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APHRODITE AND THE RABBIS: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It
by Burton L. Visotzky

APHRODITE AND THE RABBIS: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It  by Burton L. Visotzky

An engaging tour through Jewish life in the Roman Empire which argues that the Judaism we know today emerged as a direct product of that place and time.

Hard to believe but true:

· The Passover Seder is a Greco-Roman symposium banquet

· Synagogue buildings were Roman basilicas

· Zeus-Helios is depicted in synagogue mosaics across ancient Israel

· The Jewish courts were named after the Roman political institution, the Sanhedrin

Historians have long debated the (re)birth of Judaism in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple cult by the Romans in 70 CE. What replaced that sacrificial cult was at once something new—indebted to the very culture of the Roman overlords—even as it also sought to preserve what little it could of the old Israelite religion. The Greco-Roman culture in which rabbinic Judaism grew in the first five centuries of the Common Era nurtured the development of Judaism as we still know and celebrate it today.

Arguing that its transformation from a Jerusalem-centered cult to a world religion was made possible by the Roman Empire, Rabbi Burton Visotzky presents Judaism as a distinctly Roman religion. Full of fascinating detail from the daily life and culture of Jewish communities across the Hellenistic world, Aphrodite and the Rabbis will appeal to anyone interested in the development of Judaism, religion, history, art and architecture.

Burton L. Visotzky is Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He worked with Bill Moyers and more recently with Christiane Amanpour on “Back to the Beginning,” aired annually at Christmas time. The author of many books, including Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud, he has been named to “The Forward 50” and repeatedly to the Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the “The 50 Most Influential Jews in America.” He lives in Manhattan.

Praise for Aphrodite and the Rabbis:

“An intriguing [...] look at two worlds colliding and coexisiting.” —Kirkus Reviews

“An erudite, pertinently illustrated, and accessible work of religious history.” —Booklist

“Visotzky… does a superior job of making his scholarship easy for a popular audience to digest in this witty and insightful synthesis that will convince most open-minded readers.” —Publishers Weekly

“Enables the general reader to understand the meaning of many passages of law and of legend, of archeological finds and of ancient culture, of newly discovered art and of long misunderstood texts by locating them within the larger cultural context within which they first came into being.” —South Florida Jewish Journal

“Aphrodite and the Rabbis is a masterpiece of Jewish thought. Rabbi Burt Visotzky shows us how Roman culture flows through Judaism in ways most of us never imagined. Your Passover Seder will never be the same! This stunning work will bless you and inspire you.” —Rabbi Naomi Levy, author of To Begin Again and Hope Will Find You

“Right from the start of Aphrodite and the Rabbis, the lively writing hooked me. I was fascinated with the mix of history, archaeology, and sociological interpretation. Zeus depicted in a synagogue mosaic? The conflict – sure – but the accommodation between the old Judaism and Greco-Roman culture? Who knew? Well, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky! His combination of scholarship and charm makes Aphrodite and the Rabbis a pleasure to read.” —Susan Isaacs

“Understanding how Rome shaped the Rabbis, with Burt Visotzky as tour guide, is a fascinating, funny and enlightening journey. Here is a history that teaches not only about who we were, but has deep lessons about who we are and who we might become.” —Rabbi David Wolpe, Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple and author, David: The Divided Heart

“From the opening pages of Aphrodite and the Rabbis, you know you’re in the hands of the rarest kind of guide—charming, self-effacing, and deeply knowledgeable. Burt Visotzky brings to life one of the least known eras of Jewish life and make the compelling case that it continues to shape our lives today. A must-read for any student of Judaism.” —Bruce Feiler, bestselling author of Walking the Bible and Abraham

“A super-smart, comprehensive, wittily-written admixture of history, legend, archaeology, art, stories, and text analysis. In graceful, colloquial prose, Visotzky leads modern readers through the ancient world to illuminate the debt that rabbinic Judaism owes to Greco-Roman culture. Rarely has a book by a towering Jewish scholar been this much fun to read.” —Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America


In Aphrodite and the Rabbis, Jewish scholar Burton Visotzky takes readers on a historical tour of the ancient Holy Land, presenting a singular conception of Judaism in the early Common Era. His main argument is that modern Judaism is, in regard to practices and traditions, thoroughly Greco-Roman in nature.

Following Judaism in the years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Aphrodite and the Rabbis plots out the rise of Rabbinic culture. Before the Jewish revolts in the early CE (which culminated in the Temple's razing), Judaism was directed by priests who performed sacrifices and led worship. With no temple, the religion began to move toward more scholarly pursuits, eventually culminating in the rise of the rabbi, a word that means "teacher."

Visotzky uses ancient Judaic texts, Roman historical writing and even the architecture of early synagogues to show that the rabbis were heavily influenced by the surrounding culture of the Roman Empire. From taking on flourishes of Roman rhetoric to the use of pagan symbols, Jews in the early centuries of the Common Era synthesized their practices with the overall mores of the times, creating a monotheistic religion with a dedication to Socratic thought and Stoic philosophy. Many Jewish communities even prayed in Greek!

While Visotzky can veer into unnecessary colloquialisms (his use of the term “metrosexual” is particularly cringeworthy), his warm and personal style makes Aphrodite and the Rabbis feel like an intimate guided tour of ancient Judaism. For anyone interested in the birth of Judeo-Christian culture, this history is worth a look.

—Noah Cruickshank, marketing and development manager, Open Books, Chicago, Ill.