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De-Greeking Judaism

In Plato’s Republic, Plato talks about the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men were flawed – even if they were. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism. This is essential because society must never be confused about what constitutes “the good.” Society must agree on a single morality scale. So role models must be perfect. Everyone must agree on the same definition of goodness.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because this is how many Jews regard our forefathers, the great figures of the Torah. Instead of reading the text as it is, and learning from the experiences – and yes, the missteps – of our forefathers, most “traditional” Jewish educators suggest that we cannot actually learn very much of anything from our forefathers, except the vaguest precepts like being hospitable to guests. And at the same time, these “traditional” Jews would shy away, without explanation, from explicitly emulating our forefathers. Nobody would suggest that we can deceive our father or marry two sisters because Yaakov did, or that it is a good idea to acquire wives and horses and gold like Shlomo. Instead, we are told that while the Torah tells us about these things, they are not actually meant to be understood the way they are read! In other words, G-d’s Holy Book cannot be trusted to be telling us the unvarnished truth.

But the Torah does not say this. It tells us that the Torah is within our grasp. “It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.” (Deut: 30:11) And the text does not sugarcoat our past. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all.

By accepting that our forefathers were people who we can understand and emulate, then we can learn from the full lives led by our ancestors. We can see that Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov each had their own way to approach Hashem. We can see that only one (or two) of the twelve tribes was meant to study Torah as a profession – that there are competing, and equally valid, ideals of goodness. We can see that Moshe was in fact the greatest ideal of a Baal Teshuvah, one who starts with only a bare connection to Judaism, but comes to grow toward G-d, embodying the possibilities that can be unlocked if each person is willing to turn aside to see their own burning bush, and engage in a relationship with Hashem. This is what the Torah is to us, if we read it as a document meant to teach us how to live our lives.

But that is not what we hear from a great many “traditional” educators. They might say that

Since the objective of education is character building, and since [it] has a direct impact on the young, it is necessary to institute a censorship. Thus in order to protect children from negative influences [we] do not avoid open paternalism. We cannot allow our children to be exposed to inappropriate contents.

The only problem is that this excerpt is not Jewish thought at all. It is a summary of Plato’s arguments about education! (the excerpt is paraphrased from here).

And more:

The basic principle of education, in Plato’s conception, is that the soul, like the body, can have both a healthy and unhealthy state. As with the body, this state is determined by what the soul consumes and by what it does. Education determines what images and ideas the soul consumes and what activities the soul can and cannot engage in. Since the soul is always consuming, the stimuli available in the city must be rigidly controlled. Plato compares souls to sheep, constantly grazing. If you place sheep in a field of poisoned grass, and they consume this grass little by little, they will eventually sicken and die. Similarly, if you surround a soul with unwholesome influences, then gradually the soul will take these in and sicken. For this reason, Plato does not limit himself to dictating the specific coursework that will be given to the guardians, but also dictates what will be allowed into the cultural life of the city as a whole.

Plato, of course, came after the Torah was given at Sinai. His worldview on education is not found in the Torah itself, but it certainly seems to be part of Judaism today.

Still, a traditional reader may be agitated by the above. After all, many of our classic sources suggest that we must only read the Torah in a way that is consistent with Plato’s ideals. What is actually right?

I would argue that since the Torah itself does not whitewash our forefathers, and indeed is clearly ambivalent about their actions, the ethical lessons of the Torah are meant to be learned the way they are described. Though the Torah is infinitely deep and rich, it is just as true at the surface as it is at deep mystical levels. And this is how Jews in the ancient world understood it.

But along with the passage of time came the corrupting influence of Hellenism, the Greek ideals that became so much a part of the world around us, that we started to unconsciously adopt them into our own worlds. As I have documented elsewhere, this is what happened with the dilution of wine. It happened with language, and philosophy, and culture and habit. And yes, it even crept into Jewish Law itself.

Consider, if you will, the way the Talmud treats the Greek language. Despite the fact that “all the Torah was given at Sinai,” and that we know this means that the Law is unchanging through time, the Talmud says that Greek is the most beautiful language in the world. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said:  “The sages did not permit books of scripture to be written in any foreign language other than Greek.” The Halacha is that a Torah scroll written in Greek is considered just as good as a Torah scroll written in the language used at Sinai! While the Gemara may have this position, I submit that no 21st century synagogue would read the Torah in Greek.

A proper reconsideration of Torah study would allow us to conclude that we should consider carefully whether Hellenistic – or Egyptian or American – or any other foreign influences should be allowed to get between a Jew and his pathway to a relationship with Hashem. Just as we need to be cognizant of the impact our environment has on us today, we should be willing to acknowledge the ways in which alien environments may have steered Judaism in the past away from the Torah.

And when we accept that Jewish heroes, unlike those of Plato’s fictional world, are not perfect, it becomes much easier to actually relate to those men and women in the Torah. We are all-too-flawed can relate to, and empathize with Sarah and Rachel and Moshe and David if we understand that they, too, were human and not Platonic heroes.

Comments are welcome!