Judaism, Haredi Intolerance, and Greek Culture
Judaism has engaged and locked horns with Greek culture for thousands of years. Alexander the Great permitted the Judeans to worship freely. But then the rival successor dynasties of the Ptolemies in Egypt and Seleucids in Damascus began to interfere in Judean affairs. This culminated in the Maccabee revolt against Antiochus in 169 BCE. The wealthy and aristocratic Judean classes had readily accepted Greek culture. Indeed, it was the priesthood that introduced the games, theater, and circus into Judean life. But even the rabbinic leadership that resisted Greek culture, philosophy, and paganism still borrowed the idea of the academy from Greece. Competition between Greeks and Judeans primarily over commercial and public status led to a series of assaults on Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, and sometimes fierce retaliation.
Greece was absorbed by Rome. The struggle between the two worldviews continued. The Talmud relates that during the civil war between the Hasmonean princes Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, someone who spoke Greek sent a pig to be sacrificed in the Temple. That was the moment that the sages decided to ban Chochmat Yavanit — literally, “Greek wisdom.” Still, there continued to be a great deal of interaction. The Talmud (Bava Kama 83a and Sotah 49b) says that Rabbi Gamliel allowed his sons to speak Greek and dress like Greeks because they had to represent the Jewish people to the Romans.
Against all the odds, under pressure from the great Western cultures, our small fractious people survived and preserved their religious culture even though the overwhelming majority of its members either abandoned the struggle intentionally, or were forced by circumstance to give up the struggle.
But was our survival conditional on excluding everything else?
The issue of secular education remains a serious bone of contention between Haredi Jews and the rest of us. If Greek culture and philosophy underpin Western cultures, they stand — in the Haredi mind — for everything antithetical to Jewish values. Yet in medieval times, both Maimonides and Rashi supported studying what we would call secular studies.
My late father often spoke about combining Jerusalem with Athens — and the two need not necessarily or completely exclude each other. When I was in school, Latin and Greek were essential parts of the school curriculum in Britain. Slowly, Greek disappeared and then Latin went. Nowadays, barely any British students graduate school each year with any classical Greek, and they are almost 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. It is a shame for the non-Jewish world too, as much as for religious Jews.
Greek philosophy nowadays does nothing for me. Greek culture, however, is still deeply embedded, even in Hollywood, where the wars of the Greeks and the rivalries of Greek gods and goddesses regularly feature in blockbusters. The great Greek and Roman writers produced epic stories of love, deceit, war, and ambition, not entirely different from the earlier Biblical stories we are familiar with — except of course they lacked all the spiritual dimensions so crucial to ours.
I am re-reading one of the great books of western culture, Ulysses by James Joyce. The legendary Greek hero Odysseus was the king of Ithaca, a small island in the Ionian sea, where he lived with his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. The Romans called him Ulysses. After fighting the war against the city of Troy with the other Greeks, he started his journey home to his wife and son. He was delayed for 10 years, during which he endured one adventure and drama after another. Each was inflicted on him by the random jealousies and rivalries of the Greek gods. In one way, it reminds me of the Ten Trials of Abraham. But Joyce’s story is a perfect example of the difference between a pagan view of how life works, in contrast to monotheism, where the good deeds of humans, rather than random gods, decide what happens in life.
Joyce retells, or rather adapts, the saga of Ulysses through the mundane experiences of Irish characters, including an assimilated Jew by the name of Leopold Bloom who lives in Dublin. The theme, in so far as there is one, is of a painful journey through life in the city. Ireland, as with most of the British Isles, has a very long record of both antisemitism and harboring small Jewish communities of refugees. My paternal grandparents lived and were buried in Dublin. And the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, came from a position in Dublin.
The book is a challenge. It is almost Talmudic — so complicated that it can’t be understood without the use of reference books and copious notes. Even then, it is very hard work. I am struggling through it for several reasons. One is the challenge of the text itself. The more personal is the unusual number of references to Jews, Judaism, and Jewish history. It is fascinating how much Joyce refers to Jews and Jewish themes, and how much he gets wrong, from Jewish funeral customs to translations and transliterations of Hebrew terms.
Despite his Jewish name, Leopold Bloom has absolutely no connection with Jewish life. And yet he suffers from constant prejudice, snide remarks, and antisemitism. Joyce had some close friends who were secular Jews in Italy and Ireland, and he had a remarkable amount of sympathy for their sense of alienation. Many misread his Jewish references as antisemitic, but they are the very opposite. They show how so much antisemitism is ignorance and petty prejudice. Our sympathies are with Bloom rather than his bigoted environment. Ulysses is worth reading.
Knowledge can come from any source. And it seems a shame to me that the Haredi world in general focuses so exclusively on Torah. They see Hanukkah as emblematic of the existential threat of Greek culture. Ironically, almost all of the priesthood at that time was pro-Greek. We were divided then as we are now. Of course, I am glad we were victorious. But there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I do believe that Torah should be a priority in how one lives one’s life. And I admire those who devote themselves to it. But to miss out on so much else is really a shame and a loss.
And I can still wish you all a Happy Hanukkah.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.