Scholar explores ancient Jewish reactions to ancient pagan statues

Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. — a monotheist’s nightmare.

“The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish ‘gevalt,'” said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. “We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini.”

But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.

Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were greek statueeverywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty’s new exhibition, “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present.”

“One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way,” said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. “While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response.”

Eliav co-directs the multidisciplinary Statuary Project at the University of Michigan, which, among other endeavors, peruses classical Jewish texts for references to statues (there are at least 6,000 of them — many appreciative of the figures’ beauty and tolerant of female nudes).

The texts reveal that the rabbis were fluent in Greek and in the customs of the ancient world. “Not only did [they] repeatedly mention statues by name, such as Aphrodite, Mercury … emperors, or even the ‘faces which spout out water in the towns’ (t. Avod. Zar. 6:6), they were also conscious of the social and political dynamics associated with the positioning of statues,” Eliav wrote in an essay.

Thus they were able to work out pragmatic rulings on how Jews should interact with the ubiquitous sculpture. In a Mishnah debate on idolatry, just one scholar, Rabbi Meir, insisted that “all statues are forbidden”; most of the others argued that only statues meant to be worshipped were off limits. A passage in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, suggests that informal rituals conducted in front of public sculptures did not necessarily turn them into idols — a practical viewpoint in a society where the informal veneration of statues, including processions and the sprinkling of libations, were common.

As Eliav traversed a room filled with statues of Aphrodite (also known as Venus), the goddess of love, he recounted the Mishnah anecdote about Rabban Gamaliel in the “Aphrodite bathhouse.” When a pagan asked how Gamaliel could tolerate the bathhouse’s statue of the goddess, the rabbi said the sculpture didn’t function as a deity, but rather was “an ornament for the bath.” Gamaliel reasoned that Romans would not walk around naked in front of a statue they intended to worship; he added that: “She [Aphrodite] is standing by the drainage, and all the people are urinating in front of her.”

Eliav paused by a statue that could have decorated such a bathhouse — a small, second century marble Venus, missing her head and arms, but still sensual with wet-looking drapery clinging to her curvaceous body.

“Many bathhouses had statues like this Venus, which would have been appropriate, because Venus was born of the sea,” Eliav said. “The rabbis would have engaged this kind of statue on a daily basis, because everyone in the Roman world loved bathhouses — they offered warm, clean water, which people didn’t have in their homes.”

Next, Eliav pointed out a very different image of Venus: A massive, clothed statue that may well have been worshipped (one possible giveaway was her size.) The rabbis noted other ways to discern statues that were worshipped — such as those wielding “a stick or a bird or a ball” (the eagle was associated with Zeus, for example).

“What fascinates me is that the rabbis knew the attributes the Romans used to identify their own deities,” Eliav said.

Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, joined Eliav in the gallery.

“The rabbis re-contextualized the statues and found ways to ‘read’ them that made them acceptable on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “And their world view often allowed them a great deal of variability, because they, like us, lived in a complex society, where on the Sabbath they were [strictly] Jewish and on Tuesday they might serve on the city council and on Wednesday they were perhaps working in their blacksmith shop, making armor for the centurions.”

Eliav, 43, spent much of his childhood in the ultra-Orthodox community of B’nai B’rak in Israel. His father, an ardent Zionist, separated from the more observant branch of the family in order to join the army, to attend a secular university and New York University law school.

Eliav attended yeshiva in New York for five years before moving back to Israel, where he enrolled at Hebrew University. “My religious identity was always shaky, but I always had a lot of passion for Jewish texts,” he said. “I decided to study the Talmud, but with the help of my professors, I realized I didn’t want to study it out of context. That is when I began studying classics and archeology in order to understand the environment in which the texts were created.”

Today, Eliav’s specialty is the encounter between Jews and Graeco-Roman culture. His book, “God’s Mountain: The Temple Mount in Time, Space and Memory,” won the 2006 prize for best first book from the American Academy for Jewish studies.

