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Shall japheth dwell in the tents of shem?: hellenisms and hebraisms in selected American Jewish literature.


There is an often emotionally charged movement in the American Jewish novel: an enduring recoil from the worship and making of literal and metaphorical idols--whether of gods, or ideologies, or cultures. Such a response illuminates either the protagonist's or writer's comportment with Judaism, certainly with its foundational texts and commentary, such as Torah and Talmud. Often, when these seminal works are mostly forgotten by Jews, an aversion to idols remains.

I propose that we look at rejections of idolatries and examine their presence in several seminal works that span some 125 years: Emma Lazarus's "Venus of the Louvre" (1884); Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf (1939); and Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000). I shall focus specifically on their presentation of the conflicts between Jerusalem and Athens: the former, a metaphor for the keeping of the Law; the latter, a metonym for the often described idolizing and idolatrous free-spirited psyche of Greece and Rome. Foundational Judaic texts such as the Mishnah's Avodah Zarah (the worship of idols, approx. 200 CE), Matthew Arnold's "Hebraism and Hellenism" in his Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Heinrich Heine's understanding of the "matter of Greece" in his reflections as well as "The Gods of Greece" (1826) provide an indispensable background.

Each of the above mentioned works by Lazarus, Steinberg, and Roth offers readers a different perspective on Hellas and Hebraism as well as dissimilar paganisms and Judaisms, suggesting the flexibility of the terms and their strategic uses. Theologically, these "cities" of Jerusalem and Athens are as distant as Scripture from sculpture; historically, they frame, for example, the Talmudic dialogue of the imagined Jew with the scoffing Hellene; aesthetically, they convey the pull of Hellenism on the Jewish protagonist (or narrator). Nevertheless, for all of the Hebraic proscriptions against the primacy and worship of other gods, and for all of the Enlightenment's fury against superstition, and for all the secularization wrought by the culture of industrialization, the spirit of Hellas and the God of Jerusalem are strikingly alive, still commanding us.

Hebraism and Hellas have always had a homeland and a habitation (both material and spiritual): witness the politics of return to a homeland on the part of Zionists and the attractiveness of a sweet Diaspora for those who have chosen to live "outside the land" of Israel in what Orthodox rabbis would see as a Hellenic culture. Although these opposing positions are large and simplified, they give American Jewish literature its paradoxically variable character and strength in exploring the nature of freedom and the Jewish self.

Nevertheless, writing between Athens and Jerusalem is not the same as writing against Jerusalem or accepting Athens. In fact, this "middle distance" characterizes the classic challenges to faith. One can enjoy both a willing suspension of disbelief and of belief. In fact, one often holds in mind multiple interpretations and perspectives, including Socratic irony as well as Talmudic disputation. For with the abandonment of Jewish foundational texts and what can be called their coherent, binding discourse that identified the Jewish community of faith as characteristically an historical people, the American Jewish writer has been immersed in literatures that seem to have erased the presence of Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud. However, the aversion to idolatry is an identifiable response; it is there; we often are averse; we have possibly forgotten our traditions.

As a result, in order to understand part of American Jewish literary history and culture, in other words, ourselves, it is worth looking at the above mentioned works by Lazarus, Steinberg, and Roth to see how American Jewish writers define and redefine the varying attitudes toward Athens and Jerusalem. For have we ever stopped asking who we and our communities are? As a textual community so variously creative, what is our foundational culture?


Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) is stringent in its prohibition of idolatry, but we should also pay attention both to the debates in Avodah Zarah about one's comportment with forms of idolatry as well as Rabbi Akiva's pronouncement in the Jerusalem Talmud's Sanhedrin (approx. sixth century CE). How should one read non-canonical works? Akiva argues that reading Homer is like reading a letter. Perhaps, we can conjecture, as a harmless pleasure; perhaps as an act in which no financial benefit is derived; certainly as an engagement with a text in which idolatry is not effaced, but our faith is not diminished, as stated in Sanhedrin, chapter 11, 90a.

Yet where are boundaries drawn? In Kehati's edition of Avodah Zarah, chapter 3, Mishnah 4 speaks, for example, about the fine lines between worship of images and the recognition of them. In the tract, Rabbi Gamliel, asked by Proclus why he was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite, replies that he did not come into her place; she came into his. Of course, going to idols is one thing; finding them in the environment (natural or political) is another (39).


