Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It

Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It

by Burton L. Visotzky


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Hard to believe but true:

- The Passover Seder is a Greco-Roman symposium banquet
- The Talmud rabbis presented themselves as Stoic philosophers
- Synagogue buildings were Roman basilicas
- Hellenistic rhetoric professors educated sons of well-to-do Jews
- Zeus-Helios is depicted in synagogue mosaics across ancient Israel
- The Jewish courts were named after the Roman political institution, the Sanhedrin
- In Israel there were synagogues where the prayers were recited in Greek.

Historians have long debated the (re)birth of Judaism in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple cult by the Romans in 70 CE. What replaced that sacrificial cult was at once something new–indebted to the very culture of the Roman overlords–even as it also sought to preserve what little it could of the old Israelite religion. The Greco-Roman culture in which rabbinic Judaism grew in the first five centuries of the Common Era nurtured the development of Judaism as we still know and celebrate it today.

Arguing that its transformation from a Jerusalem-centered cult to a world religion was made possible by the Roman Empire, Rabbi Burton Visotzky presents Judaism as a distinctly Roman religion. Full of fascinating detail from the daily life and culture of Jewish communities across the Hellenistic world, Aphrodite and the Rabbis will appeal to anyone interested in the development of Judaism, religion, history, art and architecture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250085764
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 746,000
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

BURTON L. VISOTZKY is Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He worked with Bill Moyers and more recently with Christiane Amanpour on “Back to the Beginning,” aired annually at Christmas time. The author of many books, including Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud, he has been named to “The Forward 50” and repeatedly to the Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the “The 50 Most Influential Jews in America.” He lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt

Aphrodite and the Rabbis

How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It

By Burton L. Visotzky

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Burton L. Visotzky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08576-4


Greek, Roman, Hellenist, Jew

Beneath the streets of Rome, below even the subterranean layer of buildings still awaiting the kiss of the archeologist's spade, lies a silent city of the dead. Its web extends in a collection of catacombs that served as Christian and Jewish burial grounds in the late second through fourth centuries. The Christian catacombs are the more famous; they have long been open to visitors who are willing to travel a bit beyond the walls of the ancient city to the sites on the famous Appian Way. Church authorities supported the cleansing of their catacombs, removal of corpses, ventilation of the tunnels, lighting, buttressing, and other safety measures that make a trip there as tourist friendly as a visit to an underground tomb can be.

Alas, this is not the case with the Jewish catacombs, which are generally closed to the public. I visited the Jewish catacomb of Villa Torlonia by special arrangement in 2007. A fistful of euros having changed hands, I am led through the catacomb, its entrance curiously located on the grounds of a villa once inhabited by Mussolini. My tour guide for the day is the city electrician who checks monthly on the exposed wiring, left over from earlier failed attempts to improve the site. We wear miners' caps, beams of light wobbling before us. In one hand we each carry a lantern. Our other hands alternately follow the wire or gently mark a path along the porous tufa walls. The soft stone made it easy for the ancients to dig the tunnels and rooms that made up the warren of catacombs. But it is moist to the touch and leaves the humid air with a taste of rot that does not improve my sense of otherworldly claustrophobia. Nor, to be frank, do the bones and skeletons that still lie dormant upon their shallow platform graves dug into the walls.

Furtively, I summon my courage and touch, ever so gently, the remains of the dead. I am more than startled when the bone yields to my finger, spongy rather than ossified. Deep breathing ensues on my part, but the fetid air does not exactly help matters. I finally calm myself by reading, which almost always positively affects my emotions. What am I reading in the murky confines of the catacombs? Beside nearly every body, either grafittied onto the tufa stone or mounted as a marble inscription, are the epitaphs of the departed. Not surprisingly, given that we are in Rome, the names of the Jewish dead are recorded mostly in Latin, sometimes in Greek. But unlike on the headstones we might find in Europe or even in an American Jewish cemetery, there is nary a word of Hebrew. The only way we know that we are in a Jewish catacomb is that some of the names are biblical, and the frescoes that decorate the Villa Torlonia catacombs are replete with Jewish symbols, including ubiquitous menorahs — the seven-branched candelabrum of the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 CE. I read a name aloud and walk to the next set of bones, where I pause and read again. Slowly it comes to me that I am making a cemetery pilgrimage to Jews who perhaps have not had such a visit in 1,700 years. As I turn to the next skeleton with a name beside it, from some place deep in my soul burble up the words to the Jewish memorial prayer, El Malei Rahamim, "God full of mercy."

