Hebraism and Hellenism Reconsidered
Feldman, Louis H., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
"ARAYNGEFALEN VIA A YOVEN IN A SUKEH!"
This widespread Yiddish saying--"Fallen like a Greek into a sukkah!"--shows how far apart, at least in the popular Jewish mind of yesteryear, are Greek and Jewish cultures. The Latin Church Father Tertullian, in the early third century, had already summarized the incompatibility of Hebraism and Hellenism in his famous phrase, "Quid Athenae cum Hierosolymis?"--"What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" The gap has become the subject of a range of jokes, such as the one about the Jew and the Greek who were boastfully comparing notes. Said the Greek: "They were digging recently in Athens, and do you know what they found? Wires. And do you know what that proves? That two thousand five hundred years ago, in the age of Pericles, the Greeks had telephones." Said the Jew: "They were digging recently in Jerusalem, and do you know what they found? Nothing. And do you know what that proves? That three thousand years ago, when Solomon was king of Judea, the Jews already had the principle of the wireless."
Jews and Greeks have been comparing notes from at least as early as the sixth century B.C.E., when the prophet Zechariah boldly declared, "I will brandish your sons, O Zion, over your sons, O Greece." The comparison, from the Greek point of view and in a most complimentary way to the Jews, continued in the fourth century B.C.E., when, according to Clearchus, a disciple of Aristotle, as quoted by Josephus in his essay Against Apion (1.176-133), a nameless Jew came to see whether Aristotle really deserved the reputation that he had. In the end, admits Aristotle, "It was rather he who imparted to us something of his own." Indeed, so impressed was Aristotle by the endurance and sobriety of this Jew in his manner of life that he paid the Jews the supreme compliment of asserting that the Jews are descended from the Indian philosophers.
In the first century C.E., the anonymous author of the treatise On the Sublime, an essay in literary criticism second in importance in antiquity only to Aristotle's Poetics, cites the opening chapter of Genesis as an example of the most sublime style. And in the following century, the philosopher Numenius, a great admirer of Plato, pays Moses the highest imaginable compliment when he exclaims, in a passage quoted by the Christian Clement of Alexandria, "What is Plato but Moses speaking in Attic?"
From a Jewish point of view, the contrast was stressed by the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E. in their fierce struggle against the Hellenizers in Judea. It continued in the talmudic period with the curse, said to go back to the time of the civil war between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II in 65 B.C.E., against the study of Greek wisdom (Bava Kamma 82b, Sotah 49b, and Menahot 64b). It was Paul, in particular, who attempted to bridge the gap with his comment (Epistle to the Corinthians 3:11) that in the Gospel that he preached, there was neither Greek nor Jew.
That Jews in antiquity were already conscious of the similarity and contrast with Greek paganism is suggested in the comparison of the Passover Seder with Greek symposia, such as are described in works by Plato, Xenophon, "Aristeas," Plutarch, Athenaeus, Lucian, and Macrobius. In Athenaeus' Deipnosophistai, in particular, we find the practice of asking questions about dietetic problems and riddles, as in the Haggadah of Passover; we find something like haroset; there is a discussion of the usefulness of lettuce (eaten at the Seder as bitter herbs); there are three cups of wine (in contrast to the Seder's four); and the meal concludes (as does the Seder meal) with an afikoman (a good Greek word, which apparently has something to do with the komos ["revelry"] at a banquet).
In his famous essay "Hebraism and Hellenism," published in 1869 in his volume Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold found that Hebraism (which he identified with ascetic Christianity) and Hellenism have been passing each other through the ages like buckets in a well. Thus, we may note, the Hellenism of the pagan world gave way to the Hebraism of early Christianity, only to be revived in the Renaissance (Pope Leo X in the sixteenth century could openly profess a greater admiration for Plato than for Jesus; and his contemporary Machiavelli contrasted the pagan and Christian virtues to the disadvantage of the latter), then to be discarded again for the Hebraism of the Reformation, then to be revived again by the Enlightenment. Indeed, Goethe showed his abhorrence of the representations of the anemic Jesus by reciting his morning prayers before an image of Zeus, and the Victorian Swinburne preferred Aphrodite to Mary, the mater dolorosa. And Heine sharpened the contrast by contending that all men are either Jews or Greeks--either Jews who ascetically question life and nourish their apocalyptic visions, or Greeks who love life with a realism generated by their personal integration.
