<Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek? -or- Philosophical Violence in the Judaeo-Christian Hyphen
The last page of Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the Chorban (the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE). The section, and others like it in Talmud and Jewish literature is called Yeridas HaDoros, “Descent or Decline of the Generations.” In the middle of this lamentation, The Talmud discusses many virtues of Jewish spirit that were lost, and many customs which had to be abandoned, such as the bridal veil and litter and the ritual to cleanse an unsolved murder of a body found between two cities – the eglah arufah.
With thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel.
Special Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchak Feldman
In the middle of the list of these losses, the Talmud inserts an injunction against teaching Greek which seems out of place and somewhat mysterious.
MISHNAH: DURING THE WAR OF TITUS [Chorban 67-70 CE] THEY [Chazal] DECREED AGAINST [THE USE OF] CROWNS WORN BY BRIDES AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. …….
What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek, spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem. Akiva even asked Onkelos to translate Tanach into Greek (Targum). Indeed, in the Gemara to this page in Sotah, we read the lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Tanna (50 CE):
“There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.”
And in various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised, including being characterized as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated.
The Gemara tells the Aggadah (story) of a traitor inside the walls of Jerusalem. An old man communicated via a Greek “secret code” to betray the Pharisees of Aristobulos’s faction protecting Jerusalem and the Temple, including the purity of its sacrificial rites, to the Hyrkanos faction (Seleucids – Greek accommodators) who besieged them.
SOTAH 49b GEMARA: A Baraisa provides historical background:
AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. Our Rabbis taught: When the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus (Seleucid) was outside of Jerusalem and Aristobulus (Pharisees) was on the inside. Each day those within the city would let down denarim in a pouch over the city wall and Jews of the Hyrkanos faction would in return send up for them lambs for the daily communal sacrifice. Hayah sham zakein echad she-hayah mabir b’chachmot yeranit – There was within Jerusalem a certain old man who was familiar with Greek wisdom, l’az lachem b’chachmat yeronit – and he communicated surreptitiously with the besiegers in the language of Greek wisdom – amar lochen – saying to them, “Kal zeman she-oskin ba-avodah ayn nimsorin b’yodhem – as long as those within the Jerusalem walls engage in the sacrificial service, they will not be delivered into your hands.” On the morrow, they lowered the dinarim in a pouch, but the besiegers following the advice of the old man and, seeking to prevent the service, sent them up a swine. When the swine reached midway along the wall and stuck out its hooves into the wall, Eretz Yisroel quaked over an area of four hundred parsahs (1600 square miles). At that time, they declared, cursed be the man who shall raise pigs and cursed be the man who shall teach his sons Greek wisdom.”
( This aggadah is repeated in Bava Kamma 82b and Menachot 64b)
The general events related by the Talmud are historically verifiable. Chanukah celebrates events that occurred in 167-165 BCE. Antiochus outlaws Judaism and defiles The Temple. Matisyahu and Judah HaMakabi fight and win to recapture the Temple and purify it. In trying to observe the Torah-prescribed lighting of lights for eight days, they discover there’s not enough oil, but a miracle allows one night’s worth to last the whole eight days. We rehearse the Chanukah miracle of lights because it is an eternal reminder of the re-assertion of Jewish kedusha over Greek corruption.
In 76-67 BCE – Hyrcanus and Aristobulus great-grandnephews of Judah HaMakabi, split the kingdom between them. Hyrcanus leads the Seleucid [Greek] faction, which seeks to accommodate the Hellenism of the invading kingdom. Aristobulus leads the Pharisees traditionalists, who try to retain the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. Aristobulus seizes Jerusalem and the Temple. Hyrcanus besieges him, and finally wins when he breaks the purity of the Temple stronghold, demoralizing the Pharisees and causing all of Israel to quake. And his victory is achieved by a betrayal via secret Greek code.
What is the deeper meaning of this story? Nothing in the Talmud is there by accident, so the placement of this prohibition against Greek wisdom draws our attention to deeper currents. What are the Rabbis warning us against? What is the historical context? What do they mean by “Greek wisdom”? Rashi [1040-1105 CE] explains that Greek wisdom refers to “a set of cryptic expressions or gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers), not by common people.” [Menachot 64b] But even this is cryptic. What does Rashi have in mind?
It is possible that Rashi is thinking of Pythagoreanism, a current that runs through all Greek philosophy, from its most ancient sources through the medieval period. This school of thought would have been known by any educated Greek nobleman. It was preserved and revived may times, in Greece and in the subsequent modes of Western philosophy that were influenced by the Greeks. And its tenets make a fundamental, if subtle distinction, between Jewish and Western thought.
Pythagoras and the Neo-Pythagorean revival in the Talmudic Era
Pythagoras is the father of Greek philosophy. His influence over all of Western thought, even into our twenty-first century, has remained strong. But first, who was Pythagoras beyond the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem we learned in middle school? What did he believe? And why is his philosophy so important?
