Overstating the Greco-Roman Influence on Judaism

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.

Read more at Commentary

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

The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7