World of the Sages: It was Greek to me

One of the themes of Hanukka is the triumph of Jewish tradition over the invading Hellenistic culture and Greek thought.

One of the themes of Hanukka is the triumph of Jewish tradition over the invading Hellenistic culture and Greek thought. The Talmud, however, recognizes the legitimacy of gentile thought (B. Berachot 58a). Moreover, our sages prescribe a blessing that is to be recited upon encountering a wise gentile, a blessing that is not unlike the blessing to be recited over a Jewish sage. Though there is a slight difference in the wording of the two, the essence of the blessings is the same: A wise person, Jew or gentile, should be recognized and thanks should be given to the Almighty for providing the world with such wise people. In another talmudic passage we are told (B. Megilla 16a): "Whoever says a word of wisdom - even if that person is from the nations of the world - is called a wise person." Thus our tradition acknowledges that wisdom is not a uniquely Jewish domain. Nevertheless our sages do see a significant difference between our knowledge and that of the gentiles (Eicha Rabba 2:13): "If a person says to you: 'There is wisdom among the gentiles' - you should accept this statement as true. If a person says to you: 'There is Torah among the gentiles' - you should not believe this statement." Torah bespeaks our unique spiritual connection with the Almighty and as such is a province of study that is fully realized in a Jewish context. Torah study is more than an intellectual discipline; it is an enterprise that reflects our national identity. Perhaps we could even say that were gentiles to study the texts of our tradition, they would attain wisdom but not Torah. Of course recognizing the existence of wisdom among gentiles says nothing about the possibility of learning from these sources of knowledge. Indeed our sages urge us to ensconce ourselves in the primary objective - the study of Torah - and not divert our attention to external wisdom (Sifra, Aharei 13:11). This is not a dismissal of non-Jewish wisdom, rather a clear preference for the pursuit of our own sources of knowledge. It appears that substantively there is nothing wrong with gentile wisdom; its only drawback from our perspective is that it is not Torah. One rabbinic source, however, tells us of a ban against teaching youths Greek (M. Sotah 9:14). The Talmud provides the historical background of this prohibition (B. Sotah 49b and parallels): During the Hasmonean period, the two sons of King Alexander Yannai - Hyrkanus and Aristobulus - fought each other for the crown of Judea. During the battle each side sought to enlist the assistance of the Roman general Pompey. Pompey eventually assisted one side in besieging the coveted Jerusalem. During this siege a daily black market ritual occurred: The faction inside the wall would lower coins from the Temple treasury over the wall, and in exchange those outside would hoist lambs for daily communal sacrifices back over the wall. An old man within the city walls who was familiar with Greek wisdom, communicated surreptitiously with the Roman besiegers: "As long as those within the walls are engaged in Temple service, they will not be delivered into your hands." Taking stock of this intelligence information, the besiegers did not send over lambs next day. In exchange for the coins, they hoisted a pig in a ploy to foil the Divine protection granted to the besieged Jerusalemites. As the swine was lifted against its will, it stuck its hoofs into the wall and the entire Land of Israel shook. At that time it was declared: "Cursed be the person who raises pigs, and cursed be the person who will teach his son Greek wisdom!" The siege ended when the Romans entered the capital and began dominating Judea. Though the Talmud describes a specific historical episode, it would appear that the aversion to Greek was rooted in questioned loyalty. Certainly the old man, who was presumably Jewish, expressed disdain for Jewish rituals and saw no wrong in aiding the enemy to bring about the downfall of Jerusalem. Further in the passage we hear a very different beat: The nasi (literally: prince. Titular head of the Jewish community, of Davidic descent) Rabban Gamliel had a thousand youths in his household. Five hundred of them studied Torah, while 500 studied Greek wisdom. It would appear that there were two legitimate tracks of study of equal standing, at least numerically and perhaps even ideologically. This unexpected testimony is explained as an exception to the rule: Since the nasi's family was responsible for dealing with the Roman authorities, it was granted a special license to instruct its children in Greek language and wisdom. Thus it appears that the license to study Greek was granted for utilitarian purposes and restricted to those whose station and occupation might require a familiarity with the language. Despite the exception granted to the family of the nasi, the norm was to reject instructing youths in Greek. As we have seen, the rejection of Greek was not only connected to a suspicion of misguided loyalty. Our sages discouraged the study of foreign wisdom for reasons that highlight how they perceived Torah study (B. Menahot 99b. See also Y. Peah 15c). An eager student once asked his relative, the astute Rabbi Yishmael: "Am I, who have completed the entire Torah, permitted to study Greek?" The sage responded: "We are enjoined to entrench ourselves in Torah study both by day and by night (see Joshua 1:8). Go find a time that is neither day nor night and then you can study Greek!" While later authorities discuss the possibility of non-Torah-related studies, the Talmud seems to eschew foreign wisdom. A utilitarian license is acknowledged, yet this exception is limited to those serving in public office. While study of foreign culture carries a suspicion of misplaced loyalty, it would appear that this is not the primary reason for its rejection by the sages. Study of non-Jewish subjects is chiefly rejected because it forms a distraction from the holy pursuit of Torah. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.