Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Plenty of Time to Think

During the twenty six hours it took for the Golden Iris to sail the blue waters of the Mediterranean from Haifa to Rhodes, we had “plenty of time,” to eat, get some rays on the upper decks, take a nap or two, start reading a new book, of course daven (We received an halachic ruling that insofar as we were on an Israeli ship, we were considered to be in Israel, and, therefore, I [the only cohen in the group] was needed to recite the birkat cohanim every morning; no rest for the weary), and for our scholar-in-residence to begin his series of lectures. Dr. Daniel Schwartz is a professor of ancient Jewish history at Hebrew University, his area of specialty being the intersection of Jewish and Greek culture around the beginning of the Common Era. His first lecture served as an orientation, giving us a timeline for Greek civilization and some background information about the four places in which our ship was going to dock: Rhodes, Athens, Lavrion, and Santorini, the first two of which have a definite Jewish connection, the others – that’s where the ship was going! That out of the way, he began a series of lectures about the relevance of Hellenism to Judaism, a topic of obvious controversy, but definitely related to where we would be going and doing.
I approach this topic from a perspective very different from most peoples’. Long before I ever heard of the Mishna or the Gemarra, or gave any thought to Jewish traditions, oral or otherwise, I was sitting in Mott Hall at C.C.N.Y., studying British and American literature and attempting to master Latin and Greek. So while traditional Jewish thought casts the Greeks in the most negative light, the course of study in the Classics department (as taught by Professor Ehrlich) focused on their accomplishments. I have long wondered at the usefulness of describing the villains in the Hannukah story as ‘wicked,’ because if you say A is wicked, you are implying that there must be a B and a C who are not wicked, because if everyone is wicked then telling me A is wicked isn’t saying much. In other words, were the Hellenic Greeks any more evil than the other nations of the world?
Now Professor Schwartz did not set out to answer that question, although, in a way, he provided me with some answers. (I will try to summarize one part of his presentation here, rather than present it in a chronological sequence sandwiched in between our tours.) He began by examining, for reasons we will get to shortly, a fundamental question, who is a Jew (of course, today the question has become, who is a rabbi). We know that Judaism from its inception was not understood to be a Religion; in fact, there is no word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew. In today’s lingo, there is a word dati, (knowledgeable) which is used to describe a person or an institution that is ‘religious,’ but no one would say that ‘knowledge’ is the same as ‘religion’. If you think about it, not having a word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew makes perfect sense: ‘religion’ would have to be a category, meaning that there is more than one religion (just as there is more than one kind of book, or tree, or automobile). Judaism was meant to be distinct and apart from the myriad forms of idol worship festering throughout the mid-east and the rest of the world; there was to be no other ‘religion’ like it. According to Schwartz, a Jew was originally a bnei Yisrael, a descendent of Avraham and Sarah (or married to a descendent) and, later, dwellers in The Land (or, I guess, descendents of dwellers in The Land living in Babylon or elsewhere). But, while we had the Torah, with its list of do’s and don’ts and a knowledge of Hashem, there was not a formal standard of who was a Jew or how one would become one (the rules about formal conversion, I believe, came later). We know that a Jewish soldier would ultimately be allowed to marry a woman he captured in battle and that luminaries from Yosef to Shlomo took foreign wives. And even as our Prophets lamented the pervasive idol worshipping of the people, no one considered or questioned the identity of Bnei Yisrael, dwellers in The Land.
In one of his last lectures, our scholar-in-residence mentioned an essay, “Hebraism and Hellenism,” by Matthew Arnold. Click. Having read a fair amount of Arnold’s critical writing forty or so years ago, I thought I detected the basis for a lot of what I was hearing. When we returned to Maale Adumim, I pulled down my copy of “The Portable Matthew Arnold,” which has a fair selection of the author’s poetry and criticism, and found therein the essay in question as part of a larger work, “Culture and Anarchy.” Here’s a small selection:The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is, that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is, that they hinder right acting. “He that keepeth the law, happy is he”; “Blessed is the man that feareth the Eternal, that delighteth greatly in His commandments;” – that is the Hebrew notion of felicity; and pursued with passion and tenacity, this notion would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action. The Greek notion of felicity, on the other hand, is perfectly conveyed in these words of a great French moralist: ‘C’est le Bonheur des hommes,’ – when? When they abhor that which is evil? – no; when they exercise themselves in the law of the Lord day and night? – no; …..but when they think aright, when their thought hits: ‘quand ils pensent juste.’” I say, if the shoe fits, wear it.
