Day 1: Reading of Menachot 99b - on Learning Greek Wisdom

This will be the first in a 7 or 8 part series for each night of Chanukah, exploring some element of the interface between Judaism and Hellenism, the two great civilizations whose relationship has yielded the Western world.

The first ‘installment’ is a reading of the Gemara in Menachot 99b:

Ben Damah the son of R. Yishmael's sister once asked R. Yishmael, May one such as I who have studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom? He thereupon read to him the following verse: This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1:8). [He continued], “Go and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.”
This disagrees with R’ Shmuel, son of Nachmani, who said in the name of R’ Jonathan:
This verse is not an obligation or a commandment, rather a blessing. God saw that the words of Torah were beloved to Joshua, as it says, “And [Moses’] apprentice was Joshua ben Nun, a youth who would not depart from the tent (Shemot 33:11)”. God therefore said to him, “Joshua, words of Torah are so beloved by you? This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth!”

Though this passage is well known, there are certain elements which are often ignored. For example, R’ Shmuel’s position, that the ability to study Torah day and night was a reward granted to Yehoshua because it was so beloved to him, is not nearly as well-known as R’ Yishmael’s position.

More fundamentally, however, this passage seems not to be of a halakhic nature; it doesn’t view itself as a true dispute about the scope of the obligation to study Torah and the permissibility of studying ‘Greek wisdom’. For instance, the ‘disputants’ are R’ Yishmael, a tanna, and R’ Shmuel b. Nachman, an amora. The Talmud would not set them up on equal footing if this were truly a legal dispute; rather, the R’ Yishmael story would be marshaled as a prooftext against R’ Shmuel. There is a prior discussion in the Gemara about the minimum requirements of Torah study, and this passage seems to be associatively linked but remains a separate discussion.

Furthermore, the dialogue between R’ Yishmael and his nephew is not constructed as a halakhic conversation. Ben Damah’s question presupposes that he has mastered the Torah, a bold claim; he asks specifically about Greek wisdom, and not about absolution of the obligation to study Torah. It’s also very difficult to take R’ Yishmael’s answer seriously at face value. Does he really think that there is such a time? Is that what his prooftext from Joshua is trying to communicate?

Finally, the discussion is about how to understand a verse from the book of Joshua, which is not considered a source of laws and mitzvot.

Taken together, these elements allow for a literary approach to the conversation between Ben Damah and his illustrious uncle.

It would not be far-fetched to accuse Ben Damah of presumptuousness for claiming that he has completed the Torah. He is relating to Torah study as a field to be mastered, an obligation that must be discharged. Having done so, he wishes to move on to something, apparently an academic pursuit, of his own choosing. R’ Yishmael responds by denying Ben Damah’s assumption; there is no ‘end’ to Torah study. The job is never finished. R’ Shmuel would respond differently – Torah study is a reward, an opportunity, to be loved, not discharged.

R’ Yishmael’s attitude toward ‘Greek Wisdom’ is ambivalent. Is he euphemistically suggesting that it has absolutely no value, or that, relative to Torah, it’s insignificant? Is there a time which is ‘neither day nor night? And how would R’ Shmuel respond?

From a variety of sources (notably Tosafot in Sotah 49), ‘Greek Wisdom’ pertains to some sort of mode of thinking and speaking that was uniquely Greek, a mode of discourse or rhetoric. R’ Yishmael felt this mode of thinking and speaking to be antithetical to Torah and maintained that in a situation where the infinite obligation to Torah remains, there is no room for dual allegiance.
Except, of course, when it is ‘neither day nor night’.

Day and night often represent different modes of existence – clarity and confusion, redemption and exile, etc. Perhaps R’ Yishmael is suggesting that there really is a limited space in which ‘Greek Wisdom’ can – or must – be studied. At ‘night’, when the Jewish people are persecuted, overwhelmed, or enslaved, reaching out to the prevailing ‘high culture’ is entirely inappropriate. As long as there are survivors, Wagner will not be played in Israel. The dominating culture forfeits the right to set the language of debate and discourse when it’s used as a vehicle of control. The Jew, in this situation, is enjoined to remain exclusively within his own set of symbols and meanings.

Similarly, during the ‘day’ we may develop our own culture, our own modes of expression and discourse, and need not import a foreign one. Let others come and learn the language and discourse of Torah study. Let them absorb its values.

However, there are times, few and far between, when it is neither day nor night. We don’t have the good fortune of a redeemed, autonomous culture, yet are welcome and creative members of the broader world. In such a situation – early Moslem Spain, Renaissance Italy, contemporary America - the study of the disciplines of ‘Greek Wisdom’, cultural literacy, adoption of certain modes of discourse, becomes warranted.

And what about R’Shmuel? For him, the Torah is not a place to retreat to. It is completely open and inviting, demanding nothing but offering the world. For him, nothing is a threat to the Torah. All can and ought be absorbed into Torah, even Greek Wisdom itself. For him, the struggle between Torah and Greek Wisdom is resolved when one’s love of Torah ‘overflows’ – is blessed – and incorporates the totality of that person’s being, bringing the ‘beauty of Yafet’ into the ‘tent of Shem’.

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