Hebraism and Hellenism Reconsidered

By Feldman, Louis H. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

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. …

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