistic God. (While this may seem extreme, it must be noted, as Visotzky is careful to emphasize, that the rabbis were academics and judges and were far less involved with synagogue life as they are now.)

Archaeological excavation of synagogues from the early centuries CE reveals the incorporation of motifs from polytheistic art. While depiction of biblical scenes containing figures, such as the Binding of Isaac, may inspire only slight surprise in light of the later prohibition of all figural imagery, the presence of polytheistic motifs is puzzling.

Perhaps the most famous ritual practice riffed by the rabbis from Greco-Roman culture (and a favorite with the Washington University students to whom I teach it) is the transformation of the Greco-Roman symposium, a literary dinner party, into the ceremonial meal (Hebrew seder) on Passover eve. Visotzky devotes a number of pages to this topic, yet even so he can barely scratch the surface of the transformation. Let a number of examples suffice. The symposium began with wine, and so the Mishnah prescribes that the participants drink a minimum of four cups of wine, embodying the party atmosphere of the symposium. Later rabbinic tradition fixes the number at four, and only four, cups, and links each cup to a quote from a biblical verse. The cups are transformed from a means to lose one’s sobriety to symbols of future divine redemption. This reinterpretation continued on. The Roman custom of dipping hors d’oeuvres in a briny mixture is adopted, the vegetables are even called by their Greek name, karpos, but this is reinterpreted in medieval times are symbolic of the tears shed by oppressed slaves. The guests at the symposium were supposed to show off their learning by quoting from Homer and other classics, and so the rabbis had the participants quote Scripture and rabbinic interpretation of Scripture. Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Jews could no longer offer the Passover lamb, and the rabbis substituted talking about the offering, along with the matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs, as sufficient. The symposium ended with debauchery and entertainment, api komias, “to the comedians.” Needless to say, the rabbis omitted this way of concluding. The Mishnah prescribes: “We do not end the meal of the Passover lamb with the api komias.” The Jews of Babylonia, who did not know Greek, Hebraicized the phrase, redefined it to refer to the hidden piece of matzah, called afikomen, and understood the mishnaic passage as meaning not to add an additional course in the meal after the afikomen, now understood at the final piece of matzah consumed at the festive meal.

The adaptation of Greco-Roman culture is all the more startling when we remember the ambivalent relationship between Jews and Romans. Romans seized political control from the independent Jewish dynasty of the Hasmoneans in the first century BCE, and the rapacious rule of puppet kings, governors, and procurators in Israel precipitated the Great Revolt of 67-70 CE, which ended in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, and the Bar-Kochba Revolt of 132-135 CE. The Jews of the diaspora also revolted in 115-117 CE. But the adaptation and reshaping of seemingly foreign elements was characteristic of the Israelites during the biblical period and has remained an attribute of Jewish culture ever since. Visotzky, as an academic scholar of midrash, the rabbinic interpretation of Scripture that developed in the Greco-Roman period, and a Conservative rabbi, is naturally interested in focusing on this era and on presenting the rabbis as innovators.

Perhaps the most famous ritual practice riffed by the rabbis from Greco-Roman culture is the transformation of the Greco-Roman symposium, a literary dinner party, into the ceremonial meal (Hebrew seder) on Passover eve.

But the interpretation of Scripture did not start with the Jews of the Greco-Roman period. The Deuteronomic Reform was launched in the late 7th century BCE, and among its innovations was the institution of personal piety by the reading and reflection on God’s words by individuals. In the verses quoted in Jewish prayer: “These words shall be upon your heart, you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you lie down and when you rise up, when you are at home and when you are on the road.” Two hundred years later, in the Persian period, we read about a public ceremony of the reading and interpretation of Scripture aloud in public. (Nehemiah 8) This innovation came to full bloom in the Greco-Roman period, when the synagogue becomes the main means of Jewish public worship and the rabbis, sine qua non interpreters and teachers of Scripture, gradually become the religious leadership.

Visotsky’s colloquial and breezy style enliven the expository style of the book. “Yay rabbis!” (89) “See? Now it’s funny!” (91) “So there!” (105) “It is like a rabbi or minister preaching her sermon by making an analogy from the New York Times, if you could imagine that.” (107)

Visotzky offers us a gift in his animated and multi-dimensional study of the interface of Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. He highlights how Jews creatively engaged with another civilization, creating a Jewish culture that was, and is, fluid, innovative, and diverse.