Matthew Arnold's "Hebraism and Hellenism" presents the Athens and Jerusalem engraved in modern letters. His categories are less poetic than therapeutic. Arnold hoped to tie a perfection of self to a perfection of culture in an industrialized, psychologically disabling society. He posed the issue in broad, dramatic strokes. Western civilization had been marked by the contributions of Hebraism and Hellenism. Arnold presented them--at least on the surface--as responses to authority and experience. Human nature expressed both, and the two had the realization of personality as either perfection or righteousness as their goal. Yet could human nature move beyond the barriers of Hebraism and Hellenism? "The uppermost idea with Hellenism," Arnold wrote, "is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience." In one of the most memorable lines in Culture and Anarchy Arnold declared, "The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of con science" (132).

Arnold's tropes of conscience and consciousness are categories of being. Hebraism and Hellenism characterize the frailties of a modern culture that looks either to Athens or to Jerusalem for a flourishing life; in other words, to metaphorical places that were homelands themselves of the displaced spirit. For Arnold, Hebraism and Hellenism, again metonyms for a culture unable to complete itself, are the point. Judaism opposed, as much as did Hellas, the completion of human nature.'


Heine enters modern American Jewish letters through Emma Lazarus's translation of his poems and ballads, and it is because of him that Lazarus's "Venus of the Louvre" becomes yet more poignant. Lazarus's relationship to Heine was manifold. Aside from her translations of his work, her "Venus of the Louvre" served as the epigraph to her essay "Heine, the Poet" in Century Magazine, December, 1884. By virtue of influence and inspiration, Heine and Lazarus constitute a fairly modern tradition dealing with the poet who felt anguish that one had to choose giving homage to the gods or to God or to humankind. The works of both Lazarus and Heine raise the question of alliance, whether to the spirit of Hebraism or to Hellenism. Could the modern Jewish poet forsake the enchanting gods of Greece without a wistful gaze? Or, as Lazarus put it, by doing so, could the Jewish poet not suffer "Hebraic pain"?

In "Heine, the Poet," Lazarus made use of Arnold's distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism. Lazarus termed Heine "a Jew, with the mind and eyes of a Greek." The Greek Heine, "a creature of laughter and sunshine," was in "perpetual conflict" with "the somber Hebrew." She quoted Heine's apologia: "I see now that the Greeks were only beautiful youths, whilst the Jews were always men, and powerful, indomitable ... even today" (210).

Revering Heine, Lazarus visited the "Venus of the Louvre" at whose pedestal Heine had fallen. Heine explained:

It was in May, 1848, the last day I went out, that I took leave of my lovely idols whom I had worshipped in the time of my happiness. I crawled painfully as far as the Louvre, and I almost fainted away when I entered the lofty hall, where the ever-blessed Goddess of Beauty, our beloved Lady of Milo, stands upon her pedestal. I lay for a long time at her feet, and I wept so bitterly that even a stone would have pitied me. And indeed the goddess looked down upon me compassionately, yet at the same time so disconsolately, as if she would say: "Do you not see that I have no arms, and that I cannot help you." (qtd. in Lazarus, "Heine" 211)

Heine confronted Hellas in his remarkable poem, "The Gods of Greece," found in the second cycle of his "The North Sea Poems." The poem is worth looking at in relation to "Venus of the Louvre" because it informs both its sensibility and content. In Lazarus's moving translation, we have a "Full-blooming moon" providing a "daylight clearness, yet twilight enchantment." The moonlight illuminates clouds appearing as the deities of Greece, who once ruled the world with joy, but are now "supplanted and dead." Looking upon this pantheon in the heavens, the poet's gaze falls on one god and goddess after another. Aphrodite, once golden, is now silver. Appropriately, as Venus, she seems a "goddess-corpse / Venus Libitina!" the Venus of funerals and death. "For to me," Heine writes, "are the Greeks antipathetic, / And even the Romans are hateful" (266-68).

Heine's narrator is nonetheless deeply moved, and foreshadowing Nietzsche's condemnation of Christianity, he finds the Greek deities "supplanted" by "new, reigning, dolorous gods, / Mischief-plotters in the sheep's clothing of humility." Wishing to struggle for Greek gods "to shatter the new Temples," Heine also wants to sink to his knees, to supplicate them. Knowing that these ancient divinities looked with approval on those who prevail, yet were less generous than humans, Heine casts his lot with those who fail. Man "now takes the part / Of the gods who have been vanquished." In a quick turn, the gods disappear; the moon is concealed by "dark, advancing clouds." Yet the poet remains, hearing the cry of the sea and looking at the triumphantly appearing eternal stars (268-69).

