Overstating the Greco-Roman Influence on Judaism

Nov. 21 2016

In Aphrodite and the Rabbis, Burton Visotzky describes the ways Roman and Hellenistic culture shaped Judaism during the formative talmudic period (roughly the first five centuries of the Common Era)—citing as evidence similarities between the seder and the ancient symposium, parallel motifs in talmudic and Greco-Roman parables, pagan iconography (including a depiction of Zeus) on ancient synagogue mosaics, and admiring comments in the Talmud about Roman emperors and intellectuals. Reviewing the book, Jon Levenson finds important and convincing material but also some deeply flawed analysis:

Aphrodite and the Rabbis does a service . . . 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. . . .

Toward the end of his book, Burton Visotzky brings his message to bear on the present. . . . “Much as [the rabbis] 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? . . . 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.” . . . [But] 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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More about: Ancient Greece, ancient Judaism, Ancient Rome, History & Ideas, Second Temple, Talmud

Palestinian Acceptance of Israel as the Jewish State Must Be a Prerequisite to Further Negotiations

Oct. 19 2018

In 1993, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasir Arafat accepted the “right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security.” But neither it nor its heir, the Palestinians Authority, has ever accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Robert Barnidge explains why this distinction matters:

A Jewish state for the Jewish people, after all, was exactly what the [UN] General Assembly intended in November 1947 when it called for the partition of the Palestine Mandate into “the Arab state, the Jewish state, and the city of Jerusalem.”

Although the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state does not stand or fall on this resolution—in declaring the independence of Israel on the eve of the Sabbath on May 14, 1948, the Jewish People’s Council, [the precursor to the Israeli government], also stressed the Jewish people’s natural and historic rights—it reaffirms the legitimacy of Jewish national rights in (what was to become) the state of Israel.

The Palestinians have steadfastly refused to recognize Jewish self-determination. [Instead], the PLO [has been] playing a double game. . . . It is not simply that the PLO supported the General Assembly’s determination in 1975, rescinded in 1991, that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It is that that the PLO leadership continues to speak of Jews as a religious community rather than a people, and of Zionism as a colonial usurper rather than the national liberation movement that it is.

The U.S. government, Barnidge concludes, “should demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state” and refuse to “press Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians unless and until that happens.”

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Peace Process, PLO, US-Israel relations, Yasir Arafat