He believes that the findings of the Statuary Project will have relevance for Jews today.

“It shows that the rabbis worked to pave a path that would allow people to embrace their Jewish identity within a multicultural environment,” he said.

Our Decency

“At the moment of conception,” says the Talmud, “an angel takes the drop of semen from which the child will be formed and brings it before God. ‘Master of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop?’ asks the angel. ‘Will it develop into a strong person or a weak one? A wise person or a fool? A wealthy person or a poor one?’ Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the angel ask God if the soon-to-be-formed person will be wicked or righteous?

Why not? Because the rabbis believed something that neuroscientists and psychologists have made unfashionable. The rabbis believed that we — not our genetic make-up, not our environment, not even God — are responsible for our moral choices. The genetic fix might be in when it comes to how tall or strong we will be, perhaps even how intelligent we might be, but not how decent we might be. Our decency, is up to us.

Rabbis have been divided for centuries as to whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test in this week’s Torah portion when he agreed to climb a mountain with his son, strap the boy down on an altar of stone and prepare to plunge a crude, iron blade into his chest. I for one am not conflicted.

When the angel calls out to stop the slaughter, the Torah is saying that although others might sacrifice their children, Jews do not. The Torah rejects Paganism as our moral benchmark. Abraham failed the test. Jews must have a different and — although it’s impolite to put it this way — a higher moral standard. For 3,000 years, we have believed that our decency is up to us.

Today, in America, a lot of people believe otherwise. Why? Because in many ways the highest ideal in America is freedom, and for many, that has come to mean the freedom to worry only about what is best for them. What makes me “feel good.” What makes them “happy.”

What happens when we follow this most unJewish of all paths through life? It’s not the big things that will go wrong — murder, rape — most of us understand how immoral they are. It’s the little things that begin to disappear when we worry only about ourselves — things like civility, decency, courtesy.

As psychologist Aaron Hass puts it in his book “Doing the Right Thing,” “generosity becomes replaced by reciprocity.” Instead of reaching out to others in kindness for its own sake, we start to ask what we will receive for the assistance we are about to render. We stop giving freely of ourselves and we start keeping score. Or worse.

What’s worse? Something Hass calls “cheap empathy.” It goes like this: Someone we know suffers a loss — a lost job, a lost marriage, a lump in the breast, a pain in the chest, the lost life of a loved one. We watch, we listen, we even call, but what do we say? We say the seven words that add up to cheap empathy — “Let me know if you need anything.”

When we say “Let me know if you need anything,” we place the burden on the one who is suffering. Our job as friends, as human beings, is to anticipate the needs of the suffering, to think about what we would need if we were in their position and then to provide it without being asked. So many of us offer cheap empathy, hoping we won’t be taken up on the offer.

Here’s a simple story about a congregant in a colleague’s synagogue. He was an important attorney. He rose to the highest levels of leadership in the Jewish community — even to the point of being involved in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, this man was retired. To fill his time, he volunteered a couple of days a week as an ombudsman at a local nursing home. It was his job to handle complaints and be an advocate for the residents and their families. It was at the nursing home that my colleague bumped into the former attorney.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said to his rabbi “I used to be an important person, and now, here I am at this nursing home. But rabbi, do you see that man over there? Yesterday, when they served him his lunch they put half of a cantaloupe in front of him and 30 minutes later they came to take it away. I stopped the woman removing the tray and I told her, “This man has had a stroke. He can’t eat a cantaloupe like that. You have to scoop it out for him.’ So she did scoop it out into bite-sized pieces.

Then, the man slowly lowered his spoon, placed one piece upon it at a time and gently brought them to his mouth. “Rabbi, ” he concluded, “watching that man eat his cantaloupe yesterday was one of the finest moments of my life.”

No keeping score. No worrying about what he would get in return for his kindness. No “Let me know if you need anything.” No excuses. Just anticipating; finding a way to be kind to another. Just a single decent act. A simple recognition of a simple truth: that our decency is up to us.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, Inc.).