Arnold, in his essay, contrasts Hebraism, which, he says, stands for conduct and obedience, that is, strictness of conscience and, above all, a consciousness of sin, with Hellenism, whose uppermost thought is to see things as they really are and to think right, that is, spontaneity of consciousness. "Christianity," he says, "changed noticing in this essential bent of Hebraism, to set doing above knowing." "Socrates," he says, quoting a saying attributed to Thomas Carlyle, "is terribly at case in Zion."
As Lionel Trilling,(1) however, has remarked, Arnold's essay must be seen against the backdrop of the racial theory, nationalism, and imperialism, which were triumphant in his day. Shortly before, and contemporary with Arnold, a number of writers had drawn the contrast between Greek and Jew, notably the Jewish intellectuals Ludwig Borne, Heinrich Heine,(2) Moses Hess, Samuel David Luzzatto, and Benjamin Disraeli, for whom this was not a mere theoretical problem but one central in their lives--namely, whether and how a Jew can come to terms with the non-Jewish world. Nevertheless, as Milton Himmelfarb(3) has noted, Arnold has identified Hebraism with the sectarian Protestantism of his own day; and hence it would seem to be appropriate here to compare Hebraism as understood by Jews with Hellenism. Perhaps we may begin by quoting three passages which illustrate what Arnold would call the Hebraic spirit:
Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given. (Homer, Odyssey 1.32-34)
A man thought the gods deigned not to punish mortals who trampled down the delicacy of things inviolable. That man was wicked. (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 369-372)
For thee this whole vast cosmos, wheeling round The earth obeys, and where thou leadest It follows, ruled willingly by thee. . . . Thou knowest to make the crooked straight, Prune all excess, give order to the orderless. . . . One Word--which evermore the wicked flee! Ill-fated, hungering to possess the good They have no vision of God's universal law (Cleanthes, "Hymn to Zeus")
It was Nietzsche who remarked that the Greeks blame the gods; the Jews blame themselves. But if "God" were substituted for "gods" and for "Zeus, these passages, with their emphasis on the consciousness of sin and divine justice, might easily have been thought to come from one of the prophetic books or from the Book of Psalms in the Bible. Yet, actually the first comes from Homer; the second, from Aeschylus; and the third, from the "Hymn to Zeus" of Cleanthes, the Stoic philosopher who lived in the third century B.C.E. Let us start, then, de novo and compare the Hebraic and Hellenic attitude toward God and toward man As to God, it is usually said that the Greeks stand for multiplicity and variety whereas the Jews stand for unity. And yet, Xenophanes (fragments 11, 15, 16), who lived in the sixth century B.C.E., attacks the view of the gods in Homer and Hesiod, who were, in effect, the Bible of the Greeks, criticizing them for attributing to the gods "everthing that is a shame and re-preach among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other," and remarks that if horses had hands and were able to draw with them, their gods would take the form of horses, and that the Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black. On the other hand (fragment 23), he posits "one god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought."
Moreover, the Greeks are sometimes said to look upon life as eternal being, whereas the Hebrews looked upon it as eternal becoming. But this is precisely the dispute in the fifth century B.C.E. between Parmenides and Heraclitus, both of whom, of course, were Greeks.
As to man, Arnold would have us identify Hellenism with the intellectual impulse in contrast to Hebraism, which he identifies with the moral impulse. The prime example of Hellenism is Socrates, whose motto is, as stated in Plato's Apology, "The life [intellectually] uncriticized is not worth living." Hellenism is thus the enemy of fanaticism. Hellenism, says Arnold, speaks of thinking clearly, of seeing things in their essence and beauty, whereas Hebraism, as we see particularly in the prophets, speaks of becoming conscious of sin. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is that they hinder right thinking, whereas the Hebrew quarrel with them is that they hinder right acting. Nietzsche, developing this theme, formulates the view that Hellenism says yes to life and love, whereas Hebraism says, "Thou shall not!"
Yet, even Arnold acknowledges that Aristotle, at least, notes that of the three prerequisites for virtue--knowledge, deliberate will, and perseverance--the last two are all-important and the first is of little importance. While it is true, as he remarks, that both Plato and Aristotle rank the moral virtues below the intellectual virtues, we must remark that Plato's Republic, that most influential of ancient works, while identifying virtues with knowledge, proceeds to stress the practical applications of these virtues. Moreover, it is precisely the fact that the Greek gods in Homer, Hesiod, and the Greek plays are not identified with morality that leads Plato to exclude these poets from the curriculum of his ideal state. Furthermore, anyone who has read E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational will realize how grossly exaggerated is the view that the Greeks were rationalist worldlings.