Here’s what we know: Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) is the son of Greek nobility. Around 550 he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He travels to Egypt. On his way back, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile. Inspired by the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-communal brotherhood preaching asceticism, mystical number theory, the “divine” tetractys, and the transmigration of souls. Indeed, in the following sketch of fundamental ideas of Pythagoreanism, one can see the relationship to many Jewish concepts as well.
Reality is ONLY that which can be measured and understood, delved by rational numbers. Our mastery of their secrets enable humans to become “gods.”
- Pythagoras is purported by the Greeks themselves to have invented the word “philosophy” – that is, lover of knowledge
- He inspires Plato’s distinction between being and becoming: the notion that the universe is fixed and constant.
- In turn, he inspires Aristotle’s rational, orderly vision of cosmology: the universe can be arranged and ordered into a complete, coherent, unified system. It is governed by logic. Reason is the highest attribute of human nature. To be rational is also to be ethical and therefore, divine.
- Pythagorean Cosmology posited that the universe is ruled by rational numbers
- He preached ascetic dietary practices
- He makes the mystical Tetractys central to his philosophical cult. It may have been an idea of he borrowed from the Jewish Tetragrammaton (Four Divine Letters of God’s Name).
The “divine tetractys” of Pythagoras has ten numbers arranged in four rows. Later designs conflate the four numbers with the Tetragrammaton and claim Pythagoras was influenced by Jewish mysticism from the beginning.
- First ten numbers corresponded both to pagan gods and to ethical and physical precepts
Pythagoras instituted a dominant theory or discipline of Arithmetika theologomena whereby letters had numerical equivalents which gave another layer of meaning to words. This is virtually equivalent to Jewish gematria, the system of calculating Hebrew letters as numbers to discover further meaning, HaShem’s intention, in the Torah. The entwinement of the two concepts is intimate; maybe Pythagoras imported it from his contact with Judaic mysteries in Israel and Babylon. It should also be noted, though, that the word gematria has a Greek origin: it is a cognate of ‘gamma + tria’ and bears etymological relationship to geometry and grammar
- Transmigration of souls – gilgulim ~ Olam Habah
- Soul is to be freed from the “muddy vesture of decay” of the body by ascetic practices and secret wisdom. Matter is evil.
- Contemplation of the universe from reason – rational thought – is the highest human activity.
Pythagoreans also communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. One of these signs, in fact the only one we know of for sure that survives to today, is the same as the split-fingered gesture of the Kohanim, which Pythagoreans used for “salut” (a deep concept signifying cleanliness, purity, ethical truth, and blessing or greeting). Maybe this is precisely the secret code the traitorous old man used to betray Jerusalem to the Greek sympathizers.
So we can see what the Talmud is concerned about. Pythagoreanism was a seductive and powerful philosophy, a form of secular/pagan theology that would have been, and was, attractive to Jews, with our love of learning and wisdom and esoteric knowledge and with just enough hint of ancient Jewish custom and lore to provide a comfortable trail for Jews to get lost on.
Indeed, between the second century BCE and second century CE, precisely during the era of the Talmud, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.
In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ but is meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today.
But the connection is more than architectural. With its notion of the perfectability of man, the notion that matter is evil and corrupt from which reason needs to be freed, you can see that this Pythagorean Greek chochma lays the groundwork for the flowering of Christian theology soon thereafter.
At the same time, the allure for Jews must have been great. Here for instance, is a vow pledged by the Roman Neo-Pythagoreans which echoes the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters of HaShem):
A Neo-Pythagorean Oath from the 1st c CE
“By that pure, holy, four lettered name on high,
nature’s eternal fountain and supply,
the parent of all souls that living be,
by him, with faith find oath, I swear to thee.”
And what was the essence of Pythagoreanism and neo-Pythagoreanism? It can be summed up simply, in ways of thinking that we would find very comfortable as 21st century moderns:
- The universe is ruled by rational numbers and logic.
- All that is known is only that which can be touched and measured and calculated and observed.
- Humans can become divine by application of reason.
Because there are so many similarities to Jewish concepts, one could see how the Seleucid Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. Indeed, the Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle half a prophet. But which half? Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Maimonides “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”
Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, represented the hoof of the swine touching Jerusalem’s walls and its concomitant betrayal and defeat of Talmudic Judaism. The smallest contamination shakes the entire foundation of Israel itself.
Perpetual Chanukah in the West
All this would be just an interesting historical exercise — and somewhat repugnant because it is a favorite exercise of secular historians to show this entwinement between Greek and Talmudic thought in order to devalue Talmud’s religious authority — if it weren’t for the fact that, in clear purity of form, Pythagoreanism still holds sway today.
Pythagoreanism is the fundamental constant across the history of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the Destruction of the Temple with Christianity in the centuries soon to follow. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectability of humans and the basis of the universe and everything in it as reducible to rational, deterministic, unified laws.
