It has long been argued that Judaism and Hellenism have been two mutually exclusive modes of thinking, but Jenny Labendz’s book adds to the growing weight of literature challenging this point. Emerging Rabbinic Judaism engaged with the philosophical methods of debate common in the Greco-Roman world, and were often more indebted to them than is usually supposed.
Labendz’s book identifies a new sub-genre in rabbinic literature: rabbinic dialogue with a non-Jew and provides a comparison of rabbinic texts to Plato’s texts and to New Testament texts. She investigates rabbinic self-perception and self-fashioning within the non-Jewish social and intellectual world of antique Palestine, showing how the rabbis drew on Hellenistic and Roman concepts for Torah study and answering a fundamental question: was rabbinic participation in Greco-Roman society a begrudging concession or a principled choice? [OUP review]
As Labendz demonstrates, Torah study was an intellectual arena in which rabbis were extremely unlikely to look beyond their private domain. Yet despite the highly internal and self-referential nature of rabbinic Torah study, some rabbis believed that the involvement of non-Jews in rabbinic intellectual culture enriched the rabbis’ own learning and teaching. Labendz identifies a sub-genre of rabbinic texts that she terms <“Socratic Torah,>” which portrays rabbis engaging in productive dialogue with non-Jews about biblical and rabbinic law and narrative.
In these texts, rabbinic epistemology expands to include reliance not only upon Scripture and rabbinic tradition, but upon intuitions and life experiences common to Jews and non-Jews. While most scholarly readings of rabbinic dialogues with non-Jews have focused on the polemical, hostile, or anxiety-ridden nature of the interactions, Socratic Torah reveals that the presence of non-Jews was at times a welcome opportunity for the rabbis to think and speak differently about Torah.
Labendz contextualizes her explication of Socratic Torah within rabbinic literature at large, including other passages and statements about non-Jews as well as general intellectual trends in rabbinic literature, and also within cognate literatures, including Plato’s dialogues, Jewish texts of the Second Temple period, and the New Testament. While she focuses on non-Jews in the Palestinian Talmud and midrashim, the book includes chapters on the Babylonian Talmud and on the liminal figures of minim [heretics – possibly Jewish believers in Yeshua] and Matrona. The passages that make up the sub-genre of Socratic Torah serve as the entryway for a much broader understanding of rabbinic literature and rabbinic intellectual culture.
Prayer: All truth is God’s truth (Holm) and Maimonides advised “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”
Lord – help us to know you as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Help us to recognize your truth as revealed in your living Word, the Messiah, your written Word, and your preached Word. Help us also to recognize your truth in all natural and human wisdom, including the wisdom and revelation in other cultures, philosophies and religious traditions. Help us not to denigrate the faith and wisdom of others, but rather see how all truth will be reconciled in your Son, our Messiah, Yeshua. Amen.
Readership: Students and scholars of rabbinic history, late antiquity, Judaism
See also Miriam Leonard’s
Socrates and the Jews
HELLENISM AND HEBRAISM FROM MOSES MENDELSSOHN TO SIGMUND FREUD
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Asked by the early Christian Tertullian, the question was vigorously debated in the nineteenth century. While classics dominated the intellectual life of Europe, Christianity still prevailed and conflicts raged between the religious and the secular. Taking on the question of how the glories of the classical world could be reconciled with the Bible, Socrates and the Jewsexplains how Judaism played a vital role in defining modern philhellenism.