When Torah met Sofia

Judaism and Hellenism: A Case Study Of Sorts

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Today, we’re going to talk about cultural clashes and worldview shifts—and see how going deep can sometimes show us whole galaxies of movement.

So this is about the Hellenization of Judaism.

Or, rather, one of the Hellenizations.

(Hellenization is the spread of Greek culture, language, etc. in the wake of Alex the Great’s conquests of… well, all that 👇.)

Map of Alexander the Great's empire, from Macedonia/Greece down to Egypt, and basically over to part of India

A lot happened over the 168 years between Alexander the Great's taking of Judea in 332 BCE and the end of the Maccabean Revolution in 164 BCE.

Like—168 years ago, the US Civil War was yet to happen, colonialist/Imperialist Queen Victoria was on the throne engaging in opium wars, and Whitman had just published Leaves of Grass. A few things have happened since then?

While it has been argued that life in "ancient time" didn’t change as rapidly as it does now (likely true), the Greek influence on Judaism was so significant that one definition really can’t do justice to the many, many differences in thought that took place between the beginning of this period to its end.

Instead, we could talk, perhaps, about Hellenisms, many different ways in which Jews appropriated, integrated, struggled with, reacted against Greek culture.

We certainly can’t cover them all today; instead, I’ll focus in on one text in particular that can show us one piece of the thing, in any case.

As it happens, it’s an interesting one.

Mosaic fragment with a masc person playing lyre, the word "David" in Hebrew, pretty mosiac decor
King David as Orpheus (which is clear by his pose, clothing, other markers) on a synagogue floor in what’s now Gaza, 508 CE. It says “David” in the Hebrew. Lotta different ways the Jews met the Greeks, is what I’m saying.

Setting the scene: Around 200 BCE, few Judeans had more than a superficial understanding of Torah. It was only taught in any formal sense to the heirs of the priestly caste, and they concerned themselves primarily with sacrificial ritual. Laypeople were expected to know only the Shema, a list of curses and blessings, and a few stories.  Other practices, such as kashrut and Shabbat observance, were generally learned through practice in the home and the streets.

So while Torah law provided structure to daily life in Judean culture, it was learned by most in an anecdotal, rather than formal, sense.

The influx of Greek culture from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BCE changed the Judean's relationship to non-Jewish education. The verb, hellenizein, translates as "to speak and write correctly", and Jews who strove for upward mobility in this society not only mastered the language, but often adopted  Greek nomos (precepts) and took a position in the Greek bureaucracy.

Some Hellenizing Jews also sent their sons to obtain paideia, or Greek education. There, they were there schooled in the Homeric classics and taught the critical thinking skills required to pursue sofia: Greek wisdom.

So central was mental exercise to the Greek value system that a character in an Attic (Athens region) play was moved to proclaim, "the Intellect is God in every one of us." While Greek thought did not eradicate the Judean's relationship with the Torah, it did provide a salient cultural backdrop for engaging with it.

There’s this text known as The Wisdom of Ben Sira which is thought to have been written between 196 BCE and 175 BCE.1

Ben Sira isn’t canonical to Jews; it’s considered part of the apocrypha (Sefarim HaHizonim: "the external books"—not accepted as a sacred manuscript when the Hebrew Bible was canonized.)2 But it’s still an ancient text that can tell us things. And, therefore, we are interested!!

It opens,

All wisdom is from God, and is with God forever. The sands of the seas, the drops of rain, and the days of eternity, who can count them? The height of the sky, the breadth of the earth, and the depth of the abyss, who can estimate? But exceeding the scope of these is wisdom, and truth is broader still. (Ben Sira 1:1-4)

(I just met a girl named Sofia/and suddenly that name/will never be the same/to meeeee)

(But of course the word used here is hochma, wisdom in Hebrew.)

Mss of Ben Sira
An 11th century fragment from the book of Ben Sira found in the Cairo Geniza

You see what’s happening, right? It’s taking this Greek concept (wisdom/sofia) and situating it into the Jewish framework. Fusion philosophy happening in real time.

Here, the Torah is the source of absolute wisdom—rather than whatever’s happening at the Hellenistic academy— Ben Sira asserts that the study of its words ought be a full-time activity for anyone who has the means to devote themselves fully to it.  This divine knowledge, he writes, can best be pursued at the feet of a sagacious teacher, in the company of the intelligent, and through the practice of conversation and debate.

Two major schools of Hellenistic philosophy say very similar things: the pursuit of knowledge is not to be taken lightly; it requires much time and concentration.  The Epicurean Diogenes Laertius asserts that "basic education is a form of pastime"; Cicero speaks as a Stoic when he notes that wisdom is "rather like the craft of acting or dancing" in that he who seeks knowledge must live "in a certain definite manner" centered around his pursuit.

Ben Sira puts it this way:

Child, from your youth acquire learning, and until gray hairs reach for wisdom. As one that plows and as one that reaps approaches her [wisdom]; And wait for the abundance of her increase. (Ben Sira 6:18-19)

Advising his audience to give to the poor (7:32), he reveals that his encoded reader is from the upper class—like the Greek philosopher, Sira's seeker of wisdom must have the time and the means to devote to thinking, rather than toiling for bread.

