Why does the Talmud warn us against teaching our children Greek?
Chanukah is sometimes thought of as a more minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. Yet it gives us a way to understand a challenge Jews continue to face as they to try to thrive in the modern world: the seductions of “Greek” philosophy.
With thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel. And special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman
Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek?
The last page of the Talmud tractate Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as the generations decline and have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem. In the middle of this lamentation (called the Yeridas HaDoros – “descent of the generations”), the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.
DURING THE WAR OF TITUS [Chorban 67-70 CE] THEY [the Sages] 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, and it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca among the educated classes. In various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated, as Akiva asked Onkelos to do (the Targum). In the commentary, we read the lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE), who boasts of the Greek wisdom in his father’s yeshiva:
There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.
Chanukah: Greek vs. Hebrew Part I
The events we celebrate on Chanukah happened following Jerusalem’s conquest by the Greeks in 332 BCE. Around 167-165 BCE, the Greek king Antiochus II, as part of his general purging of the Greek empire of foreign influence, outlaws Judaism and defiles the Temple. Matisyahu, Judah the Maccabee, recaptures and purifies it. He lights the lamp of the Temple, and miraculously one night’s worth of oil stays lit for eight nights. Chanukah miracle of lights because it is an eternal reminder of the re-assertion of Jewish holiness over Greek idolatry and materialism.
In 76-67 BCE – Hyrcanus and Aristobulus great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom between the Seleucid [Greek] faction, seeking to accommodate Hellenism, and the Pharisees, separatists who wanted to protect the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple from these modern influences. Aristobulus seizes Jerusalem and the Temple. Hyrcanus besieges him. The Talmud tells the aggadah (story) of an old man inside the walls of Jerusalem who communicated via secret code, Greek, who betrayed the defenders of Jerusalem to their Greek besiegers:
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 dinarim [coins] 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. There was within Jerusalem a certain old man who was familiar with Greek wisdom, and he communicated surreptitiously with the besiegers in the language of Greek wisdom saying to them, “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, Israel 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.”
Sotah 49b [This aggadah [story] is repeated in Bava Kamma 82B and Menachot 64b]
What is the deeper meaning of this story? The placement of this prohibition against Greek wisdom in the dramatic end of Sotah, the selection of this story of the traitor who betray Judaism from within Jerusalem by means of secret Greek wisdom, the quaking of all of Eretz Yisroel, draw 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 of gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers), not by common people. But what was this secret code? The answer lies in the parallel track of philosophy preserved by Christianity that they inherited from the Greeks: Pythagoreanism.
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 in a way I will explain in a moment. But first, who was Pythagoras beyond the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem we learned in middle school?
Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) was 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 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.
- Reality is ONLY that which can be measured and understood, delved by rational numbers. Our mastery of their secrets enable humans to become “gods.”
- He invents 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 beneath its constant state of flux.
- 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.
- Cosmology: The universe is ruled by rational numbers and their manipulation (mathematics).
- The sign of the cult is the mystical Tetractys…
…seems to be an idea of numbers Pythagoras melds with the Jewish Tetragrammaton, the Four Divine Letters of God’s Name, that he might have picked up on his journey through ancient Israel.
- Pythagoras instituted a dominant theory or discipline of Arithmetika theologomena, virtually equivalent to the Jewish gematria, the system of calculating Hebrew letters as numbers to discover further meaning, God’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
- He believed in the Transmigration of souls – a Jewish concept of gilgulim. The 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 for them 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 their love of learning and wisdom and esoteric knowledge. Indeed, between the second century BCE and second century CE, as the Talmud begins, 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 wisdom 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 God’s Name):
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.”
The essence of neo-Pythagoreanism is a way 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 in the fight between traditionalists and Greek modernists, and the betrayal and defeat by the latter of the former, the Pharisee’s tradition that would later become rabbinic (Talmudic) Judaism. The smallest contamination shakes the entire foundation of Israel itself.