As to the Greek spirit not being concerned with conscience, what are we to make of the story told by Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, about the mistress of one of the tyrannicides who had lived a youth of immorality but who, when questioned under torture, bit her tongue out rather than betray her lover? "Which," asked Zeno, clearly impressed by her strictness of conscience, "would you rather have? Her years of lightness and love or her last hours of heroic agony?" On the other hand, in his demanding of God a rationale to explain his apparently unfair and even meaningless suffering, Job is Hellenic, according to Arnold's definition. Indeed, if Hellenism is so far apart from Hebraism, we may well ask how to explain the apparent attraction that Hellenism had for many Jews in the Hellenistic period.
In their lack of concern about conscience, the Greeks are said to have looked with disdain upon pity as an undesirable trait, whereas the Tetragrammaton is said to denote God's aspect of mercy (Genesis Rabbah 33.3); indeed, apparently growing out of the concept of imitatio Dei, for the Jew (Mic. 6:8) mercy is one of the three primary qualities required of him by God. One sees the Greek concept for pity--in particular, in Aristotle's view (Poetics 6.1449b) that tragedy serves the purpose of purging the spectator of the negative emotions of pity and fear. And yet, here too there are ample indications that not all the Greeks looked with disdain upon pity. Thus we hear that in Athens there stood an altar dedicated to pity, and that when it was proposed to celebrate the gladiatorial shows in Athens, Demonax the Cynic (see Lucian's Demonax) declared that the Athenians would first have to remove the Altar of Pity. The Epicureans, moreover, looked upon it as a positive trait. Cicero (Pro Legario 12.37), indeed, goes so far as to state that there is no more admirable trait than pity.
Moreover, to say that the Hebrews were unworldly pietists is to ignore the plentiful evidence in the Bible itself, where we see how often they are engaged in wars with their neighbors and how frequently the prophets must chide them precisely for their unworldly practices. In addition, to say that Hebraism says no to life and love is to omit such episodes as Jacob's love for Rachel and the whole saga of the judges and Saul and David and Solomon. Furthermore, to assert, with Heine, that the Greeks were only beautiful youths, whereas the Jews were strong and steadfast men, is to neglect an Achilles on the Greek side and a Joseph on the Hebrew side. Again, to contrast, as does Heine, the Greek spirit of beauty with the Hebrew spirit of sublimity and intensity is to neglect an Antigone on the Greek side and a David on the Hebrew side. In our own day Saul Tchernichovsky, in his poem "Before the Statue of Apollo," recognizes that the sensory joy of life and the beauty in nature were once present in Jewish experience, but laments that centuries of oppression and rootlessness have drained these attitudes from the Jewish people.
As to identifying the Hebrews as unworldly pietists, one thinks how the most influential of rabbis at the end of the first century, Joshua ben Hananiah, reduced such extremism to absurdity with his argument (Bava Batra 60b) that if, because of their mourning for the destruction of the Temple, Jews declined to eat meat or drink wine, since they were part of the Temple service, they should not eat bread or first fruits or even drink water, since they, too, were part of the service. Indeed, the very opening of the Mishnaic tractate Yoma (1:1) indicates that the High Priest had to be married at the time that he performed the service on the Day of Atonement. Ben Azzai (Yevamot 63b) is castigated for not marrying, and he himself uses extraordinarily strong language there in admitting that one who does not engage in the propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood.
Judah Ha-Levi formulates the difference between Hebraism and Hellenism in terms that the Greek culture bore flowers but no fruit, by which he meant that it was intellectual and aesthetic rather than moral. Similarly, according to Arnold, Hellenism is concerned with beauty and rationality of the ideal and tends to keep difficulties out of view. We recall that Arnold's contemporary, Ernest Renan, in the same vein, addressed his "Prayer at the Acropolis" to Apollo, the god of clarity, reason, and harmony, and that he asked for forgiveness for having concerned himself with the unclear, unreasonable, and unharmonious Semitic matters. Lev Shestov, in his Athens and Jerusalem (1933), though by no means sympathetic to the Greek point of view (philosophy, he felt, should concern itself primarily with questions that cannot be answered by reason but only by the "cries of Job," that is, by direct human experience), has similarly painted the contrast in terms of the objective reason of the Greeks as against the subjective revelation of the Hebrews.
