The Rabbis, the Romans, and Us

By :  Burton L. Visotzky Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies Posted On Nov 3, 2017 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It by Burton L. Visotzky, St. Martin’s Press (2016)

In my most recent book I take up a quintessentially American Jewish subject: can we adopt the broader culture in which we live and still be Jewish? Is it possible to have a strong Jewish identity while living as Americans who are university educated and share our lives with our gentile neighbors? To answer this I turned to the centuries and texts which birthed Judaism as we know it.

When there was a Temple, we brought animal sacrifices to God at the altar. The biblical book of Leviticus is all about that system of offerings. But after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Judaism became portable. No longer tied to Jerusalem, we became the religion of the book. We chose to become Hellenists.

When our Rabbis count the books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) they number them at 24—not coincidentally, the same number of books in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. When the Rabbis reformatted the Passover celebration away from the sacrifice of a lamb into a home-based service, the order (seder) they chose was the same as that of a Greco-Roman literary cocktail party— a symposium!

That lovely compilation of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot is chock-full of Stoic philosophy. The ways the Rabbis changed biblical laws into living halakhah were modeled on Roman law. Thousands of Greek loanwords are carefully transliterated into Hebrew letters in the Talmud and Midrash. Think: Sanhedrin, karpas (the vegetables of the Passover Seder), afikomen (our Passover “dessert” comes from Greek symposium custom); the bimah where we go up for Torah honors. And did I mention synagogue? All Greek!

Art, architecture, even the stories the Rabbis told about Hillel—all came from the broader Greco-Roman world. Were the Rabbis who gave us Judaism as we know it comfortable living in the broader world? As much as we are. And like us, they adapted it and adapted to it.