Sunday, September 04, 2016

Authentically Jewish Sources

There are many in the frum world who take it as a truism that Yiddishkeit has not and would not borrow from the cultures around it. They are dedicated to keeping out influences from the general culture, and believe that this has always been the model for authentic Judaism. Practices and narratives found in Judaism today are authentically Jewish, passed down as Torah sehl baal peh, derived exegetically from Tanach, and/or developed through the halachic process, which Hashem Himself guides through ruach hakodesh or the phenomenon of Dass Torah. Certainly we wouldn't find  within the accepted canon of the mesorah repeated by or misattributed to great rabbinic figures stories, ideas, or laws which originated in idolatrous cultures.

Or would we?

There are many examples in the gemara and midrashim of stories and ideas that are presented as authentically Jewish but almost certainly came from outside sources.

There is a midrash that visitors to Sodom would be shown to an inn and made to lay down in a bed. Those that were too tall to fit in the bed would have their legs cut off, and those that were too short would be stretched to make them fit.[1] This midrash bears a striking resemblance to a Greek myth that was in circulation as early as the 5th century BCE, centuries before the publication the Midrash Rabbah. In the myth Procrustes, a bandit, had a bed in which he made his victims lie. If the victim was too short, Procrustes stretched him until he fit. If he was too tall, Procrustes cut off his legs.[2]

In Plato's Symposium, the philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes (a Greek playwright used here by Plato as a comedic foil for the philosophers), fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.[3]

Compare that to this midrash about Adam HaRishon:
Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos. Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it says And He took from his sides, as it says, And to the side of the Tabernacle. R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world.[4]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it. The Symposium was written in the 4th century BCE, while the Midrash Rabah is traditionally dated to the 3rd century CE and the earliest mention of Adam as an androgynous being is in the 1st century AD pseudepigraphac The Apocalypse of Adam.[5]

The story of Yosef Moker Shabbos is a popular children's story in the frum world, and has its origin in the gemara.

Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbaths had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  told him, "Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath will consume all your property.— [So] he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, [and] a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on the Sabbath eve towards sunset. "Who will buy now?" cried they. "Go and take them to Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbaths," they were told, "as he is accustomed to buy." So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls  of gold denarii. A certain old man met him [and] said, "He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him."[6]

This story is also strikingly similar to a Greek story, this one related by Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BCE (about a thousand years before the gemara was compiled) and is the earliest historian whose writings we still have. He writes about Polycrates, who ruled Samos in the 6th century BCE. Amasis, the king of Egypt, sent Polycrates a letter telling Polycrates that he was worried that Polycrates' steady good fortune would turn to misfortune. To forestall this, Amasis urged  Polycrates to choose the thing most precious to him and throw it away. Losing that object would forestall an unexpected, perhaps greater misfortune.

Polycrates thought that his ally Amasis had a good point, so after much thought he chose his bejeweled signet ring and threw it into the sea. He then returned home and grieved his loss. A few days later, a fisherman caught a fish so large that he thought it only fitting that he present it to the king as a gift. When Polycrates' cooks cut up the fish, they found his signet ring inside and brought it to him.[7]

The gemara tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.[8]

In his War of the Jews (written in the 1st century AD), Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.[9]

As if these weren't bad enough for the idea that Judaism is a closed system, it's accepted religious texts free of the taint of non-Jewish or Jewish but insufficiently religious influences, there is evidence of such influences within Tanach.

In Exodus 21:28-32 we are instructed,
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. If ransom is laid upon him, he must pay whatever is laid upon him to redeem his life. So, too, if it gores a minor, male or female, the owner shall be dealt with according to the same rule. But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.

This is similar in both structure and ruling to the  Laws of Hammurabi, even quoting the same figure of twenty shekels. The Laws of Hammurabi date from the 18th century BCE, four hundred years before the traditional date of matan Torah in the 14th century BCE and several centuries before the earliest date given by biblical scholars for the composition of the Covenant Code, of which the above passage is a part. Hammurabi reads,

If an ox gores a man while it is passing through the street, that case has no basis for a claim. (251) If a man's ox is a known gorer, and the authorities of his city quarter notify him that it is a known gorer, but he does not blunt its horns or control his ox, and that ox gores to death a member of the upper class, he [the owner] shall give thirty shekels of silver. (252) If it is a man's slave [who is fatally gored], he shall give twenty shekels of silver.[10]

Not only passages, but entire sections of Tanach mirror non-Jewish sources.