But if so, we may ask, what is the point of the Greek tragedies that have come down to us if it is not that life is not one-sided and simple? To say, furthermore, that Hebraism lacks the sunny optimism of the Greeks and is, instead, marked with a sense of sin, is to ignore chorus after chorus in the Greek tragedies, representing, in effect, the ideal spectator and the author himself, in which we see a basically pessimistic view of life. One thinks of the last lines of the most famous play of all, Sophocles' Oedipus the King: "Here is the truth of each man's life: we must wait and see his end, scrutinize his dying day, and refuse to call him happy till he has crossed the border of his life without pain." That this was not an isolated sentiment but one widely held and influential, may be seen from its occurrence in Herodotus (1.32), who quotes it in the name of the revered wise leader Solon (Aeschylus [Agamemnon 928-929], Euripides [Trojan Women 509-510, Heracleidae 865-866, Iphigenia at Aulis 161-163, and Andromache 100-102], and Aristotle [Nicomachean Ethics 1.1100A10-11]). One thinks of the jar of the first woman Pandora, which contains all evils, and this includes even hope. One recalls, furthermore, Hesiod's formulation of the five ages of history, each worse than the preceding; contrast this with the opening chapter of Genesis, in which the phrase "And God saw that it was good" appears five times. Man is the very climax of creation, and it is after his creation that we find the phrase," And God saw everything that He had made and behold it was very good" (Gen. 1:31).
To say, with Arnold, that Hellenism, unlike Hebraism, is not primarily concerned with conduct and that the moral virtues are secondary to the intellectual, is to neglect such a passage as this in Homer's Iliad, Book 16: "Even as beneath a tempest the whole black earth is oppressed, on an autumn day, when Zeus pours forth rain most vehemently, being in wrath and anger against men who judge crooked judgments forcefully in the assembly and drive justice out, and reck not of the vengeance of the gods." The fact that this statement, in which Zeus stands for justice, appears in a simile, would seem to indicate that it is an editorial comment, so to speak, on the part of Homer. Again, at the beginning of Book I of the Odyssey, Zeus is quoted as complaining that mortals blame the gods for their afflictions, when actually it is their own failings, notably greed and folly, that are to blame. Moreover, Hesiod (Works and Days 252) asserts that thrice ten thousand watchmen of Zeus guard justice and note cruel deeds. Furthermore, he insists that Zeus with ease straightens the crooked and rebukes the proud. Surely Socrates (Plato, Apology 32A-C) showed moral courage when, as chairman for a day of the Council of Five Hundred, he defied an hysterical, unconstitutional public demand for the execution of the generals who had failed to recover the bodies of several hundred soldiers killed in a sea battle, and again when he refused to share in the policy of the Thirty Tyrants in their persecution of Leon of Salamis.
Moreover, to contrast the Greek and the Hebraic view of the Divine by asserting that the Greek gods were immoral, whereas the Hebrew view of God is of perfect morality, is to neglect the remarks of Xenophanes, who complained that Homer and Hesiod assigned to the gods all that was disgraceful and blame-worthy, notably stealing, adultery, and deceit. Pythagoras insisted that the gods must be ethical; and we hear that when he visited Hades, he saw Homer and Hesiod being punished because of what they had said about the gods. Moreover, to Heraclitus is ascribed the statement that Homer deserves to be chased out of the lists and beaten with rods. And, in a famous passage, Plato (Republic 2.377-379) insists that the poems of Homer and of Hesiod not be included in the curriculum of the ideal state since they represent the gods as immoral.
In our own days, Boman(4) has vividly painted the contrast as follows: "The matter is outlined in bold belief by two characteristic figures: the thinking Socrates and the praying Orthodox Jew. When Socrates was seized by a problem, he remained immobile for an interminable period of time in deep thought; when Holy Scripture is read aloud in the synagogue, the Orthodox Jew moves his whole body ceaselessly in deep devotion and adoration. . . . Rest, harmony, composure, and self-control--this is the Greek way; movement, life, deep emotion, and power--this is the Hebrew way." Boman may well be thinking of the attitude of a Hasid; but swaying is by no means necessarily characteristic of the deeply pious Mitnagid. And any student of the Talmud will be aware of the great premium placed there upon clear and logical thinking.