Perpetual Chanukah in the West: From Pythagoras to the Holocaust
All this would be just an interesting historical exercise showing the historical entwinement between Greek and Talmudic thought 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 Second 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. God, whose Face is always receding and hidden, creates the cosmos. In the Christian concept, the Word – Logos – becomes flesh and utterly knowable and personal, an idea developed by the neo-Pythagoreans in the first century. 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 any page of the 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 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.”
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 the sages of the Talmud anticipated. Indeed, this story of the betrayal of Jerusalem by Greek wisdom and the prohibition against teaching it is prophetic. The story of the Temple sacrifice befouled by a swine, the story of the shaking of the walls of Jerusalem, are warnings that reach back to original Chanukah – already a couple of centuries old when the Talmud story is told – 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.” With the burning of the Talmud throughout Europe and the many trials Jews have suffered under the rule of Christianity, including the Holocaust, 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. Russell later wrote that “the European tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” [Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)]. Even 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 the whole land of Israel. 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. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including the postmodernism and deconstruction, 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 suggest the prescience of the Talmud’s warning 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. In the 1980s, 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”: Quantum Cosmology
But let me end on a note of reconciliation. Realizing there is violence in the hyphen paves the road to recognizing the inert nature of Pythagorean philosophy. The recent works by Farias and Faye expose the link between Nazism and empty philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that have 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 [wisdom] that lay in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is that tempts 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, 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 veil between Western science and Jewish religion: the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson – the so-called “God 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 and pray will be the reassertion of Jewish metaphysics into Western cosmology.
David Porush, Mountain View, CA
The Continuity of Pythagoreanism through Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy
570-490 BCE – Pythagoras
428-348 BCE – Plato: Father of philosophy, inspired by Pythagoras
382-322 BCE – Aristotle: says the philosophy of Plato closely followed the teachings of the Pythagoreans
250-120 BCE – Statue of Pythagoras erected in Athens then torn down because it was a challenge to the State religion
Talmud coincides with Neopythagorean Revival
50 BCE – Nigidus and Cicero (Roman Senator) lead Roman revival of Pythagoreanism,
50 CE – Shimon ben Gamliel: “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.”
50 CE – Pythagorean Basilica at Porto Maggiore (Rome), underground necropolis/temple mixes Pythagorean and Christian elements: apse, nave, paganism, numerology, astrology, pantheon of Greek gods. Shows connection between Pythagoras and Christian theology.
70 CE – Destruction of the Temple by Titus [Chorban]
60-120 CE – Nicomachus (Jerasa, Jordan) Theology of Arithmetic: Numbers are foundation of all reality
90-168 CE – Ptolemy The Almagest and Geographia and Tetrabiblios: Mathematical models of the universe, Earth, and the means of predicting the future; inspired by Pythagoras
100 CE – Nechunia ben Hakanah, Tanna, author of The Bahir, gilgulim, Olam Habaah, theodicy – early Kabbalah (?)
200 CE – Mishnah redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi
250 CE – Golden Verses of Pythagoras: “Know the numerical essence of the immortal gods and immortal men/How it pervades everything and everything is ruled by it.”
1180 CE – Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed: Aristotle was almost a prophet.
1249-1310 – Menachem Meiri, Bet HaBechira: “Greek language, as we have described in Megilla, is one of the richest languages, yet it is prohibited to study their wisdom since it attracts the heart of men and destroys many of the foundations of religion.”
1240 – Pope Gregory, Paris orders burning of Talmud
1264 – Pope Clement IV orders burning of Talmud
1431 – Talmud banned by Church Synod of Basel
1492 – Spanish Inquisition
1553 – Pope Julius III orders Talmud burned
1592 – Pope Clement II prohibits Talmud study in any form
1910-1913 – Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell: Principia Mathematica “Western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato.” Applies mathematics to logic (symbolic logic) and thus all that can be known
1927 – Martin Heidegger: Being and Time (1927). Brings Greek metaphysical thought into modern philosophy, coherence from Plato to Descartes.
1945 – Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy: Pythagoras was the greatest of all Greek philosophers. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 Condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
1987, 2005 – Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism and Emanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy