I knew about some of the things that Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky discusses in Aphrodite and the Rabbis from previous reading. I even reviewed Sefer HaRazim , which Visotzky mentioned a number of times in his book, on this blog here. Sefer HaRazim contains references to Greco-Roman deities, Pagan types of magic and theology that could only come from Pagan sources. I also knew about Pagan images in ancient synagogues. This review will contain the points raised in Aphrodite and the Rabbis that surprised me most.
Contemporary Jews know that we have historically been a matrilineal
culture. I was amazed to learn from Visotzky that Jews used to be
patrilineal until the Roman period. He thinks that the reason was that
Romans changed their law regarding children born outside of wedlock.
They decided that such children would be viewed as having descended from
their mothers. Why was this Roman legal change so significant for
Jews? I think this implies that there was a massive and truly horrific
problem during the Roman period of Jewish women being raped by Roman
soldiers. The Rabbis must have decided not to abandon these women and
their children. In a patrilineal descent community, they would be
outcasts. If Jews became matrilineal, their community could still
embrace them. It was a compassionate decision that causes me to think
much more highly of Roman era Rabbis.
I had been taught that synagogues didn't exist until after the destruction of Herod's Temple because Jewish practices were completely centered on the temple in Jerusalem. Visotzky informs his readers that in the period before the destruction of the second Jewish temple, there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem alone. Why were they built? They apparently had a number of purposes. I thought that I would mention two of them. They provided Jewish ritual baths and they provided rooms for travelers arriving in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, so they wouldn't need to violate the Sabbath by continuing their travels. The Sabbath is a day of rest, so this is an important function that is not usually associated with synagogues in the modern world.
I knew that many Jews in the Roman period didn't speak Hebrew, but I thought it was because the language of the majority of Jews was Aramaic. Apparently, Aramaic was the language of village Jews, but the language of the urban sophisticates was Greek. Visotzky tells us that in the Talmud, Rabbi Levi wanted the Jews of Caesarea to stop reciting the Shema in Greek. The Shema is the most essential Jewish prayer. It is a statement of monotheism like the Islamic Shahada. Rabbi Yose responded that if the Jews of Casearea didn't recite the Shema in Greek, they couldn't recite it at all. They knew no other language. That amazed me. I've always thought that urban people in the ancient world were cosmopolitan and multi-lingual. Apparently not.
I liked Visotzky's conclusion that the syncretism in Roman era synagogues such as the numerous zodiac mosaics, validates Reform Judaism which interprets Judaism through the lens of the surrounding culture. This was apparently the same choice that Roman Jews made. So Jewish history has repeated itself . Perhaps the central theme of Visotzky's book is that there are more continuities between ancient and modern Judaism than his readers might have thought.