Ferguson(5) has remarked that there is no real Greek word for "to sin," and that the verb hamartanein really means "to miss the target," like, we may add, the Hebrew hata'. He also notes that where we use the phrase "to take something to heart," the Greek uses the verb nouthetein, which literally means "to put in the mind." The word sophrosyne ("moderation") is related, etymologically, to the word phronesis ("thought"). He cites Nietzsche's statement that whereas other nations had saints the Greeks had sages.
The problem with such an analysis, however, is that it fails to note a number of passages in Greek literature containing the verb hamartanein in the very sense of "sin," which patently contradict it. Thus, for example, in a famous passage, Homer (Iliad 9. 500-501), in the words of the wise old Phoenix, Achilles' tutor, remarks that "man turns [the hearts of the gods] with prayer as often as anyone transgresses and sins." Likewise, Hesiod remarks that "Often even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises presumptuous deeds." Again, Herodotus (1.133) says that according to the Persians, one who has leprosy is not permitted to consort with other Persians; "they say that he is so afflicted because he has sinned in some wise against the sun."
To say, moreover, that other nations had saints but that the Greeks had sages is to neglect the fact that the Jews, at least in the talmudic period, refer to their saints as talmidei hakhamim, that is, wise students. It is surely significant that the same community of Jews produced Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes and the Dead Sea Sect (twenty-four in all, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.6.29c), and individuals as diverse as Yohanan ben Zakkai and Josephus and Elisha ben Avuyah. The Talmud, far from being a dogmatic code, is more like a Congressional Record of the debates of the sages. And in what other religion is the study of such disputes a form of divine worship?
Actually, Judaism seems to place a premium upon doubt, so that we may suggest that for the Jew, faith is doubt once removed. For the Jew, the most sincere form of closeness to God is doubt; indeed, doubt once removed is good kavanah ("intention"). The Jew's credo is, to paraphrase Descartes, Dubito ergo sum. Dubitare est humanum. Who is a Jew? A Jew is someone who thinks. Talmudic texts treat punctuation and sentence structure very casually, so that a statement can often be read in a positive or negative sense and can express an assertion as well as a doubt or a query. The word teku, indicating that a given dispute remains unresolved, appears no fewer than 319 times in the Babylonian Talmud. Is there any order religion that has a major, seminal work with so many issues unresolved? Where but in Judaism can one have a scenario in which God Himself is outvoted? But that is precisely the case in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), where the miracles of an uprooted carob tree, a stream flowing backwards, walls caving in, and a heavenly voice supporting the view of Rabbi Eliezer, are unavailing to sway the vote of a human Sanhedrin; and what is perhaps even more amazing is that the Talmud there records God's pleasure at being outvoted! The typical Yiddish intonation to this day is a question mark, and the typical Jewish joke is, "Why does a Jew answer a question with another question?" To which the prompt reply is, of course: "And why not?" As Elie Wiesel has put it, only the Jew opts for Abraham, who questions, and for God, who is questioned.
In fact, the born Jew is defined not in terms of creed or deed but rather in terms of the identity of his mother, so that Judaism turns out to be more of a family or a nation than simply a religion. For what other religion is an expression comparable to that of a Jewish atheist not a contradiction in terms? A talmudic saying (Sanhedrin 105a) has it that "Impudence, even against Heaven, is of avail." The wondering Jew in thought is as typical as the wandering Jew in space. Indeed, in the introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides, in response to the question whether it is permissible to ask fundamental questions of faith, asserts that it is not only permissible but actually mandatory, inasmuch as there is a commandment to love God, which is possible only through the intellectual love of God, namely, through using one's mind in asking questions. Furthermore, Maimonides criticizes Job, noting that he was punished because he accepted everything on tradition; he was virtuous but not intelligent and, consequently, deserved to be punished. Mordecai Kaplan is once said to have remarked that theology is the immaculate conception of thought not sired by experience. Why do Jews feel so much at home in the United States? Perhaps it is because this is the only country that has a national anthem that begins and ends with a question: "Oh say, can you see? . . . Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?"
