Aphrodite and the Rabbis

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

In Aphrodite and the Rab­bis: How the Jews Adapt­ed Roman Cul­ture to Cre­ate Judaism as We Know It, Bur­ton Visotzky recon­sid­ers the influ­ence of Roman civ­i­liza­tion on the rebirth of Judaism. Jew­ish tra­di­tion has posi­tioned the Romans as the his­toric ene­my of the Jew­ish peo­ple, both because of the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple and because of what Rab­binic Judaism char­ac­ter­ized as Rome’s ongo­ing assault against Jew­ish cul­ture. How­ev­er, Aphrodite and the Rab­bis argues that Judaism’s trans­for­ma­tion into a world reli­gion was in fact made pos­si­ble by the Roman Empire. 

A rec­og­nized schol­ar on Midrash, Visotzky opens this book with a sto­ry that draws read­ers into his search for Roman-Jew­ish cul­tur­al meld­ing. Walk­ing through the Jew­ish cat­a­comb of Rome’s Vil­la Tor­lonia in 2007, the author sees first-hand the influ­ence of Roman bur­ial rites on the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the Ancient Rome. In short, what is now called Judaism’ was invent­ed in the matrix of Roman cul­ture,” he writes. Even as some rab­binic texts depict­ed Rome as the ene­my, there is over­whelm­ing evi­dence that Judaism took root in Roman soil, imbibed its nour­ish­ment, and graft­ed the good and pruned the bad from the Roman Empire, until a vibrant new reli­gion — Judaism — arose from the wreck­age of the Israelite reli­gion and the Tem­ple cult, nur­tured by the very empire that had destroyed it.”

Aphrodite and the Rab­bis sup­ports this argu­ment in ten chap­ters, each of which explores a par­tic­u­lar influ­ence of Roman cul­ture had on Jew­ish life. In chap­ter five, Visotzky delves into the mixed mes­sage giv­en by Rab­binic lit­er­a­ture on the val­ue of learn­ing Roman rhetoric. Liken­ing the study of Roman rhetoric to learn­ing the lan­guage of one’s adopt­ed coun­try as a new immi­grant, Visotzky argues that for the lead­er­ship of Rab­binic Judaism, the study of Roman rhetoric was an accept­ed and val­ued part of an edu­ca­tion. In defense of this point, he draws par­al­lels between a stan­dard rhetor­i­cal form, the chreia, and rab­binic texts. For exam­ple, the well-known episode from the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud (Shab­bat 31a) — that of Hil­lel instruct­ing a would-be con­vert while stand­ing on one foot — is a Jew­ish inter­pre­ta­tion of the phi­los­o­phy of the cel­e­brat­ed rhetor Seneca in the form of a chreia.

Although the focus of this book is the inter­sec­tion of Hel­lenic and Jew­ish cul­ture, the author con­cludes by draw­ing a par­al­lel between the Jews of Ancient Rome and Amer­i­can Jew­ry today. If the rab­bis and oth­er Jews took the best of their Roman cul­ture and hearti­ly imbibed Hel­lenis­tic civ­i­liza­tion as they invent­ed a Judaism to sur­vive the destruc­tion of the Jerusalem cult, then it can be an encour­age­ment for us to do the same,” sug­gests Visot­sky. Much as they swam in the waters of Gre­co-Roman cul­ture, so we flour­ish in Amer­i­can soci­ety, trans­form­ing Judaism as we go.” With this, Aphrodite and the Rab­bis is a book that teach­es of the Judaism of the past, but encour­ages us to be proud and hope­ful of it in the present — an impor­tant mes­sage from a book that is a schol­ar­ly, live­ly, and worth­while read.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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