Not about Bibi. Or Is It?

This is not about Bibi, or what he wants to tell the world.

This is about the world, one ancient segment of it, and what that world might still have to tell us.

Late antiquity was, in many ways, an era in search of it knew not what. This may not be obvious to those who consider history a “retrodictive” affair, predicting the past – “If that’s the way it turned out, then that’s the way it had to be.” Not so. The seven or so centuries between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of institutional Christianity may, of course, be seen as chaos cum preparation for European Christendom. Retrodictively, it was.

But it was also an era much like today.

Disgusted and afraid, and looking for answers within and beyond.

Politically, the era was barren. Spiritually, it was lively and diverse. The Hellenistic centuries are often depicted as rampant polytheistic chaos. It wasn’t that simple. The Greek pantheon was mobile: Zeus equals Jupiter, etc. The era also witnessed the importation of many eastern deities. But there was also a great die-off of the older, localized gods and goddesses, and the idea (originally Egyptian?) took hold that, somehow, in the end we were all talking about the same thing.

Monotheism. Something first and final.

So this was the era – cynical, corrupt, ever more impoverished and oppressive for most – in which the Jews encountered the Greeks.

But the Pharisees and rabbis, the sages, didn’t argue with Socrates and Plato. They took on their successors: pagan thinkers trying to find ways to cope with what the world had become. The Jewish sages despised the Epicureans most zestfully, for there was a fundamental disagreement between them. The Epicureans held that reality consisted merely of atoms bouncing around in empty space and if there were gods, they had to be unaware of human existence, since awareness would disturb their serenity. Even today, “Epicurean” serves as a Hebrew word for “heretic,” itself a word of Greek extraction, meaning “choice.”

The rabbis and sages weren’t interested in choice. From Ezra and Nehemiah on, they opted for a willful national separation that specialized in the hyper-regulation of Jewish belief and life, an option that has continued ever since. Legitimate argument was confined to the details. The British Judeophile historian Paul Johnson has aptly called this arrangement “totalitarian.”

But the Epicureans and Neo-Platonists – give thanks that Philo of Alexandria didn’t live in the Age of the Blogosphere – and the Cynics and the Skeptics and the mystery cults and the rest, were not the only choices available. While the Jews settled into sacralized self-isolation and covenantal obedience, the Stoics took another route entirely. In essence, this most popular of late antiquity’s philosophies, said to each individual, “You’re on your own. But you also live in the world. Now choose.”

Stoicism, as developed from Zeno, son of Menaeus (Menachem?) through the Greek slave, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was a monotheistic, pantheistic creed. Whether this first and final deity, called by many names, and that deity’s lesser manifestations, intervened in human affairs or prescribed human conduct, was left vague, certainly by Jewish standards. The only certainty was that each human being contained a spark of the divine reason, and that living in accordance with reason was both the proper human way and what the deities, whomever they might be, wanted of humanity.

Stoic reason holds that only our will, our soul, our bit of the divine, is truly ours. All else is, in Stoic terminology, “indifferent.” But since we live in the world and have our obligations and responsibilities, some indifferents are to be preferred to others.

What’s the hierarchy of preference? You choose. As Epictetus put it, “Whatever seems to you to be the best, let it be to you an inviolable law.”

Hardly something institutional Judaism could embrace. And as near as I can tell (I’m no scholar here and may well be wrong), the rabbinic response was to ignore the Stoa entirely. They’re doing it still.

Now, what does this have to do with anything?

Perhaps just this.

As an institutional faith, Judaism now consists largely of a small closed Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy, of which most of us know little, save for the totalitarian aspects and the horror stories of corruption, depravity, abuse. The rest, especially in the United States, consists mostly of a declining population of Jews of varying flavors, from mere cultural (gastronomical?) affinity to a saccharine Reform that too often smacks more of recreational liberalism than serious commitment.

As for Israel . . .

Few of us doubt that Israel must continue to exist; if we do, there’s always the daily news to remind us of why. But secular Zionist ideals have, by and large, evanesced. And, sad to relate, these ideals have not been replaced by standards of insight and conduct appropriate to the situation and the age now upon us.

During the Hellenistic centuries, the world first cultivated its special hatred for the Jews. Not because the Jewish nation participated fully in that world, but because they did not. Ironically, the long centuries of Christian oppression and enforced isolation began with the pagan reaction to endless Jewish demands for special treatment in the world, coupled with a sense of superiority that the pagan world found in some ways fascinating, in other ways, ridiculous.

So in the end, perhaps this is what being a Nu? Jew is about. Coming to terms, at last, with the wisdom of the Greeks, in this late antiquity of our own.

What to do?

You choose.

Now to go find out how Bibi’s sermon went.

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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