As Judean olives, figs and grapes became incorporated into Ptolemaic trade, a culture of  Jewish wealth and business developed and likely afforded more men the financial freedom to spend their days in scholarly pursuit.  Ben Sira's emphasis on wisdom as craft may have sprung not only from the Greek model of the professional philosopher, but also from the leisure time permitted in profitable Judean families. (Obviously, this as a model has serious limits, since wisdom shouldn’t be available only to the wealthy elites.)

a pile of green and black olives sitting on top of each other
Olives that enabled some lucky Judean merchant the chance to study Torah. Also: Pretty. Also: Yum.

How does one become wise?

Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Stoics, devotes five pages to listing the teachers and the students of his philosophical school.  Most of the relationships he describes develop as a mentee learns about a thinker's reputation for intellectual prowess, chooses to follow and learn from him, and eventually becoming capable of serving as a mentor for others.

This is very much the route which Ben Sira advocates for his readers.

If thou are wishful to hear and incline your ear, you shalt be instructed. See who has understanding, and seek him early..And let your mind be upon the awe of the Most High; And meditate in God’s commandments continually. And God shall make your heart discerning; And make you wise as you desire.  (Ben Sira 6:33-37, excerpted)

He advises that the reader's "conversation be with intelligent people" (9:15), that they listen to the words of their elders, for "from them you learn how to understand" (8:9), and even offers himself up as a mentor:

Turn to me…and lodge in my house of learning. How long will you lack these things, And your soul be very thirsty? (51:23-22)

Note the phrase he uses in the Hebrew for “house of learning.” בְּבֵית מִדְרָשִׁי Beit Midrash.3

It’s the same word that the Rabbis will use, themselves, for their own places of learning for centuries.

It’s the same word Jews use for our places of Torah study today.

The Greeks have been long known for their style of teaching, through dialogue.  Socrates will likely always be the most famous; Plato recorded many conversations in which the former, through astute questioning, shifted his interlocutor's position into agreement with his own.  This legacy was central to Hellenistic Greek thought.  Diogenes Laertius probably best summarizes the prevalent attitude in his assertion that "everything is seen through consideration of it in arguments."

Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens, with the closeup of Plato and Aristotle in dialogue
Detail of Raphael’s 1511 painting The School of Athens, with Plato (modeled by DaVinci, heh) and Aristotle in dialogue (Plato pointing up—timelessness—and Aristotle to the physical realm of now) in the center.

Ben Sira again echoes these sentiments when he instructs his readers to

"examine first, and then criticize. Do not answer before you listen, and do not interrupt when another is speaking." (Ben Sira 11:7-8)

He encourages intellectual dinner conversation (9:16) and emphasizes that "wisdom becomes known/ through speech." (4:24)

Like the Greeks, he maintains that the pursuit of knowledge is a full-time craft which is best approached as the disciple of the wise, through discussion and examination of the issues at hand.

We have a picture of the Greek tradition, we have a book of the Apocrypha.

We have a Greco-Judean backdrop against which Ben Sira was writing.

That so many of his ideas sound Greek could be merely a coincidence; I have neither knowledge that he read Epicurean and Stoic doctrines nor hard evidence that those ideas had filtered into his cultural consciousness more indirectly.

Yet these pieces seem to fit together.

So if we decide to go down this road, we have to ask:

  • Is Ben Sira's doctrine merely a way for Jews to ape their Greek conquerors?
  • Is he so assimilationist that he wishes not only for his Judean readers to take on the Greek nomos, but the Greek philosophical tradition as well?
  • Is this Jewish Hellenism merely the unthinking appropriation of Stoic and Epicurean ideals?

When we look closer, the answer reveals itself clearly:

Of course not.

Ben Sira's quest had a direct focus, for

"to have awe for God is the beginning of wisdom.... To have awe for God is the fullness of wisdom."  (Ben Sira 1: 14-16)4

His wisdom implores the reader to follow God to be righteous, and then he tells us,

"this is in the book of the covenant of the Most High God/ the law that Moses commanded us." (Ben Sira 24:23)

The one who seeks wisdom will attain the ultimate joy; the one who reads Torah finds wisdom. The one who has awe of God gains both.

It is here, with the true nature of wisdom itself, where Ben Sira breaks with the Greek philosophers.

For the Greeks, Wisdom was a means to a good life, and revelation comes from examination of the self and of the world around them. Inquiry was limited to this plane of existence, and except for some extreme forms of Stoicism, it had no impact on one's being after death.

Ben Sira, on the other hand, asserts that "all wisdom is from God” (Ben Sira 1:1), from a higher, transcendental realm.

Wisdom is not discovered through examination of the world, it is revealed by God.  And the implications of learning essentially last forever; to those who fail to follow the Divine wisdom Ben Sira asks, "what will you do when the God’s reckoning comes?" (2:14)


A Greek cultural backdrop was crucial for the formation of Ben Sira's vision.

Certainly, he used a Greek framework to define his endeavor of study, his appreciation for mentors and his method of learning.

Yet for him, wisdom brings us to Torah, which comes from God.