Heine's "The Gods of Greece" invokes a culture equal to the poet's sensibility. The clustered themes--the transfiguring poetic imagination, the opposition between the old and the new gods, the poet's identification with the Greek gods, who are supplanted, as well as with those who affirm them--reveal a willfulness of the poetic imagination. Nevertheless, the gods of Hellas transfix Heine's imagination; they offer a vocabulary of the profane; they push the God of Hebrew Scripture out of the text. In fact, out of consideration.

There are few poems that so clearly repudiate the temptation to idolize art, to make it direct if not absorb one's life, than Lazarus's "Venus of the Louvre." This poem presents the Jewish writer's relationship to both a tradition and an individual talent. It is in part homage to Hellenism and to a torn Jewish consciousness. Heine is the mournful presence in Lazarus's "Venus of the Louvre." In Lazarus's eyes, Heine is both a poet, no longer sustained by the gods of Greece, and a Jew, who is enchanted by the radiance of an idol. Although the rabbis of the Talmud debated in Avodah Zarah whether one might enjoy looking at a statue or idol, in "Venus of the Louvre," Heine prostrates himself before the goddess. Lazarus writes that "I saw not her alone ... But at her feet a pale, death-stricken Jew, / Her life adorer ..." Unwilling to separate herself from Heine, Lazarus transforms a singular gaze to a communal one. This, she argues, is how Venus must be seen by the Jewish poet: in the company of one who has lived within the nations (Poems 210).

Venus, the "foam-born mother of Love," maimed by time, glistening "like a star," dazzles the narrator. Although "transfixed to stone, / Yet none the less immortal," Venus brings Heine before Lazarus's eyes. "Here Heine wept!" Lazarus writes, italicizing the poet's name, suggesting that it confers importance beyond that of Venus herself. "Here still he weeps anew," casting a shadow that shall neither lift nor move, "While mourns one ardent heart, one poet-brain, / For vanished Hellas and Hebraic pain." Is Lazarus talking about Heine or herself at this point, the ambiguous "one ardent heart"? Or is she collapsing her own and Heine's poetic sensibilities? Nevertheless, the narrator is no longer looking at Venus but at the weeping Heine (Poems 210).

In Lazarus's poem, the attraction of the forbidden reminds readers of the injunction against worshipping other gods. Yet both Lazarus and Heine found that the gods of Greece and the representations of Greek culture were essential to their imaginations, and essential again in terms of their opposition to "Hebraic" suffering. Is this the pain of the incomplete? The pain of legitimate denial? The suffering brought about by understanding the poet's submission to a poetic culture and its ancestry? Heine's "The Gods of Greece" is resignation to the thematic periodization of history: the God of Hebrew Scripture, the gods of Greece, of Rome, of Christianity--all mark an age and vie for one's allegiance and imagination. At yet another point in time, they contested each other, forming one of the tensions of present myth. One could not turn away. Nevertheless, Hellas could not only be abandoned, it could lose its enchantment. In Lazarus's "August Moon," Ralph, the "artist," in lines reminiscent of Heine's "The Gods of Greece," declaims that he sees "in place/of Astarte's silver face,/Or veiled Isis' radiant robe/Nothing but a rugged globe/Seamed with awful rents and scars" (Poems 51).

If we turn to Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf, the confrontation between Athens and Jerusalem is literally a battle of the books: the Torah versus Euclid's Geometry. The novel presents faith and the assumptions of logic as warring texts and seemingly incompatible casts of mind. Both in the novel and in his essays, especially in his Anatomy of Faith (1960), Steinberg explored the conflict between faith and science. Induction as well as deduction depended upon accepting assumptions and hypotheses that, in the last analysis, could be challenged. Unsurprisingly, the quest for certainty, as Steinberg presents it, demands asking not only how one can see life steadily and completely, but also how one must adjust to the impossibility of achieving certainty. Ethical conceptions--for example the dignity of humanity-are not self-evident, but are connected to faith in God. The answer in his essays and his novel is that one can have "firmness of opinion." Elisha, the protagonist of As a Driven Leaf, is given a correlate: firmness of doubt (Steinberg 103).

