The Anxiety of Influence

Originally posted on

Last week, Kung Fu Jew’s post about multifaith families stirred up a lot of activity in the comments section. KFJ ended his post soliciting for other posts from intermarried Jews and products of intermarried Jews. I am neither. And, in fact, as a product of the Conservative Movement’s indoctrination program youth group, I entered adulthood believing that intermarriage was the worst sin one could possibly commit.

A couple of things happened to change my point of view. A big factor, naturally, was experience. I saw my friends who came from intermarried families grow into Jewishly committed adults. I saw my cousins figure out how they could create authentic Jewish identities for their children in partnership with their non-Jewish spouses. I got involved in Jewish education and met hundreds of families doing the same thing. And I heard from dozens of people with multifaith backgrounds about how the hardest part of Judaism was getting in the door, even when they desperately wanted to. I started to think that maybe if we weren’t so busy building up the fences around who gets to learn and practice, we might notice a whole lot of people anxious to get in. (And this year, I was pleased when my Federation published a study that implied just that.)

In truth, dayeinu, that would have been enough. But as I myself have continued to study and learn about the development of Judaism through history, I’ve learned that this whole business of tightening our borders has changed quite a bit over time. And when the discussion around KFJ’s post started getting into a fight over what kind of “influence” non-Jewish religions might have on Judaism, should (or shouldn’t) have on Judaism, I felt like a big piece of the story was being ignored, namely the influences that other religions and cultures have already had on Judaism over the last couple of millennia.

Before I get too deep into this, I have to acknowledge that the subject of influence is sticky. My own thinking is itself influenced by Michael Satlow, with whom I had the pleasure of studying last year. One of Prof. Satlow’s mantras in our class was that “influence” is a problematic term to describe cultural interaction. To wit: the Hasmoneans, upon taking power in Jerusalem, structured their government as a polis, a Greek-style city-state. While one might say that these Jewish leaders were influenced by their Greek surroundings, others might say that they simply structured the government according to their time and place. Since they themselves were as much a part of their time and place and the Greeks were, it doesn’t quite qualify as influence because the Jews weren’t outside of the cultural landscape that gave rise to their governmental structure, they were part of it.

Still with me?

Personally, while I understand Satlow’s hesitation around influence, I don’t entirely subscribe to it. Shaye Cohen’s Forward article about the Hasmoneans nicely demonstrates why with its recounting of the creation of the holiday of Hanukkah itself:

…the twin ideas that an assembly of the people has the power to institute an annual festival, and the idea that an annual festival is an appropriate way to mark a great victory, are ideas that came to the Hasmoneans from Greek culture. This is how the Greeks celebrated their great victory over the Persians in 479 B.C.E.; they instituted an annual festival at Delphi.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the irony here, given how Hanukkah is generally talked about today.

Call it influence, call it cultural exchange, call it (as Shaye Cohen does) enrichment of Judaism, whatever you call it, it’s not limited to the Hasmoneans.


Judaism’s enrichment from non-Jewish sources certainly goes back much farther than the modern concept of “Judaism” as a religion does. Early Israelite religion shared much in common with the pagan beliefs of the Israelite’s neighbors and forebears. I’m guessing that many readers of this blog are familiar with elements in our Bible and liturgy that reflect our evolving understanding of God My favorites include:

* Psalm 29 (Havu ladonai), which portrays God as a primordial storm god

* The song at the sea (Exodus 15), which portrays God as a divine warrior, defeating the gods of the Egyptians, nicely summed up in the quotable line mi camocha ba-eilim, adonai? — Who is like you among the gods, Adonai?

* El, one of the names applied to God in the Tanakh, was the father of the Canaanite pantheon. If you’re interested in this one, Ronald S. Hendel writes about the parallels in his essay “Israel Among the Nations” in David Biale’s Cultures of the Jews

But no one really expects a new religion to be created from scratch, so let’s not dwell on this earliest era of Israelite history.

It’s tempting to point at parshat Yitro and the introduction of communal lay leadership as a contribution from Yitro’s Midianite culture, but the Bible isn’t history and I’d like to stick to history.

When Greek culture spread across Alexander’s empire, new ideas were introduced to many of the people the Greeks conquered, and the Israelites were no exception. Aristobolus was the first Jew to take up philosophy, and Philo got so good at it he became a somewhat reluctant community leader… where would Maimonides be had we not adopted this Greek way of looking at our texts?