If I may lapse into Yeshivish, ‘comes along the Greeks’ (that would be in normative English ‘the Greek civilization arose’) with this very different world view, a set of ideas which could be codified into a curriculum, which anyone could learn. According to our scholar, anyone could become a Greek; you could be born in Pakistan or Puerto Rico, but you could become a Greek by virtue of your education. You could even be a bnei Ysrael and become a Greek; no problem! (Of course, there was a slight problem as far as we were concerned because our Hellenistic counterparts worshipped idols; and it really became a problem when they wanted to put their statues in our Temple.) What the Greeks forced us to do (among other things) by their willingness, even their insistence that we assimilate like everybody else, was make us define who we are and who among us is important. For the first time, there appeared factions or sects within the Jewish community: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and, if you want to include them, the early Christians. Each of them had different ideas of what it meant to be a Jew. As we know, the Sadducees were primarily of priestly descent and strove to maintain the dominance of the Cohanim and the centrality of the sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash. Once the Second Temple was destroyed, their base of power collapsed and they were doomed to failure. Their rivals, the Pharisees, represented the emerging rabbinic leadership; for them, anybody could become a leader regardless of one’s lineage – if one were learned enough. In addition, their Oral Law could, at least in part, be practiced – had to be maintained – anywhere, even without the existence of a Beit Hamikdash, even apart from The Land. Now Professor Schwartz maintains, and here is where he is controversial, that, while the Pharisees were fighting the paganism of Greek culture and its assimilation by large segments of the Jewish population, they were adapting its democratic and universalistic aspects to survive in what would become a two millennia Diaspora in which we would pray in synagogues and eat the afikomen every Pesach (I trust you get the linguistic point I am making). I know that I have simplified, perhaps oversimplified, our scholar’s presentation, but I think that’s the gist of it.
The main thrust of Arnold’s essay is that there needs to be a synthesis between Hebraism, the search for G-d, and Hellenism, the search for earthly knowledge. However, he was not the first person to consider this. Fifteen hundred years after the Maccabis, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, the Rambam), one of the greatest thinkers in human history and an unimpeachable Jewish source, was busy synthesizing Aristotelian thought and Jewish law. For him, the highest aspiration for a Jew, in addition to ‘imitating G-d,’ was acquiring knowledge of the world; and it was that ability which separated Man from the lower animals (thank you, Nachum, for that insight).
If I may add a thought of my own (and hearing no dissent, I will), it occurred to me that Hellenism was indeed the absolute pinnacle of pagan thought, vastly superior to anything produced by its idol worshipping neighbors. But for ‘civilization’ to advance, they (whoever ‘they’ is) would have to scrap their pagan deities and adopt some form of monotheism. Put it this way, there is a limit intellectually to how far you can go with Zeus. Apollo, Athena, and their buddies. How can you investigate the properties of the sun and still worship a sun god? At some point, the whole thing breaks down. What the Europeans seem to have done is create a hybrid, merging their pagan gods with a monotheism (Judaism) which they could not accept in its pure form. Voila! Christianity. And even so, it took the Europeans a millennium and a half to reach the intellectual level of the Hellenic Greeks.