We find teachers and study in the beit midrash. And the point is not just about better enjoying the fruits of this life, but our moral obligations to others and our theological imperatives.


We don’t know if Ben Sira was so impressed by the Greek's enlightened view of education that he chose to apply it to his own sacred text, or if he was so threatened by the hold which it had over his own people that he felt forced to create a Jewish space for these powerful ideas, lest he lose Judaism altogether.

His writing could also be little more than a record of ideas and practices, such as the mentor relationship, already prevalent in his culture.5

It’s also not unlikely that all of these possibilities come into play to some degree.

Like so many Jews before him, and like so many Jews after him, he may just have been looking for a way to negotiate his heritage in a changing world.

Two fem-presenting people studying in hevruta-pairs in a contemporary beit midrash/house of study
By the end of the Second Temple, the idea of studying and debating in pairs was an absolute given in Jewish life.

You might see where I’m heading, what I’m speculating about. I’m not a Second Temple scholar, I’m definitely not an early Rabbinics scholar. I do know that, obviously, the Rabbis rejected the inclusion of Ben Sira into the Hebrew Bible—while they did include Ecclesiastes/Kohelet, which is likely6 also from the Hellenistic era, and also of the “Wisdom Literature” genre. I do know that, as the traditional narrative goes, we’re supposed to look askance at the “Hellenizers.” I do know that Jewish Theological Seminary professor Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky has a book on the influence of Roman culture on the development of Rabbinic Judaism that I am eager to read, and that seems to dovetail nicely with all of this.

I don’t know if, despite whatever else, Ben Sira’s (and all of his friends’? Many others of his era’s??) revolutionary transformation of Torah as something that must be actively studied, as the source of wisdom, as a full-time pursuit, in dialogue and debate with others, and with teachers, was key in the development of a Rabbinic Judaism that took place in the beit midrash/house of study. I do not know. But, you know, maybe? Kinda smells like it a little bit, no?

And if so, it’s a little wild that our openness to learning from other ways of thinking is exactly what saved us after the destruction of the Temple.7 There’s only Judaism now because we had non-Temple-based Rabbinic Judaism already rolling. If our whole religious practice had been exclusively focused on the Temple when it was destroyed—well, there are fewer High Priest gigs these days, and I’m not sure if they offer health insurance or what.

Of course we survived because we were willing to grow.

But regardless—even if my cockamamie theory doesn’t have a basis—Ben Sira is a reminder that new ideas are not a threat to our traditions, necessarily.8

We cannot allow others’ perspectives to engulf us completely or take us away from the core of who we are—but they can help us to develop, to remind us of who we want to be, can show us new insights and lenses with which to understand the core truths that make us who we are.

We can find ways to engage with new ways of doing and being that make us more thoughtful, more holy, more connected to the divine, more committed to who we are.

We can choose to listen, and we can, with discernment, sometimes decide to take in.

And when we are able to do so while holding on to the essence of who we are, it can help us to grow, sometimes, in extraordinary ways.

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PS: I have been publishing Life is a Sacred Text pretty much twice a week for over two years. These Monday essays are, as you know, generally pretty substantial (and the Thursday conversations are too, in a different way) and I am a nerd who will rabbit hole so that you guys get thoughtful footnotes and what I think are the right images and the whole thing.  I also have… a lot of other places that I’m supposed to be in my life, and I am finding that I am not able to sustain this publishing pace any longer.

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  1. It gets that dating because it’s between the ascension of a High Priest mentioned in the document and that of a king who is omitted.We also have the writings of Hellenistic philosophers whose words frequently parallel Ben Sira's.

  2. There’s scholarly discussion about why Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) made it in and Ben Sira didn’t. It IS is accepted as part of the canon by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and most of other Orthodox Christians (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc). The Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran traditions consider Ben Sira (also called Sirach) to be apocrypha.

  3. It’s conjugated in the Hebrew; “my beit midrash/my house of study” because I copypasted it exactly from the verse.

  4. The word here is ירא/yira, which is sometimes translated as “fear,” like “fear and trembling,” or “the fear of the Lord,” or whatever. But it’s less, “yikes! a bear is running towards me!” fear than “humbled reverent awe for the Big Bigness of which I am just a teensy tiny speck.” But that’s a lot to cram into one word. So. And yes, God here is the Tetragrammaton, the most holy name of the Divine. No question that we’re dealing with the Jewish concept of deity, here.

  5. The first attempt at creating a school system—a systematic method for the next generation to learn Torah—was evidently made by Simeon ben Shetah in the earlier half of the first century B.C.E., but it wasn’t until just before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE that Yehoshua ben Gamala created something more comprehensive.(See, eg, Talmud Bava Batra 21a).

  6. Some scholars think that it might be as early as the Persian (5th-4th c. BCE) period, but the majority hold by the Hellenistic era.

  7. See again, also, Prof. Visotzky’s book on the influence of Roman culture on the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

  8. NB this does not mean cultural appropriation, kids. “Hey, this is an important value,” “Oh, an approach to learning from which we could benefit” is not the same thing as stealing other people’s rituals or liturgy, dig?


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