An exploration of the effects of Roman-era culture on Judaism.
Visotzky (Midrash and Interreligious Studies/Jewish Theological Seminary; Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud, 2011, etc.) convincingly argues that, from C.E. 70 onward, Judaism was greatly influenced by the Roman culture surrounding it. He is less successful in tying that history to Judaism as experienced today. It is widely understood that with the first-century destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism transformed into a Scripture-based, synagogue-centered religion. The author asserts that Roman culture had a far greater bearing on the formation of this renewed Judaism than most experts believe. He couches much of his thesis in the intriguing fact that the Jews of the time saw the Romans as the children of Esau, twin brother to Jacob, the father of the Israelites. Therefore, to the Jews, the Romans were at once siblings and enemies. “It strikes me that in this choice of Esau as the symbol of Rome,” writes Visotzky, “the rabbis gave voice to the complexity of their relationship.” What Judaism borrowed from Rome seems mainly to have been aspects of learned or upper-class lifestyles. For instance, the author notes that the rabbis learned the art and value of rhetoric from the Romans, and they used the teachings of philosophical schools, such as the Stoics and the writings of Plato. They also adopted Roman architecture, as seen in early synagogues, and Roman art. The competition among Latin, Greek, and Hebrew is another important piece of the author’s discussion. Visotzky spends less effort in finding ways in which Roman culture touched working-class Jews or how it still resonates in modern Judaism. However, his personal exploration of Jewish catacombs does provide a touching example of how all Jews in the Roman Empire were touched by Roman culture and language. Plus, his theory that the modern Seder is a product of the Roman Symposium is certainly food for thought.
An intriguing, though perhaps incomplete, look at two cultures colliding and coexisting.