"God," I pray in Hebrew, "give proper rest to the soul of Simonides beneath the wings of your divine Presence. May he rest in the Garden of Eden. May his soul be bound up in the bundle of eternal life. And let us say, 'Amen.'" I have been blessed with a pleasant baritone singing voice, so as I walk I gain confidence, offering prayers of condolence for the long, long departed. Soon I realize that the moisture on my cheeks is not just the humidity of the catacombs, but the steady welling of tears from my eyes as I mourn for those so long unvisited by loved ones. Eventually, I notice that the electrician, too, has tears in his eyes, although I am sure he does not understand a word of Hebrew. I knew at that moment, even as I know now, that the inspiration to recite the memorial prayer would count as one of the few truly religious experiences of my life.

They say that Jews have been in the city of Rome since the century before Christianity. Even so, they took their time arriving. The Jewish Diaspora, the dispersion of the Israelite peoples from their land, took place first in the eighth century BCE (Before the Common Era, what Christians call BC) and again in 586 BCE. Both the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests sent the Israelites into exile eastward. It wasn't until the Greek era, during the fourth to third centuries BCE, that Jews migrated west and settled around the Mediterranean basin. By the time Jews came to Rome, there were Jewish communities in North Africa and Asia Minor, as well. The Five Books of Moses were translated from Hebrew into Greek by the third century BCE for the community in Alexandria, Egypt. Of course, there were Jews who much earlier had returned from exile to their ancestral homeland in what was then called Roman Palestine. Those Jews spoke Hebrew and also Aramaic (the language of their Assyrian captors of centuries earlier). But the Jews of the western exile spoke the local languages of Hellenism, which is how I came to be reading Latin and Greek grave inscriptions beneath the modern city of Rome.

As I look back years later, I still feel a connection with those who were buried in the catacombs so many centuries ago. But I do wonder about them. Would they have understood my pious gesture? Might there have been a chance — despite the absence of the language among all of the inscriptions — that they could have understood the Hebrew I intoned? Would they even have approved of the sentiment? Did Roman Jews share the outlook of the rabbis of the Land of Israel that the soul would eternally survive? It was, after all, an idea that pagan Greek philosophers shared.

As a scholar, I know that by the time the Jews in that catacomb were buried, the Judaism of the rabbis, Judaism as we still know it today, already had begun to develop. And yet, aside from pictorial fealty to the menorah, would their Roman Judaism have been recognizable to me? And what might they have thought of my Judaism, visitor from a distant future as I was? Is then like now? Were those cosmopolitan urban Jews of Rome comparable to the Jewish community today, say, in New York City? Can asking questions like these about them teach anything about us now? Or is this just so much naïve wishful thinking? I will return to this question a bit later, but for now, allow me to pay homage to the dead.

The Jews buried in the catacombs were Romans who spoke mostly Latin. Those whose families hailed from the Eastern Mediterranean probably spoke Greek. By culture, those Jews would be described as Greco-Roman Hellenists. That is, they were part of a millennium that started with Alexander the Great, who was born about 350 BCE, and ended at the fall of the Roman Empire, approximately 650 CE. That adds up to a thousand years of Hellenistic/Greco-Roman culture.

The father of Hellenism, Alexander the Great, was tutored by none less than Aristotle, the quintessential standard bearer of Greek philosophy and culture. The Greek Empire founded by Alexander ruled for only two hundred of this thousand-year reign; the Greeks were conquered by Rome in the mid-second-century BCE. From that point onward Rome ruled militarily — but the majority culture nevertheless remained Hellenistic. So, we call it Greco-Roman.

The Roman Empire as a pagan enterprise persisted into the fourth century CE, when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and declared it a legal religion. The inhabitants of the empire soon followed his lead, and over the next hundred years, the Roman Empire became Christian. The term "pagan" refers, rather intolerantly if you ask me, to all non-monotheistic religions. Yet for all of the shifting to Christian forms of monotheism and the decline of paganism, Greco-Roman culture persisted. Judaism post-Temple, after 70 CE, coincides with the heyday of Roman culture, which spread as far west as what is England today and as far eastward as Armenia and the Caspian Sea. Although the Romans spoke Latin, the lingua franca in the west (modern Europe), Greek was very much the norm throughout the eastern empire, particularly along the Eastern Mediterranean shores, including the Land of Israel.