In reimagining Elisha ben Abuyah, a rabbi portrayed in Jewish tradition as a harmful, tragic apostate, Steinberg also creates the typologies of Hellas and Jerusalem. Yet in As a Driven Leaf, it is not so much the spontaneity of consciousness that makes the spirit of Hellas what it is, but rather the nature of its wisdom. It is not so much love of God, but serene resignation to the Law, protecting the believing self, that makes the spirit of Jerusalem what it is. Steinberg writes of the dialogue between logician and believer. Rabbi Johanan ben Zaccai [sic] describes the closed circle that Elisha will dedicate his life to opening: "There is no Truth without Faith. There is no Truth unless first there be a Faith upon which it is based" (13).

Tracing Elisha's loyalties to Hellenic culture and to that of the sages, Steinberg gauges the pressure that Rome and Jerusalem exert upon Elisha's psyche and travels. The novel opens with Rabbi Gamliel addressing the members of the large Sanhedrin and asking if a faithful Jew might learn "the tongue of the Greeks?" (11). The debate moves back and forth between the claims of reason and faith. Can a rational worldview be established without faith, without faith in something?

Excommunicated because of his denial of God (in reality, the proof of God and His justice) and a world explainable by Judaism, Elisha travels to Antioch, the cosmopolis of the novel. A polyglot city of glittering prizes, Antioch drives Elisha deeper into the attractions of Hellas. Yet Elisha is exposed to its underside: disbelief and irony violate his spirit. He is repulsed by the cruelty of the stadium, its bloodlust, and its loss of psychological boundaries making for dignity. Plato had argued that the good man only dreams of what the evil man does. Steinberg retorts with a grand, Tolstoyan question, marking Elisha's own perplexities: how can people do these things? Although his almost repressed character is seduced by pleasure, his temperament is driven paradoxically to ground belief in doubt. In the large company of skeptics, cynics, Stoics, and more, Elisha discovers that Hellas offers no more certainty than does Jerusalem. It provides him with more boundaries to be crossed. His choices seem to make him less than he originally was, but it is his struggle that makes him a type.

One can argue that the novel has as its armature Socrates's chariot of the psyche, but just as importantly, the book conveys the struggle between the impulse for good and the impulse for evil. In fact, the love for Hebraic tradition and human security shines through while Steinberg dramatizes the Talmudic love of argument and of matching assertion against prooftext. Elisha, who is so intent upon discovering a foundation for truth, extends that faith to the possibility of an answer, not understanding that the rational universe may collapse under the need for certainty. Although this too is not merely a Jewish problem, Steinberg reminds readers of its difference from Arnold's Hebraism and Hellenism. When their assumptions are revealed, each indicates the questionable importance of the other as the model for human nature and conduct.

The novel concludes that we have to accept indeterminacy, a willingness to believe in some assumptions in order to live and to mature. Steinberg's essays suggest the hard-won conciliation between description and interpretation, between the laws of nature and the claims of ethics--if we wish to conduct our lives with some measure of security. Elisha denies himself this recognition. Whereas Lazarus's persona in "Venus of the Louvre" could look upon the consummate embodiment of the Hellenic imagination, she does cast her lot with "Hebraic pain." For Elisha, neither Hellas nor Jerusalem is satisfactory, but the novel suggests that it is Elisha who cannot reconcile himself to the human condition. Hellas is the assumption upon which logic rests; Jerusalem, the assumptions of faith and ethics. Hellas is not the worship of statues, but the beckoning of "Greek" science; Jerusalem, the commitment to one's national culture and faith: in this case, freedom, love, and respect.

In yet another version of Athens and Jerusalem, The Human Stain offers readers a notion of Jerusalem and Hellas that owes much to Jewish commentary and classical Greek literature. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is now in retreat, living in a cabin in the Berkshires, enduring the calamities of aging. His wife's death, his prostate cancer, his incontinence, and his weariness with the world lead to his willing exile. In the Berkshires, he is now near the center of a self-proclaimed American Greece, Athena College.

At Athena readers meet Coleman Silk, an African-American posing as a Jew, whose intellectuallife is the teaching of the classics. Pushed out of Athena, Coleman, a former dean, is livid. Yet, there is more: he, too, suffers from the ruination of age. His wife is dead; he is estranged from his children. He is in love with the spirit of Greece, sensual--enraged--and erotic Faunia Farley. Called Voluptas and Helen of Troy by Coleman, Nathan describes her "like Coleman's Greeks. Like their gods" who rage and murder and hate" (Roth 242).

