It’s Greek to Me: A Tale of Two Cultures at the Western Wall [Essays]


KOTELBy Ethan J. Herenstein


There I was at the Western Wall Plaza on a clear sunny morning in October, skipping school to celebrate my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in Israel. I was skimming through my bright blue copy of The Odyssey with the naive hope that I might keep up with my Lit Hum readings while I was away. In my peripheral vision, I surveyed the ocean of black-and-white clad men that had entirely engulfed the Western Wall plaza, when suddenly, a bearded man emerged from the crowd and briskly made his way towards me. The thin scowl etched across his face hinted I was in trouble. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought a seminal piece of Greek literature – its pages filled with fornicating Pagan gods – to the holiest sight in Judaism,” I nervously thought to myself. As the man approached, his stern gaze steadily oscillated between my copy of The Odyssey in front of him and the Kotel, or Western Wall behind us, as if he were trying to form some connection between the book and the wall. Finally, after a few tense moments, he asked me in a surprisingly spotless British accent, “When exactly, did Homer write The Odyssey?”

Caught off guard, I stuttered a bit before messily stringing together a longwinded answer that sounded something like: “Well, the truth is, there is a wave of Homeric Criticism, which posits that a historical Homer may never have actually existed; instead, there likely was a group of poets who compiled or anthologized the work from a rich oral tradition, sometime around the 9th century BCE.” Upon hearing my response, the man casually shrugged his shoulders, as if the vague date I provided him did not pique his curiosity. He then abruptly turned around and made his way towards the monolithic mass of people in front of us. Immediately before submerging himself in the crowd, he turned back towards me and shouted over the passionate prayers of the ultra-Orthodox men now surrounding him, “Well, I guess the book is older than the Kotel.”

And with that, we parted ways. He disappeared formlessly back into the uniform crowd of black-and-white men, while I – green pants and blue book in tow – conspicuously made my way over to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

My immediate reflections on this strange interaction were hardly profound. First and foremost, I began to reconsider the prudence of my decision to bring my Lit Hum readings to Jewish holy sites – at least until my professor assigns the Bible. And second, I became thankful that I did not follow my professor in striking a parallel between Homeric Criticism and Biblical Criticism; had I chosen that route, I might not have emerged from the experience unscathed.

As my bearded friend’s parting words began to sink in, however, I began to think about the temporal relationship between Jewish and Greek culture. If The Odyssey, written circa 850 B.C.E., predates the Western Wall by nearly 800 years, then what were the Jews up to in Israel while Homer was scribbling away in Greece? Questions of this sort can be answered with a quick Wikipedia search: around the year 850 BCE, Elijah the Prophet was passionately pontificating against Phoenician idolatry in the land of Israel on Mount Carmel while Homer was poignantly piecing together powerful epic poems in Greece.

Often, Elijah and Homer appear in disparate universes – one exists exclusively in the pages of the Bible, the other only in the words of Greek Literature. Up until my brief interaction with my black-and-white clad acquaintance at the Western Wall, I had never drawn a parallel between these two figures. I read the preeminent Greek poet in school, whereas I studied the esteemed Jewish prophet in synagogue, or shul. I never so much as placed them on the same planet. And I had certainly never considered them together as influential 9th century BCE figures that each indelibly shaped Western thought. It bothered me that, prior to this moment, I had conceived of history as a series of choppy narratives and randomly assorted scenes that lacked any holistic meaning. To remedy this, I sought to perceive a single, cohesive history that included contemporaneous events.

Greek and Jewish culture, I learned, each achieved a crescendo in the middle of the 5th century BCE, led by the two seminal figures Socrates and Ezra, respectively. In Athens, Socrates began his career that would largely determine the trajectory of Greek Philosophy. In Jerusalem, Ezra toiled in his life’s project that, according to Jewish tradition, resulted in the final form of the canonized Bible. While the nascent movement of Greek Philosophy was beginning to gain traction in Athens, the Bible, the most central text to Jewish culture and religion, was being edited into its final form. To understand that these two men – one Greek, the other Jewish – lived at the same time and worked towards similar goals, is to appreciate the parallels between different cultural narratives.

Any study of the historical Socrates and Ezra must take into account that much of what is known of these two figures stems not from these characters themselves, but from the recorded history left through their legacy. Our knowledge of the historical Ezra stems, almost exclusively, from the Biblical text and rabbinic tradition. Similarly, our knowledge of the historical Socrates comes mostly from Plato his disciple, while Aristophanes provides a more sardonic account of the historical Socrates. The extent to which Aristophanes even attempted to capture the historical Socrates, however, is not entirely clear. Thus, Plato is generally accepted as a more reliable communicator of Socrates’ teachings than Aristophanes, for he at least intended to preserve some level of historicity. Since each respective thinker did not script personal memoirs, but rather shaped their respective traditions, we must look at the bodies of knowledge they helped form to retrospectively understand who they were as contemporaneous individuals. To render a connection between Ezra and Socrates will not only elucidate the nature of their accomplishments but also illuminate the divergent cultures that shaped their respective legacies.

