Judaism Unbound Episode 42: Aphrodite and the Rabbis - Burton Visotzky


Burton Visotzky, the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, joins Dan and Lex to discuss the topic of his recent book, Aphrodite and the Rabbis. He speaks about the surprising degree to which Greco-Roman ideas shaped Rabbinic Judaism, [1] so much so that, Visotzky argues, that Judaism should be understood as a Roman religion. With Hanukkah coming up, they discuss how this understanding of Judaism squares with the Maccabees well-known anti-Hellenist agenda.

Image Credit: BurtonVisotzky.com

Image Credit: BurtonVisotzky.com

(0:01 - 15:11): Visotzky begins with the personal story that eventually inspired him to write Aphrodite and the Rabbis. [2] He also introduces his primary thesis -- that rabbinic Judaism was not, as some think, especially resistant to Greco-Roman culture, but rather was deeply influenced and shaped by it in fundamental ways.

(15:12 - 30:30): Visotzky talks about how the ideological basis of the Talmud is largely based on forms of Stoic philosophy that characterized Greco-Roman life. [3] Perhaps most surprisingly, he reports, Greco-Roman synagogues have been discovered that appear to give Greek gods central roles in their artwork. [4] We discuss and debate the ways in which ancient forms of syncretism may or may not parallel contemporary forms, especially those that relate to how modern American Jews have thought about and might think about engaging with Christmas. Visotzky goes on to consider the place of Hanukkah as it relates to the topics explored in Aphrodite and the Rabbis[5]

(30:31 - 46:04): The conversation turns towards contemporary observances of Hanukkah. The episode closes with a broadening of the conversation to explore the directions of American Judaism today, including some healthy disagreement about what those directions are and should be.

[1] If you would like to purchase Aphrodite and the Rabbis on Amazon, you can do so at this link. To learn more about Burton Visotzky and his work, visit www.BurtonVisotzky.com.

[2] For more background on the Jewish catacombs of Rome, check out this article from the Jerusalem Post

[3] Philo of Alexandria was not mentioned directly in this episode, but he also played an important role blending stoicism and Judaism in the Greco-Roman era. To learn more about his writings and philosophy, click here.

[4] Two noteworthy archaeological finds that feature Greek gods in Jewish settings are Hamat Tiberias and Beth Alpha. Learn more about them on their respective wikipedia pages:     Hamat Tiberias     Beth Alpha

[5] This episode is the second in our six-episode series on Hanukkah that began last week with guest Yehuda Kurtzer. We also are excited to be bringing you Hanukkah Unbound, which will offer a wide variety of ways to engage the holiday in the digital world and with your friends and family. Stay tuned for the official launch in the coming weeks!