Nathan's allusions to the wrath of Achilles, the rage of Philoctetes, Coleman's hubris and fury, all are situated within the very structure of Greek epic. Nathan writes that Mark Silk, Coleman's "angry" son, after saying kaddish for his father, cannot believe that his father is not alive to hate yet again, as though the drama of Coleman's life were to be performed on the "southern hillside of the Athenian acropolis," in a theater dedicated to Dionysus, the dramatic unities being observed and a catharsis produced (Roth 314).

We can think of the arguments so lovingly put in the Mishna's Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) that one of the pillars of the world is the study of Torah, and that one must not separate one's self from the community. Judaism transforms Greek and Roman heroics: piety preserves community. For Roth and for Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, one chooses Yavneh, the center granted by the Romans to Johanan ben Zakkai, who began the arduous practice of preserving Judaism outside Jerusalem, and not the justifiable, military resistance of either Bar Kochba or the Maccabees. Rejected, most importantly for the novel, is the brutality marking Hellenic culture.

Although the The Human Stain reflects Hellas's spirit of anger, eros, and pacification of the gods, the book is aggadah in the subjunctive: a Jewish homily upon Greek ferocity, expounding the hope that justice might prevail, that righteousness could be pursued--in spite of Hellenic culture. For all of this, the novel becomes Nathan's exercise in holding both Athens and Jerusalem in his mind, as if these were ironies believed in but to which one was not committed without agony.

For Nathan battles to recount, if not imagine, Silk's naivete: he was charged as a racist after using the word "spooks" to refer to absent students, who, it turns out, are black. He means ghosts. He cannot reveal his innocence in using the term without belittling his strenuously created identity. As if to compound the situation, he has locked horns with Delphine, a spouter of French post-modernist jargon. What comic humans live in Roth's house? Coleman, a former boxer, now pretending to be Jewish, and expounding the classics? Faunia, who poses as an illiterate? Nathan, living in the fantasy of the pastoral, far away from the urban life that created his recognition of representative American frailties and dreams?

Nathan's sensibilities are his strength: he bears witness, recounting moral betrayal. His task is to mourn as well as to judge by virtue of his powerlessness. Readers ought to look at him as the waning Jewish conscience, someone rootless, living a would-be pastoral life yet searching for an authoritative frame of reference that his novel cannot provide. He is, sadly, a Jewish man of letters whose potency is so much on the wane that readers find it both poignant and comic when Coleman turns him into a dancing partner. Yet his novel, his story, is his judgment.


By recreating the Hellenic temper, or rather, the spirit of Hellas, American Jewish literature lays bare the conundrum of its authors--trembling before the holy but also before the vocation of being human, of being, as one says, a mensch. Since when is being human not the Law? And since when is the Law not without the agony of faith? Are these questions not found resonating in Abraham's "Hineni"? Do these questions form an overwhelming paradox for American Jewish writers who often admit that they write inside a Hellenism--outside Judaism's theology--but yet evoke praise for their enduring, renascent Jewish imagination?

Works Cited

Avodah Zarah. Ed. and trans. Pinhas Kehati. Jerusalem: Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora of the World Zionist Organization, 1987. Print.

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy, Ed. J. Dover Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966. Print.

Heine, Heinrich. Poems & Ballad. Ed. and trans. Emma Lazarus. New York: Permagiants, 1950. Print.

Lazarus, Emma. Emma Lazarus, Selected Poems. Ed. John Hollander. N.p: Library of America, 2005. Print.

--. "The Poet, Heine," Century Magazine. 29 (Dec. 1884): 210-17. Print.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage, 2001. Print.

"Sanhedrin." Jerusalem Talmud quoted in "Sanhedrin" of Babylonian Talmud. Ed. and trans. H. Freedman. London: Soncino Press, 1969. Print.

Steinberg, Milton. Anatomy of Faith. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.

--. As a Driven Leaf. New York: Behrman House, 1996. Print.

Lew Fried, Kent State University


(1.) My discussion of Arnold has been published in a fuller variation as "Creating Hebraism, Confronting Hellenism." The American Jewish Archives Journal LII, 1 & 2 (2001): 147-74.
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Author:Fried, Lew
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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