Greek philosophy institutes a vision of the deities who created a clockwork universe of perfection, instituting immutable, static laws of physics and nature. The gods set it motion and let it run. This is a scientific cosmology that still holds sway today in the common mind. It keeps us from awakening from the great cybernetic delusion of our last century, that we can create an artificial intelligence, mind, or neshama through the application of computer codes and algorithms. It still governs most of what we’re taught in school and our still Newtonian-Pythagorean concept of the universe. But this conception has nuanced, though absolutely critical, differences from Jewish metaphysics.
Contrast Greek philosophy to our Jewish cosmology of an unfolding universe. HaShem, whose Face is always receding and hidden, creates the cosmos. (As opposed to the Christian concept, in which Word – Logos – becomes flesh and utterly knowable and personal.) The Divine Attention of HaKodesh Borechu continuously sustains an unfolding universe. Even the method of Jewish hermeneutics – how we argue and discourse to arrive at the truth – contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with a page of the Schottenstein Talmud to get the idea. One signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end. Open any page of the Talmud, however, and you are plunged into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and hundreds of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective “aesthetika” and “rhetorika” as opposed to his orderly “logos.”
And if we trace the history of this contrast between Greek and Hebrew, between Seleucids and Pharisees, between Pythagoreanism and the Talmud even until today, we see there is ongoing violence in the hyphen that Chazal anticipated. Indeed, this gemara of the betrayal of Jerusalem by Greek wisdom and the prohibition against teaching it are prophetic. The story of the Temple sacrifice being befouled by a swine, the story of the shaking of the walls of Jerusalem are warnings that reach back to Chanukah and forward to all of Western philosophy, including postmodernism today.
The subtle but fundamental incompatibility between these two philosophies leads to what I call “philosophical violence in the Judaeo-Christian hyphen.” As the timeline appended to this paper suggests, with the burning of the Talmud throughout Europe and the many trials Jews have suffered under the rule of Christianity, including the Shoah, this violence is not just philosophical. The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. They also say “Modern philosophy is nothing more than a footnote to Plato.” Later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers. Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake Eretz Yisroel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, into the heart of philosophy [Being and Time, 1927]. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including my own study of literature in the 1970s, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has to grapple with Heidegger and has been influenced by him. However, two recent works of scholarship have exposed the truth of the Talmud’s prophesy in Sotah. Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. His chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.
Reconciliation through “Jewish Physics”
But let me end on a note of reconciliation. Realizing there is violence in the hyphen paves the road to recognizing the dead end of Pythagoreanism philosophy. The recent works by Farias and Faye expose the link between Nazism and empty philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that has lain at the core of Western thinking itself, philosophies that lead to mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of all human existence. It is the same Greek chochma that lies in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.
In our newfound skepticism about the darkness at the heart of postmodernism, there is hope for a new deepening. This is especially true because the philosophical turn has been accompanied by a revolution in our scientific concept of how the universe works. Together, the two revolutions hold promise for how Jewish thinking may influence the future of Western civilization.
For a century, our scientific understanding of the fundamental principle of the universe has been grappling with what we can call “Jewish Physics.” In calling it this, I am echoing the notorious propaganda of Nazis in the 1930s, who called it “Jew Physics.” (See Klaus Hentschel and Ann Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism. Springer, 2011). This revolution has been led by Jews, starting with Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton in the 1920s, and includes Niels Bohr, Eugene Wigner, James Franck, Otto Stern, I.I. Rabi, Wolfgang Pauli, Robert Hofstadter, Richard Feynmann, Murray Gell-Mann, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weisenberg, Jerome Friedman, Martin Lewis Perl, Frederick Reines, David Gross, Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter, Serge Haroche, and Francois Englert. These are just half of the Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics in the last century, and a mere fraction of the Jews who are busy in the field of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. Many of them fled Nazism to seek refuge – and freedom of inquiry – in America
Quantum mechanics has introduced a cosmological question that shakes our understanding of the universe itself as merely deterministic and rational. Put simply, it brings us to a crossroads of our understanding. Either the universe splits into an infinite chaos of uncertain and inaccessible universes every time there is a quantum event, and all sub-atomic events are connected by unproven superstrings of 11 or some other number of dimensions;
There is a Universal Intelligence that turns His face to every event in the cosmos and by His Attention, continuously creates the reality we inhabit.
This subject is obviously too broad and deep and abstruse to do justice to here today, but let me gesture at just one small tear in the parochet between Western science and Jewish religion: the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson – the so-called “G-d Particle” – and its measurement at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (France). Suffice it to say for now, science is confronted with the introduction of metaphysics back into physics, this time ushering in an era of what I hope will be the reassertion of Jewish metaphysics in Western cosmology.
– Palo Alto, 2014