Geographically, the Land of Israel is smack-dab in the middle of the empire, although you have already seen that Judaism was not limited to the Holy Land. Chronologically, most of what I will be discussing dates from the second through the sixth and seventh centuries CE — from the middle of the Greco-Roman era until its end.

During the earlier part of the Roman period, in the years designated as BCE, what I am calling biblical or Israelite religion was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. There, according to the dictates of Leviticus, the central book of the Torah, priests offered sacrifices to the One God. Some of these offerings were made in thanksgiving, some in atonement; almost all involved the spilling of animal blood on the Jerusalem altar. I sometimes nostalgically, sometimes mischievously, yearn for those days of yore. How satisfying it is to think that offering an animal for sacrifice could wipe clean the slate of my sins. And how interesting it would be if, instead of painfully chanting a prophetic portion in broken Hebrew, a bar mitzvah boy were called upon to prove his Jewish manhood by slaughtering an ox on the synagogue stage.

Oh well, those days are long past. In that time, before there were rabbis, the hereditary priests (kohanim) were the leaders of religious life, and there was a dynastic Jewish king who led political life in the Land, even as he was a vassal to the Roman emperor.

The watershed took place beginning in the year 66 CE, infamously known in Roman history as the year of the four emperors. That's right, four different men served as emperor of Rome, and as you might guess, none of the first three died of natural causes. You might also guess that the fourth, the last man standing, was the general who controlled Rome's armies. It was in this shaky political climate that Jewish zealots (that is actually the Greek term ancient historians used to describe those armed rebels) decided to rebel against Rome. War consumed the Judean province from 66 to 70, at which point the walls of Jerusalem were breached, its citizenry starved into submission, and the rebels crucified. The year 70 CE was not a good one for the Jews, although, in sorry retrospect, inevitable from the moment the rebellion broke out.

There is a genuine break in the flow of Jewish history before and after 70 CE. It took longer for Rome to end the insurrection than the empire had anticipated; its victory came not only at great cost to the Romans but with the stunning destruction of the Jewish centers that inspired the rebellion. The beautiful Herodian Temple, a wonder of the ancient world, lay in smoldering ruins. No longer would the biblical priesthood offer sacrifices to God upon its altar. Indeed, most of the hereditary Jewish priests were killed or scattered. Jews were partially banned from the Holy City of Jerusalem, the arable land for miles around was destroyed, and the forests were denuded of the trees that were felled to feed the Roman war machine. Never again would the dictates of the biblical book of Leviticus be performed. If Judaism were to survive, something new had to arise from the remains of fallen Jerusalem.

There is a great deal of debate about what Judaism looked like in that post-Temple period of the first centuries of the Common Era, and I vacillate on whether I should even call it Judaism or, perhaps better: Judaisms. If I use the singular, I betray a bias that there was one, possibly orthodox form of Judaism that characterized Jewish practice and belief in the Roman Empire. As we will see, there were broad varieties of Judaism, both pre- and postdestruction — enough, perhaps, even to speak in the plural of Judaisms. But to do that ignores what might be a common denominator of all of the varieties of Judaism across the empire, sometimes called "common-Judaism," which had its expression in the catacombs in the depiction of the seven-branched menorah. The menorah was a symbol by which Jews worldwide united in remembrance of, if not mourning for, the Jerusalem sanctuary.

It took quite a few more centuries for Judaism to find a singular expression as "rabbinic Judaism." In what follows, I speak of Judaism and the Jewish practices of those fellows we call "the rabbis" as though they were one and the same thing. When I refer to Judaism, I am referring to "rabbinic Judaism." This form of Judaism, so overwhelmingly prevalent today, did not become the normative flavor of Judaism until a mere eight hundred or so years ago. I will refer to other forms of Judaism; but the literature of the rabbis and their practices have stuck with us, and that very stickiness, along with the fact that I am a rabbi, leads me to speak of rabbinic Judaism as "Judaism" in the pages that follow, without further qualification. Reader, I lay my bias before you.