Satlow (in his book Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice) notes:

…the cultural context of the Hellenistic world decisively shapes all Judaisms of the period. This shaping occurs not only on the relatively superficial level of concepts and terms but also at the more fundamental level of the way that the Torah, like Homer and Plato, are placed at the canonical center of a culture. (pg. 100)

He’s not saying that the Torah wouldn’t be important without our encounter with Greek culture… he goes on to say, “Outside the land of Israel, Jews primarily saw the Torah, typically in its Septuagint version, as a kind of legal constitution.” So within the land of Israel, we get what might be thought of as an early Kaplan view of the Torah as the centerpiece of Jewish cultural civilization; outside Israel but still within the Greek empire, we have the Torah as a constitution, just as each polis had its own constitution. It’s interesting to ponder how this might have set the scene for the eventual emergence of the Talmud, but that would be impossible to trace in any sort of objective way.

The other legacy of this period is the tightening of boundaries around “who is a Jew.” Recall that the Bible records no specific conversion rituals — not in the time of Moses, not in the time of Ruth… now, whether this proves that there were no conversion rituals or that patrilineal descent was fully accepted so non-Israelite wives did not need to convert doesn’t matter. What we do know is that when the Hasmoneans took control of Judaeah, they did what other kings of their time did and conquered other peoples and forced conversion. Eric Meyers, in his essay “Jewish Culture in Greco-Roman Palestine” (also in Cultures of the Jews) writes:

…when the Hasmonaean kings conquered other ethnic groups, such as the Edomites, and forced them to convert to jUdaism, they broadened the definition of a Judaean beyond an ethnic category: this was one stage in the transformation of “Judaeans” to “Jews.” These Jews followed a religion that a few Greek texts came to call “Judaism,” a term that was, nonetheless, relatively rare in antiquity. By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis had evolved a legal procedure for conversation from other religions to Judaism: one could become a Jew, even if one were not born one. Theis was a revolutionary development, with implications not only for Judaism but for other ancient identities as well.

So while the particular rituals of conversion may have been conceived of by Jews, the need for and idea of conversion rituals was not a uniquely internal development.

The rise of Muslim rule over Israel had its own profound effects on the development of Judaism. Satlow notes that the Muslim leadership’s need to recognize one religious authority among the Jews for political purposes lead to the ultimate success of Rabbinic Judaism over Karaite Judaism. What’s more, Islamic culture opened the door for the evolution of Rabbinic academic circles into Geonic academies. Satlow syas, “Whatever its pre-Islamic structure and organization, the geonic academies in Babylonia must be seen as developing in tandem with the emerging Islamic religious academies (pg 194).” And why is this significant?

It is clear, though, that the geonim received a version of the Talmud that more or less resembles the form and wording of the one used today. They then set to work solidifying and explicating it, carefully separating what they increasingly saw as the sacred text of the Talmud itself from their own use of and additions to that text… It is possible that despite the many differences between the two literatures, the geonim saw the Talmud as the functional equivalent of the hadith. Just as Islam had a set of extrascriptual traditions that they treated textually and to which they gave independent authority, so too the geonim began to see the Talmud as a text with its own integrity and authority.

In other words, our peculiar habit of treating the very peculiar text that is the Talmud as authoritative guide to how God wants us to live might be an idea borrowed from Islam.

Moving right along to medieval Christian Europe, we arrive at the Jews of Ashkenaz, the name adopted by the Jewish communities living in the areas rules by the German Empire, northern France, and England. This was a time of plague and martyrdom, so it’s not a surprise that many of our rituals around death and mourning originate in this period. Ivan G. Marcus writes about this period in his essays “A Jewish-Christian Symbiosis” (again in Cultures of the Jews):

The cutom of reciting annually the lists of the local righteous dead — and, later on, the anniversary of one’s parents’ deaths — is mainly derived from the Christian monastic practice of compiling and reading necrologies, lists of the dead arranged by date of death.

Marcus goes on to note that saying kaddish as a mourning rite (as opposed to a Torah-studying prayer) came into practice at this time, and that Ashkenazic Jews who lacked the martyrdom connection also instituted yahrtzeit and expanded yizkor from once-a-year on Yom Kippur to our current practice of reciting it on Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot as well.

So once again, we have some of our practices coming directly from the outside (in this cast from Christianity), and the additional, related practices developing around them.

I could go on, but it’s late, and I only have a couple of books handy, and I think the point is clear enough. Judaism has never existed in a vacuum. If we were to expunge our practices of those that came from “outside influences,” we’d be much more open to intermarriage and outsiders joining our practices, less concerned with philosophy and Talmudic halacha, and less reliant on death to get people into synagogues. Funny, when I put it that way, it doesn’t sound half bad.

Facetiousness aside, for good and for ill, Judaism has evolved to what we have today because of a history of rich interaction with many other cultures and religions. To assume that contemporary Judaism would be better off with higher walls and stricter requirements for access is to make a mistake of extreme hubris. There’s a myth that Judaism has outlasted so many other ancient civilizations because of our insularity, but history tells a different story. It is precisely because of our ability to coexist with and learn from other cultures that we are still around today.

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