Hellenism and Judaism
|The picture shown on the left is taken from the cover the book (in Greek) Hellenism and Judaism by M. G. Fougias. The word ACTHP means star in Greek.|
The book has four chapters. An introductory chapter contains an overview of scholarly studies on the subject and includes an interpretation of a verse from Genesis 9:27 "May God enlarge Japheth. And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; ... " According to rabbis of the third century the verse means that the words of Japheth (i.e. the Greek language) may dwell in the tents of Shem. (A more common rabbinical interpretation is that Japheth refers to the Philistines and the meaning of the passage is hopes for peaceful co-existence with the Jews.) The other three chapters of the book deal each with Second Temple Jerusalem, Rabbinic Judaism, and the Ancient Synagogue.
Levine observes that Reform and Conservative scholars have focused on the interaction of Judaism and Hellenism because at that time Judaism adapted successfully to a new cultural environment.The focus of the exposition can best be seen with the concluding paragraph of the book:
"There are those who claim that Jewish life has survived intact … precisely because the Jews succeeded in maintaining their own particularistic ways, refusing to accommodate any foreign patterns of thinking and behavior. There is certainly some truth in this claim; however, it is only a partial truth, which when taken alone is, in effect, a distortion of the whole. One must also take into account the opposite dimension, namely, that the Jews as a people have survived precisely because of their openness to change – in the light of new conditions and circumstances – in such areas as dress, professions, languages, literary genres, political, social, and cultural institutions, methods of learning, and even religious ideas and practices. Without this ability to change and adapt, Jewish civilization might well have atrophied long ago. The dynamic interplay between cultures – its own and others – is an essential feature of the Jewish historical experience."
It should be noted that rabbinical Judaism rose during the Hellenistic times and it is worth discussing whether the Hellenistic culture influenced its development.
Certainly there was a variety to the response to the outside world. For example, Hillel was a Universalist while Shammai was a conservative (pp. 103-106) and there was considerable variance in the architecture and decoration of Synagogues even in the same city (p. 170). But the overall thrust was universalist and in tune with the world around. Such central Jewish customs as the Ketubah and the Seder were imports from the Hellenistic world.
Levine makes a good case that women sat with the men in the ancient Synagogues (pp. 175-176), so the current separation in some Orthodox Synagogues is probably an "innovation" adopted from Christian practice.
It seems that at the end of the fourth century CE Judaism was quite different than at the start of the Hellenistic period, late in the fourth century BCE. The start of the fifth century marks the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the severe persecution of all other religions started. Judaism seems to be the only one of these religions to survive with a significant number of member but it entered into a new phase. Levine points out that universalism was, naturally, opposed in times of trouble (pp. 103-104). Therefore the Judaism that developed during the fifteen hundred years of persecutions had to be different from what it existed before the fifth century BCE (my comment).
The observations in Levine's book lead to several questions:
If Judaism has changed so much over the centuries what are its invariants? Clearly, the Torah is foremost but its interpretation has varied so part of the question may be rephrased: "What interpretations of the Torah have stayed the same through the centuries?"
The Hellenistic period was a period of growth for Judaism. Some of that growth (if not most) came from conversions but conversion into Judaism was outlawed in the fourth century CE and became punishable by death in the fifth. It is worth mentioning that conversion into Judaism is still against the law in several European countries. (Usually such laws do not single out Judaism: they simply forbid the conversation of anyone who is considered to be a member of the state religion.) Are conditions in North America such that Judaism can restore its attitude toward conversion that existed during the Hellenistic period?
More generally, are conditions in North America similar to those in the Hellenistic period as far as Judaism is concerned?
Back to Jewish Topics Page