Ezra and Socrates are linked by contemporaneity and the roles each played in the monumental advances of their respective cultures. Nonetheless, these parallels only accentuate the most fundamental difference between them: the manner in which they conveyed their wisdom to their respective cultures and ensured its preservation for perpetuity. Socrates roamed the polis and debated with whomever he could. Thus, he is known less for the ideas that he recorded, and more for the method of thought that he disseminated. Indeed, there is little evidence that leads us to believe that Socrates took care in ensuring his thoughts would be perpetuated. That there is any evidence of these discussions is due to Plato who adapted these dialogues into the written works studied today.

All of this stands in contrast to Ezra, who is distinguished within the Jewish tradition for precisely the opposite. Ezra recorded everything: he collected the thought and ideas of his predecessors, and redacted them into the Bible. His traditional moniker in rabbinic literature – Ezra the Scribe – testifies to his role. According to one Jewish scholar, the Hebrew Bible had no definitive form until Ezra’s time and prior to his work there was widespread disagreement regarding which narratives and books ought to be canonized. That the Bible exists in its present form as a unified text is in large part due to Ezra. He ensured that the Bible, as a single, consistent entity, would be perpetuated for eternity. In the middle of the 5th century BCE, Socrates created ideas while Ezra compiled texts.

While they both lived at the same time, the cultures that Ezra and Socrates inherited differed vastly in their development. Jewish ideas and truths were created and conceived long before Ezra was born. Through this lens, Ezra’s Bible can be seen as a finished product – one that concretized the many years of Jewish history and thought that came before. Ezra closed an era of history with his work while Socrates initiated a new school of thought and helped pioneer Greek philosophy.

Although they were contemporaries, Socrates and Ezra most likely did not interact with one another and each was likely unaware of the other’s existence. Socrates’ philosophy did not directly impact Ezra and Ezra’s Bible did not impact Socrates. What is lost by conceiving of history in a vacuum, by sequestering Socrates to Athens and by isolating Ezra in Jerusalem? What is the practical benefit of putting contemporaneous characters from different cultural narratives into conversation with one another?  “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” Tertullian, a 3rd century Christian author, once asked. What significance does this act of comparison hold?

Studying how Ezra and Socrates made their mark and comparing the different ways in which they related to their followers, helps us appreciate different forms of cultural and religious transmission. That Socrates, the forebear of philosophy, eschews the written word is contrasted by the fact that Ezra predicated his career on the organization of text. Likewise, that Ezra merely compiled ideas but did not create them is highlighted by the fact that Socrates created ideas but did not compile them.

These contrasts are indicative of more than just personal preference. It was not Ezra himself who created the Jewish Biblical tradition, but Jewish culture that formed and proliferated Ezra’s legacy. His emphasis on the transmission of ideas speaks to a fundamental ideology within the culture. What function do Biblical ideas serve if there is no one to engage with them? It seems that Ezra understood the power of this question because he ensured that the Jewish knowledge he inherited from his forebears would not be lost in the sandstorms of history but carefully preserved for his descendants. Ezra acted as a link between the past and the future; his responsibility was not to himself but to his people. Ezra transmitted because Jewish culture necessitated transmission.

Socrates, on the other hand, was unconcerned with transmission. His mission was not to convey knowledge to anyone in particular but to achieve it for himself. “Let him who will move the world, first move himself,” Socrates is reputed to have said. In other words, without perfecting oneself, one can never perfect the world. Thus Socrates’ responsibility is, by the very nature of his worldview, directed inward. Socrates’ emphasis on the perfection of the self has been instilled within Greek culture. Socrates contemplated and as a result Greek culture necessitated contemplation.

But transmission and contemplation are not disparate notions. Rather, they constitute the two components present in all cultural creation. To become meaningful, every culture must have its own Socrates: the leader who weighs truths and wrestles with ideas. But to stay meaningful, every culture must also have its own Ezra: the leader who preserves truths and protects ideas. Socrates and Ezra are each necessary for a culture to thrive, but neither is sufficient. Thus, the achievements of Socrates and Ezra do not clash but rather complete one another.

Sitting at the Western Wall with The Odyssey resting on my lap, I could feel the edifying intersection between Jewish and Greek culture. When the achievements of Socrates are paired with the triumphs of Ezra, the resulting synthesis that we have is not only a more robust construction of history, but it is also a more useful one. Different cultures relate to and transmit their knowledge in varying ways, and Ezra and Socrates stand as a prime example of this. They lived at the same time and similarly sparked influential movements but their legacies are quite opposed: Socrates, the thinker and Ezra, the scribe.

The next time I am at the Western Wall, I will be sure to have a copy of The Republic with me. If asked, “When exactly, did Socrates come up with all of these ideas,” this time I will be ready. My answer will be short and sweet: “Socrates thought while Ezra wrote.”

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\\ ETHAN J. HERENSTEIN is a sophomore at Columbia College. He can be reached at [email protected]





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