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January 6, 2012 12:31 pm

Greek Wisdom In The 21st Century

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Greek Gods. Picture: Bart Everson

In the latest New York Review of Books, Mary Beard, a popular lecturer, blogger, and professor of classics at Cambridge University, bemoans the disappearance of the classics from Western schools.She is right.

But can anything be done? Due to the materialist values of our secular world, I don’t believe so.

When I was a student, Latin and Greek were essential parts of the school curriculum in Britain. Slowly, Greek disappeared, and then Latin went. Nowadays, barely 300 British students graduate school each year with any classical Greek, and they are all in private schools. The purely intellectual disciplines are disappearing in favor of marketable, practical ones. Utilitarianism has led to the dumbing down of our education. That is precisely why, for all the current odium being heaped on our religious extremists, I still believe the one place where you can find “study for its own sake” as a fundamental principle is in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot. And they are right. Study has been at the root of our survival and success.

Over two thousand years ago, Judaism was locked in an existential struggle with Graeco-Roman culture. According to some, the fast we just had on the 10th of Tevet was decreed because of the translation of the Torah into Greek! Against all the odds our small, fractious people survived and preserved our religious culture, in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews either abandoned the struggle intentionally or were forced by circumstance to give up the struggle. Judaism outlived its pagan competitors and its minute size only because the brilliant rabbis of the era transformed a nationalist, sanctuary-based tradition into one revolving around on studying text, emphasizing the behavioral rather than the theological. Christianity inherited the Graceo-Roman tradition of theology and Temple. Judaism turned its back on the abstract and emphasized the home.

The Talmud rails against or bans “Greek Wisdom” (Mishna Sotah 9.14). But the question is what Greek Wisdom, Chochmat Yavan, actually means. Does it refer to Greek philosophy, intellectual wisdom? Or is it rather confined to language and associated attitudes, such as the legal system, on which most systems in the West are based, in which pleading, making out a case, often matters more than what actually happened? I would argue it does not mean pure intellectual activity, quite the contrary. We have always welcomed intellectual and scientific advances, but not necessarily their cultural contexts. (I should add here that the issue of not imitating idolaters in dress, habit, and thinking is a separate issue, which I will deal with in time for Valentine’s Day.)

The Talmud says (Bava Kama 83a and Sotah 49b) that despite the ban on “Greek Wisdom,”Rabbi Gamliel allowed his sons to speak Greek and dress like Greeks because they had to represent the Jewish people to the Romans. The context of this is a discussion about language, not ideology. The classic source in the Talmud (Bava Kama 82b) relates that during the civil war between the Hasmonean princes Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, someone who spoke Greek used it to get those besieging the Temple to send up a pig to be sacrificed. That was the moment that the sages decided to ban Chochmat Yavanit. It doesn’t seem to be referring to Greek philosophy or science, but rather a language of deception and conflict.

Another thread regards the preference of devoting time to Torah study. If this is the highest calling in Judaism, when can one study anything else? The answer is “at a time that is neither day nor night” (Menachot 99b). Some took that literally and suggested that one could only study ‘secular studies’ at dusk or dawn. It was said in my yeshivah days that Maimonides only studied Greek philosophy when he was in the toilet. Others took it figuratively to mean that Torah should be the priority, day and night. And indeed in Medieval times both Maimonides and Rashi supported studying what we would call secular studies (both commenting on the Mishna in Sotah 9.14).

In general there has been no objection to learning pure intellectual or scientific skills from another culture (the anti-Maimonidean campaign was a product of the fear of Spanish assimilation rather than philosophy itself, and as we know Maimonides, his reputation, and his ideas survived the assault). It is the values of the other system that may represent a challenge and possibly a danger. Indeed, in our day we can see the benefits of technological and medical advance, whilst we see at the same time the corruption of personal and commercial values which in the past were associated with pagan society are as alive today as they ever were.

Judaism survived precisely because it was able to adopt many of the technological advances and skills of the societies it found itself in. Nothing illustrates this better than our era. Most, even of the outwardly medieval of our coreligionists, are taking advantage of modern technology and methodology, covertly if not overtly. For all the railing of the ultra-Orthodox against the press, mass communication, and the internet, they are making increasing use of all of it, even if it is often to press an agenda we might have reservations about. The one area I believe secular society has adopted with a passion in recent years that the ultra-Orthodox world needs to recognize is that of respect for individuality and difference.

Having studied Greek philosophy at Cambridge and Talmud in the best yeshivot in Israel, my experience is that nothing is as mentally hard or demanding as Talmud studies “Lishma” for its own pure sake. That is why we have survived. And I can assure you the genuine scholars of the Talmud are not out demonstrating, spitting, or bullying. They do study day and night. Ironically, that is why in their ivory towers they often appear oblivious to realities of the world around them. Every society has its dropouts and failures, but where the dominant value is education, it has a far greater chance of success than when it is self-indulgence. Modern Greeks need to go back to school.

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