Matthew Arnold, moreover, would have us believe that a major difference between Hebraism and Hellenism is that the former is monolithic and intolerant, whereas the Greeks exhibited extraordinary tolerance and diversity. But the extraordinary rarity with which foreigners were admitted to citizenship in ancient Athens, Pericles' proposal (which was adopted) to remove from the citizenship rolls those who had only one parent born in Athens, the requirement that only those who spoke Greek were permitted to participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the conviction of Socrates on the grounds of atheism and corrupting the youth--all seem to argue otherwise. On the other hand, we may note the positive attitude of Jews toward Benei Noah, those non Jews who take it upon themselves to observe the seven commandments given to Noah, according to tradition. Moreover, even the sacrifices in the Temple were intended not merely for Jews but also for all of mankind, as we see in the fact (Sukkah 55b) that on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, seventy bullocks were offered on behalf of the seventy nations of the world.
Furthermore, in contrast to the provincial attitude of the Athenians when it came to extending citizenship to foreigners, there is ample evidence in the writings of pagan authors (such as Horace, Tacitus, and Juvenal), Philo, Josephus, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and the New Testament (notably Matthew 23:15, which declares that the Pharisees compass sea and land to make one proselyte) that the Jews, especially between the second century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., were successful in convening many to their religion.(6) As to the rabbis, with relatively few exceptions, they were extremely favorable toward accepting proselytes. One thinks, for example, of the statement (Pesahim 87b) of the third-century Eleazar ben Pedat that the only reason why God dispersed the Jews was in order to facilitate proselytism. This eagerness may also be seen in the rabbis' portrait of Abraham (Sifre Deuteronomy 313 on Deuteronomy 32:10), who is described as so good a missionary that he succeeds in causing God to be known as king of the earth as well as of heaven.
As to the alleged inflexibility of Judaism, even the divinely-inspired sacred Bible was subject to many diverse interpretations and modifications, such as we find in the Septuagint, Philo, the Targumim, the Midrashim, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha.
Can we formulate a thesis that will explain the gulf between Athens and Jerusalem? I believe that we can do so by noting the differences between them in their attitudes toward time and history. For the Greeks, the study of history may be useful, as Thucydides states (1.22), since events of the past will occur, in all probability, in the same or in a similar way. For the Jew, it is not merely useful; it is a commandment (Deut. 32:7) to remember the days of old; it is a commandment (Deut. 7:18) to remember what God did to Pharaoh; it is a commandment (Deut. 25:17-19) to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites in the desert.
A goodly portion of the Bible is a history book; the very fact that a work which is the sacred book of the Jews begins with a narrative, namely, Creation and the Flood, which has no direct connection with the Jews, is an indication of how important history is for those for whom it is a sacred account. Moreover, the first occurrence of the word kadosh ("holy") in the Bible is in connection with a unit of time, the Sabbath (Gen. 2:3), Indeed, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is connected, in the two versions of the Ten Commandments, with two events in time, namely, Creation (Exod. 20:11) and the Exodus from Egypt (Deut. 5-15). All the pilgrimage festivals were understood in the written or the oral tradition to be grounded in historic events: Passover with the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost with the Revelation at Sinai, Tabernacles with the sojourn in the wilderness after the Exodus. Moreover, the New Year was said to commemorate Creation; and the Day of Atonement was said to commemorate the day when the sin of the Golden Calf was forgiven. The only holiday which does not have a historical connection is the New Moon; and we may suggest that one reason for its decline in importance since the days of the Pentateuch and the prophets is precisely this, that it did not have a historical connection. Even circumcision, which was widespread in the ancient world, being found in Ethiopia, Egypt, Golchis, Phoenicia, and Syria (Herodotus 2.104.2-3), is given a historical connection, namely, the treaty of God with Abraham, berit Avraham.
This centrality of time may be seen in the wording of the sanctification prayer, the Kiddush, that is recited over wine in ushering in the pilgrimage festivals, blessing God for sanctifying "Israel and the times." Henri Bergson, we may remark, was very Jewish in making time the vehicle of his world conception. In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Jew's catechism is his calendar. The fact that the Dead Sea Sect, as well as the Sadducees and the Karaites, had a calendar different from that of the Pharisees was surely a major point of contention amongst them.
