Re-evaluating Rabbi Boteach’s Greeks

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s column, “Cultural Elites who Despise People of Faith” (Dec. 3) is full of inaccuracies and distortions, and his thesis so wrongheaded that the historical truth is close to the opposite of his claims.

Among the many errors I will point out but four here:

1. “The Greeks.” Here and in many columns Boteach insults and demeans a great civilization that he understands little about. If anyone caricatured “the Jews” the way Boteach caricatures “the Greeks” we would be screaming about anti-Semitic stereotypes. Whatever the faults of “the Greeks,” they gave us reason, logic, mathematics, history, geography, and many other disciplines. Ironically, rabbinic Judaism is a product in no small part of Hellenistic influence. The topical organization of the Mishnah, the dialectical argumentation and abstract reasoning of the Talmud, and the culture of study and learning would not have developed without Hellenistic ways of thought. (Boteach, incidentally, mistakenly refers to the “Assyrian Greeks” when he means the “Syrian Greeks,” that is, the Seleucid dynasty.)

2. “The Greeks similarly looked at philosophy as being essential while theology was not. Theater was essential. Religious celebrations were not.” Not one word of this grandiose pontification is true. Philosophy was confined to a small elite among Greek intellectuals, and philosophers often faced hostility because their ideas conflicted with Greek religion (Boteach’s “theology”). Socrates, for example, was put to death for “impiety” and religious offenses. Greek tragedy and comedy (“theater”) were religious celebrations, performed in the context of the religious festival of the god Dionysus, and the subject of many tragedies are legends about gods and demigods. For the Greeks, as for all ancient peoples, religious celebrations were essential to maintaining good order and the gods’ favor. Here and elsewhere Boteach erroneously imagines “the Greeks” as twentieth-century secular atheists.

3. “Why do doctors search for cures for disease when perhaps they cannot be conquered? Because it has been foretold. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Zechariah—all of whom the Greeks tried to suppress—dreamed nearly three millennia ago that pandemics—along with war and murder—will one day be banished from earth.” This has to be among the silliest passages ever printed in the Jewish Standard, as well featuring the most awkward writing with non-sequiturs and tortured syntax. Does Boteach believe doctors should not search for cures for diseases because in some cases they may fail? So we should abandon all cancer research because of prophecies from 3,000 years ago? Was it a mistake to invent vaccines for smallpox, measles, mumps, polio, and other diseases, vaccines that have saved the lives of millions of people? What does the vision of the prophets of a messianic era free of pandemics have to do with ensuring our health for the time being? And what does the purported Greek suppression of these books, of which there is absolutely no historical evidence, have to do with medical research?

4. “It’s time we grabbed the mantle of the Maccabees and pushed for a society where a tolerant and open-hearted religion is respected, promoted, and embraced.” This distorted view of the “Maccabees” (technically, the Hasmoneans) gets to the crux of Boteach’s thesis. His main claim is that secular culture, with its scientists and atheistic politicians, is intolerant of faith today, just as “the Greeks” were intolerant of Judaism, as opposed to the tolerant Maccabees. The “Greeks” in fact were remarkably tolerant of Judaism, which thrived throughout the Hellenistic era (312 BCE – 63 CE). Polytheistic religions tend to be tolerant, as you can generally add another god to the pantheon (though there were exceptions). The persecutions that precipitated the Hasmonean revolt were an anomaly in this long historical span, and they are poorly understood by scholars to this day. (One theory suggests they came at the behest of a Hellenizing, assimilationist Jewish elite.) The Hasmoneans, in any case, were hardly models of tolerance: Mattathias kicked off the revolt, according to I Maccabees, by killing a Jew participating in a pagan sacrifice, and subsequently he and his supporters “struck down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath…they went around and tore down the altars; they forcible circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found with the borders of Israel” (I Macc 2:44-46).

It is great that Boteach idealizes religious tolerance, but this ideal comes to us from the secular philosophers of the Enlightenment who rebelled against Christian intolerance in the 18th century and advocated a secular society with freedom of religion. Boteach, in other words, has his history totally backward. The monotheistic tradition, with the belief in one God and typically one correct way of worship, tends to be intolerant. That is why Jews in the Middle Ages and until the Enlightenment suffered a great deal more under Christian and Islamic empires than under Boteach’s “Greeks.” Judaism itself could not be intolerant in the same way, as Jews lacked coercive power until the rise of the State of Israel, though traditional rabbis’ attacks on liberal and reform Judaism in the 19th century did not display much tolerance. And the chief rabbinate in Israel today is intolerant toward all non-Orthodox forms of Judaism; toward egalitarian worship at the Western Wall; toward non-Orthodox marriages, divorces, conversions, kashrut, and so on. These rabbis are the true heirs of the Maccabees, for better or for worse.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein

Dr. Rubenstein is Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at New York University. He is the author of “Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture” (1999); “The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud” (2003); “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings” (2017), and other books and articles on the Talmud, ancient Judaism, and Jewish ethics and liturgy.

Don’t attack Trump

I read with surprise the Opinion article by Max L. Kleinman, “Fabricating facts to fit your narrative”, December 3, 2021. Surprising because the article was well written concerning how reporters have changed their reporting from objective to subjective facts. Surprise, until about 2/3 into the article when he reverts to his mantra attacks on former President Trump, end of surprise.

Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts present his opinions on current events. One can assume what will be contained within his series on the events of January 6, in and around the Capitol Building, by referring to previous reporting contained within his programs. One can assume that Mr. Kleinman has “fabricated facts” to push his bias within the paragraph containing his opinion concerning Trump. We read about, “government officials or agents acting on their behalf (of the rioters)”. A fabricated fact? Were they acting on their behalf or acting as “agent provocateurs” to further soil those inside the Capitol? No where within this section of his article is there a condemnation of the distorted and dishonest “reporting” in the main stream media surrounding what exactly went on, on January 6. Fabricating facts is not limited to those presented, it can also refer to the facts not reported or distorted.

In the next paragraph he writes that Mr. Rittenhouse wielded a rifle “in the midst of rioting”. True, but he had the rifle because he was invited to protect private property from the rioters and arsonists. Omitted fact?

Mr. Kleinman’s article would have been much better if he didn’t allow his bias to intrude.

A better slogan for a resurrected Herald Tribune, “All the Truthful News”.

Howard J. Cohn
New Milford