Strange as it may seem, my sense of who the Greeks were and who we, the Jews, were, and how we interacted, was important to me in how I would look at what we were about to see: were we visiting modern Greece to do a quasi-March of the Living (where, for some unfathomable reason, you take impressionable Jewish teenagers to visit the former concentration camps in Poland, scaring the wits out of them, and then take them to Israel), or was there some other purpose to our journey in addition to the R and R? Were we going to view ancient ruins so that we could feel good about ourselves: “See, their temples to their pagan gods are now piles of rubble, whereas we are still alive.” (One might remark that our beit hamikdash is currently less than a pile of rubble, and the current status of buildings constructed before the Common Era is hardly the defining point for the vitality of a culture. One might also remark, however, that some of us are anticipating the rebuilding and re-use of a third beit hamikdash on the Temple Mount for our very much alive religion. The same cannot be said about the Parthenon.) While I needed to work out how I would feel about visiting the home of the Athenians, it would not be as if I were visiting Oswiecim or Birkenau, where there isn’t one chance in a million that I would ever go. Nor anywhere in Egypt, where I will also never go because they still don’t like us there. The same for Minsk or Riga, where my grandfathers fled in the dead of night, and even, if I were to go, I would have no idea what to look for. Perhaps more like Spain, where Barbara and I visited in the 1980’s, when the Iberian peninsula was beginning to shake off centuries of decline and dictatorship.
Which reminds me of a conversation which I got myself in the middle of recently, and which I’m mentioning now for a reason. Barbara and I were sitting in a little place in Tel Aviv – which we had wandered into because the Tel Aviv Museum and its cafeteria are closed on Sunday, which we didn’t know until we arrived there – and we managed to join a conversation at the next table between a young man who obviously shares my conservative political views and a young woman who doesn’t. Her point was that the new American president, while he was bad for Israel and the Jews (most of whom voted for him), he would be good for America. My response to her was that she was describing an impossibility; if the American government turned against Israel, it would certainly come back to haunt the country of my birth, in ways that are beyond the scope of these articles. Many of the countries which have treated Jews poorly have suffered a rapid decline in the aftermath, Spain being an obvious example, having never really recovered from 1492.
The fate of the Greeks is remarkably similar. After their rapid rise to a position of dominance throughout the Mediterranean, they went into an equally precipitous decline and were under foreign domination from 146 BCE to 1829 CE when they achieved independence from the Ottomans. The population of Athens at the beginning of the nineteenth century was under 10,000 (does that remind you of another ancient city which suffered a similar fate?) More recently, Greece has survived the Nazi occupation (during which, the government and Church did not cooperate in the extermination of the Jewish communities in Athens and Salonika), a civil war after W.W. II, and a military coup from 1967-1974. The small Jewish communities which remain are protected by the government and there seems to be very little anti-Semitism and a lot of anti-Nazism. So you can say that they have suffered mightily for their sins, and while we should be wary of any of the Nations, today’s Greece would be low on the list of countries to worry about. So that’s what I came up with: we would be visiting one of the most picturesque places in the world, with lots to see. Try to look at the many ruins we would visit with a sense of their place in history, with all the positives and negatives implied therein. (Not like a hareidi-by-choice fellow I see once a month, who, upon hearing about our adventures, asked me if we had seen any of the Temple vessels that were hidden away? It took me a moment; then I realized he was talking about the objects that are allegedly in the Vatican. “You’re thinking of Rome. We went to Greece. Not the same place.” I know, from his profession, that before he became hareidi, he had actually gone to school, and despite his best efforts to hide it, he must have learned something – once upon a time. “It’s all the same,” he replied, “Avoda Zara (idol worshipping).” To paraphrase something which Dr. Schwartz said, there is a time to find commonality, and there is a time to look for distinctions. Maybe knowing when to do which is a goal of education. Or, to invoke one of my iron principles of life, “No one is required to act stupider than they actually are.”)
That’s a lot to cogitate about. No wonder my “plenty of time” as we sailed the blue Mediterranean included a second nap. I wonder if the several hundreds of passengers on board appreciated the heavy thinking I was doing for them; somehow I doubt it. The Golden Iris has finally arrived in Rhodes, and we will all be disembarking. Don’t forget to take your swipe cards with you when you leave the boat.

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