Indeed, the Jew is required to identify himself with history; at the Passover Seder, the text reads: "In each and every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt, as it is said (Exod. 13:8), 'You shall tell your son on that day saying: This is done because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.'" It is not a coincidence that the Jews are the first to write great history. Others may be God-intoxicated; the Jew is history-intoxicated. In contrast, the Greek verb "to know" (eidenai) is related to the verb "to see" (idein); even the word for "idea" comes from this verb "to see"; the Greek, consequently, is interested in things rather than events. No Greek ever heard his gods order him to remember.(7) Even in grammar, the Greek has a timeless aorist tense, such as is lacking in Hebrew, and this tense represents both a past time and an eternal present.
An important point of difference between the Jewish and Greek attitudes, again connected with time, is to be seen in the nature of God. For the Jew, God operates in history: He created the world; He formed compacts at various points in history with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites at Sinai. His very name, 'Eheyeh 'asher 'eheyeh (Exod. 3:14), indicates that He manifests Himself in time. In particular, He is identified with historic events (Num. 15:41): "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt." He is identified in the language of time: He is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; history is conceived of as a straight line with a beginning (Creation), a middle (the various encounters of God with the patriarchs, Moses, etc.), and an end (the messianic redemption). Indeed, the prophets are at least as much interpreters of the past as they are predicters of the future.
In contrast, no Greek god is ever identified as the god of Aegeus or Theseus or Cadmus; nor is there a particular goal of redemption. In general, the Greek view of time was cyclical;(8) and, according to the Stoics, the most influential philosophy in the ancient world in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the history of the world is an endless succession of creation and destruction; and, far from having a final goal, in the course of twelve thousand years (the annus magnus) the world will return to its original starting point. While it is true that Judaism does have the concept of the end of time and of a day that is "wholly Sabbath" as a restoration of an Eden-like existence, this is conceived of as a final goal; whereas for the ancients the completion of the annus magnus is viewed as merely the beginning of a new cycle of events.
Moreover, the Greeks do not conceive of the gods as creating the universe, but rather see the world as eternal. Their conception of the gods identifies them with nature; they evolve out of a primordial substance antedating and transcending them. In contrast, the Jewish God transcends nature. As Yehezkel Kaufmann contends, an abyss separates the religion of Israel from that of paganism. The difference is not merely an arithmetical one between monotheism and polytheism, since the Jewish conception of God rejects the pagan idea of a realm beyond deity and recognizes His sovereign transcendence over all.
The importance of time for Judaism may likewise be seen in the fact that in determining from which commandments women are free, the criterion is positive commandments which have a particular time attached to them (Mishnah, Kiddushin 1:7). In fact, the ethical code is grounded on historical events, notably the prohibition to oppress the stranger, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 22:21, Deut. 10:19) and indeed, the commandment (Lev. 19:34, Deut. 10:19) to love the stranger as oneself.
In summary, Judaism is centered on time rather than on space. In answer to the question, "What was God doing before creation?" Augustine replies that He was creating a Hell for those who ask this question The answer, of course, is that for God there was no "before," since God is not limited by time but created time itself; but for the Jew, "before" and "after" are key terms. Indeed, time is arguably the greatest thing that God created; and hence for the Jew to waste time is sharply condemned, since a primary article of the Jewish faith is that time is sacred. A child asked Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: "Where is God?" He answered: "Whenever you let Him in, not 'where' but 'whenever.'" For the Jew, not place but time and history are the true loci of godliness. And regardless of their theological tenets, all Jews share a common history; and recent history has taught that even those who did not share a common faith had a common fate.
1. Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), p. 234.
2. Warren D. Anderson, Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1965), p. 176, notes that it is to Heine, and ultimately to Heine's source, Borne, that Arnold owed the antithesis of Hebraism and Hellensim.
3. Milton Himmelfarb, The Jews of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 299.
4. Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, trans. by Jules L. Moreau (London: Westmininster, 1960), p. 205.
5. John Ferguson, Moral Values in the Ancient World (London: 1958), p. 51.
6. See my Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), especially pp. 288-415.
7. So Arnaldo D. Momigliano, Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1977), p. 195.
8. An exception, perhaps, was the fifth-century. B.C.E. Anaxagoras. See G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1957), p. 390.
LOUIS H. FELDMAN is Professor of Classics at Yeshiva University.…
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Publication information: Article title: Hebraism and Hellenism Reconsidered. Contributors: Feldman, Louis H. - Author. Magazine title: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. Volume: 43. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1994. Page number: 115+. © American Jewish Congress Fall 1996. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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