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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Read more at Commentary

More about: Ancient Greece, ancient Judaism, Ancient Rome, History & Ideas, Second Temple, Talmud

 

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy