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The Aphrodite exchange, part 3: What we can learn from Jewish-Roman relations

[additional-authors]
October 19, 2016

Rabbi Burton Visotzky serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where he joined the faculty upon his ordination in 1977. Rabbi Visotzky is the Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS, charged with programs on public policy. He also serves as director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue of JTS. Rabbi Visotzky holds degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Harvard University, and JTS. He has been visiting faculty at Oxford, Cambridge, and Princeton universities, and at the Russian State University of the Humanities in Moscow. With Bill Moyers, Rabbi Visotzky developed 10 hours of television for PBS. Their collaboration, Genesis: A Living Conversation, premiered in 1996. He also consulted with Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks for the company's 1998 film, Prince of Egypt. Rabbi Visotzky's articles and reviews are published in America, Europe, and Israel. He is the author of 10 books and more than 100 articles and reviews.

This following exchange focuses on Rabbi Visotzky’s new book Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

***

Dear Rabbi,

I'd like to end our conversation by asking you to expand on the last part of your previous answer – in which you began to talk about the relevance of your book to Jewish life today.

I have two questions in mind as I make this request:

1. Does it, or should it, change the way we practice our Judaism – for example, should all the Jews who celebrate Hanukah change something in their thinking about this holiday and what it means for us?

2. Does it change the way we ought to think about current or future encounters of Judaism with other cultures – and how to make such encounters enriching rather than risky, if such differentiation is even possible?

Thank you for the interesting book and for this exchange,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions, and best wishes in the New Year to you and your readers! Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It  is a book about Jews in the early centuries of the common era (70-500 CE), but as you perceive, it is also a book about Judaism today. By tracing how the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash adapted to life in the majority Roman culture: how they assimilated Greco-Roman vocabulary and custom into Judaism to keep it alive following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, I am also reflecting on Judaism in America (and even Israel) in our post-Holocaust era. 

In earlier parts of our conversation you asked about the ambivalence the ancient rabbis expressed toward Rome. Here you probe further by acknowledging that there is risk to Jewish identity today as we respond to the norms of the surrounding (Christian) culture. I want to refer back to our rabbis in Roman times by way of analogy. The rabbis’ attitudes toward Rome depended in serious measure upon who exactly was emperor at the time.

Thus we can find rabbis who absolutely loved the Emperor, such as the many stories about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the patriarch of the Jewish community and editor of the Mishnah. In these tales Rebbi (as he is called in the Talmud) is said to be a friend and advisor to the Emperor Antoninus. This is the equivalent of our Jewish community’s embracing a president who holds a Hanukkah party in the White House, making it Glatt Kosher for the benefit of the Jewish community. This is good for Jews and for Judaism in America.

Yet other rabbinic stories depict the Emperor Diocletian as a swineherd and about the empire they say: “Why is [Rome] likened to a pig? To tell you that just like the pig when it wallows in filth, puts forth its feet [thus showing its split hooves] as though to claim it is a pure and kosher animal; so too this evil empire…”  And this mirrors our disdain for a presidential candidate who touts a Jewish son-in-law while condoning anti-Semitism or policies inimical to the well-being of Israel. Such a president does not bode well for Jews.

You also asked me about Hanukkah, which is especially apposite this year when the first candle coincides with Christmas Eve. Here too, we can learn a lesson from how the Jews embraced surrounding culture. It is no accident that we celebrate Hanukkah at the winter solstice, exactly when the night is longest, but then is followed by more light, day by day. This is the custom we observe at Hanukkah, when following the school of Hillel, we add a light each night to our Hanukkiah. And in many American Jewish households, we exchange Hanukkah gifts.

Of course, Christmas falls exactly at this season as well. Christians, I am told, give one another gifts at this season, too. The custom follows the Roman calendar and their ancient celebration of the Saturnalia. At the winter solstice, Romans celebrated the turn from darkness to more light by a week of celebration and the exchange of gifts. Old customs die hard. We still exchange gifts and good wishes as we add more light. It is a good custom for the celebration of Hanukkah. And it is my hope that Aphrodite and the Rabbis adds light as well.

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