Who were those rabbis, and what was their Judaism? When the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood came tumbling to the ground, it could not be put together again. What I have called the Israelite religion of pre-70 CE, when those Temple and cultic institutions still existed, was replaced after 70 by other religious phenomena: what is called today Judaism. It has long been a given that Christianity arose from the Roman Empire, assimilated its culture, and became Western Civilization. In this book I will show that Judaism had a similar arc. When the Israelite Temple cult ended, it was replaced by Judaism — ultimately a religion that was shaped and defined by rabbis, who themselves were comfortable denizens of the Roman world.

Those ancient rabbis are the forebears of the modern rabbis of all varieties and denominations who still lead Jewish institutions to this very day. At the outset, the rabbis confronted the loss of the Jerusalem Temple with determination, originality, courage, and panache. In the face of the loss of the sacrificial cult and exile from Jerusalem, this small group of sages and their disciples in each generation built Judaism — a Roman religion that fit comfortably in the broader culture and so was able to survive for the ages.

The earliest leaders of the "rabbinic" Jewish community are portrayed in later texts as having come to leadership roles while the Second Temple still stood, around the turn of the millennium. Hillel the Elder, his colleague Shammai, and Gamaliel are names we associate with the beginnings of Judaism. Hillel and Shammai are not called rabbis, but each is given the title "elder." When we refer to Hillel the Elder, it is not because there was some younger guy also named Hillel running around at the same time. "Elder" was Hillel's title, as it was the title for Shammai and Gamaliel. In the religious community, the title "elder" persists in the church in its Greek usage: presbyter.

When the rabbis look back at Hillel, they note that he was originally a Babylonian. Yet the earliest generations of rabbis lived and taught in Roman Palestine. The rabbinic movement expanded eastward into Iraq, or Jewish Babylonia, only from around 220 CE. I emphasize that the Judaism of the rabbis was a product of the Land of Israel in its beginnings and was only later exported to the Diaspora. When the rabbis themselves narrate their origins, they always recall that Hillel — one of their founding fathers — was Babylonian, as though it were foreordained that rabbinic Judaism would flourish there, too. It didn't have to be that way, especially since what became a major center of Judaism, Babylonia, flourished under a different political empire and different culture than either the Jerusalem Temple or the earliest rabbis.

If I tell you again and again in this book that the rabbis were Greco-Roman Hellenists, I should also disclose that the rabbis of Babylonia certainly inherited aspects of Hellenism from their rabbinic forebears but lived in the Sasanian Empire, where the dominant culture was Zoroastrian. Jews are nothing if not complicated folks.

Although Hillel the Babylonian is not called rabbi, he is nevertheless seen as the rabbis' George Washington, as it were. Ironically, the earliest person given the actual title rabbi also received it anachronistically, as his story was written just after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70. Looking back, the Christian Gospels refer to Jesus of Nazareth as "rabbi," going so far as to transliterate the Hebrew term into Greek letters and then define it as "teacher." In fact, the rabbis as a movement came to the fore only after 70 CE, once the priesthood had been scattered and the Jerusalem Temple burnt. The Hebrew term rabbi literally means "my master," and in the Hebrew Bible refers to the captain of a ship (Jonah 1:6) or other officer. In the Mishnah, the earliest compilation we have of rabbinic literature (ca. 200 CE), rabbi can refer to a slave owner; but most regularly it is a title for a master who teaches disciples. By the second or third century, the title rabbi was retrojected not only onto Jesus but even onto Moses and Elijah. The "rabbanization" of biblical figures is part of the way in which the rabbis reinforced their ideology by retelling biblical history through a decidedly rabbinic lens.


Excerpted from Aphrodite and the Rabbis by Burton L. Visotzky. Copyright © 2016 Burton L. Visotzky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I Greek, Roman, Hellenist, Jew 1

II Like a Fish Out of Water? Stories of Judaism in Historical Context 13

III Judaisms of the Oikoumene: Who Were the Jews in the Roman World? 27

IV Esau, Edom, Rome: What Did the Rabbis Really Say about the Romans? 55

V Rabbis Learn the Three Rs: Reading, Writing, and Roman Rhetoric 87

VI How Many Languages Does a Jew Need to Know? 113

VII Love of Wisdom and Love of Law: In Pursuit of Philosophy and Justice 131

VIII History Where It, Happened 161

IX The Handwriting on the Wall (and the Floor and Ceiling) Roman Jewish Art 189

X From Temple Cult to Roman Culture 217

Timeline 227

Acknowledgments 229

Photo Credits 233

For Further Reading 237

Index 239

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