The Israelites viewed their relationship with God as a bris, a covenant. There were two types of covenants common in the Ancient Near East. In a covenant of grant, one party promised unconditionally to protect the other. In a suzerainty treaty, the stronger party promised protection in return for tribute. A number of the polemics of the neviim show that many of the Israelites thought of their relationship with God as a covenant of grant, where God would protect them no matter what. Neviim such as Amos thought it was a suzerainty treaty, and inveighed against the people's lapses in holding up their end. [11]

The latter view became dominant, and apparently influenced the writers of Sefer Devarim. Biblical scholars have noted that the structure of Deuteronomy has striking similarities to the structures of 2nd-millennium BCE Hittite treaties and 7th-century BCE Assyrian treaties. Both the treaties and Deuteronomy are composed of the following elements: "preamble, historical prologue, treaty stipulations, provisions for deposit in the temple and periodic readings, witnesses, and curses and blessings." Where the treaties were between the king of the dominant empire and the vassal state, Deuteronomy has God as the overlord instead of the king and the Israelites as the vassal state.

The curses which threaten the vassal in the Assyrian treaties and the Israelites in Deuteronomy are nearly identical. Deuteronomy 28:23 threatens that should the Jewish people not obey God, "The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron." Compare this with a standard curse found in Assyrian treaties, "May they [the gods] make your ground like iron so that no one can plough it. Just as rain does not fall from a brazen heaven, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and pastures."[12],[13]

The entire structure of Sefer Devarim, then, is a theologized version of Ancient Near Eastern treaty documents.

It seems that not only has Judaism been influenced by outside cultures, those influences are deeply embedded within Judaism's canonical texts and traditions. Stories and ideas are quoted by and misattributed to respected religious figures, and even the way in which foundational religious ideas are expressed is shaped by the time and place from which those ideas come. 

For some, the fact that Judaism has integrated outside influences won't be surprising or even particularly noteworthy. Jewish people live in the world, and the world influences us. So what? The important thing is fidelity to Judaism as it has developed. Orthodoxy may not be a pure expression of exclusively authentic Jewish ideas, and we may have to recognize that the choice by other versions of Judaism to incorporate ideas that originated outside of Judaism doesn't make them inauthentic. But Orthodoxy is a version of Judaism, and placing it on par with other versions doesn't diminish its value.

For others, though, it may be startling to realize that what they thought was exclusively and authentically Jewish, passed down and developed within the mesorah and uninfluenced by outside sources, is in fact riddled with stories, ideas, practices, and laws shaped by or lifted from the cultures in which Jewish people have found themselves living.

I'm compiling a list of these sorts of things. If anyone knows of others or of books or other resources on the subject, I'd be grateful if you could point me in their direction. In particular, I'm looking for modern instances of this sort of thing, stories in circulation in the frum world that have their origins in novels or are misattributions of historical events that happened to non-frum people to prominent rabbinic figures.

[1] Book of Jasher 19:3-5. (1613). Retrieved from
[2] Encyclopædia Britannica. Procrustes. Retrieved from
[3] Collected Works of Plato. (1953). Aristophanes's Speech from Plato's Symposium. Retrieved from
[4] Leviticus Rabbah 12:2
[5] The Apocalypse of Adam. Retrieved from
[6] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119a
[7] Mroford, M.P.O, Lenardon, R.J., & Sham, M. (2010). Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
[8] Gittin 56a-b
[9] Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book III, Chapter 7 Retrieved from
[10] Comparison of Exodus and the Laws of Hammurabi from Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 69-70
[11] Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 155
[12] Assyrian Vassal treaties of Esarhaddon 528-31
[13] Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 91

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