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The Jewish People Are Both Middle Eastern and European

(An illustration of the Second Temple)

“Given that the Middle East used to be far more ‘Western’ and even ‘European’ than it is now, there is no cultural disconnect between ‘Western’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ Jews. Jews can be both at once.”

Among the many controversies over the existence of Israel, there is a widely held belief that “white Jews,” or Ashkenazi Jews, are inherently alien to the Middle East. Fortunately, there is also no dearth of people who are keen to object. For example, the journalist Joshua Robbin Marks has made a persuasive case that “Ashkenazi Jews Are Middle Eastern.” Arguing that “the ethnogenesis of the Jewish people” happened in Israel, he avers that Ashkenazim are no less directly descended from that original population than their Sephardic and Mizrahi brethren. Marks claims that all Jews, Ashkenazim included, belong to the region.

The conception of Jews as Middle Eastern has a storied past. At times, it is Jews themselves who frame their heritage this way. In 1921, novelist Jakob Wassermann wrote that his life as a Jew and a German was a confluence of “both spheres, the Oriental and the Occidental.” But Wasserman seemed sensitive to what some may consider an indelicately worded implication of this idea. “The Germans,” Wassermann observed, often imputed an “Asiatic sensuality” to Jews which they viewed as polluting German culture.

For other authors, the identification of Jews as Oriental has often entailed mistrust and aversion. For instance, in his 1964 book Suicide of the West, James Burnham recounts an exchange he had with an unnamed liberal who was “an avowed atheist, of Jewish origin.” These identity markers are among Burnham’s reasons for suspecting that the man does not identify himself with the cause of “Western, Christian civilization.” The implication seems to be that the Middle Eastern origins of Jews necessarily means they are non-Western.

This is a false dichotomy. For one, Jews emerged in the Near East when the region was still much more “Western” (Greek, Roman, pre-Islamic Persian, etc.) than it is now. As such, and as revealed by the influence of Western traditions on numerous features of their Judaic religion, Jews should not be categorically classified as non-Western or non-European. Given that the Middle East used to be far more “Western” and even “European” than it is now, there is no cultural disconnect between “Western” and “Middle Eastern” Jews. Jews can be both at once.

At least since the Second Temple Period (586 B.C. – 70 A.D.), Judaism has been deeply shaped by Hellenistic concepts. The American rabbi Burton Visotzky discusses many such transplants in his 2016 book Aphrodite and the Rabbis. For example, he asserts that rabbis copied the Passover Seder wholesale from Greco-Roman practices and borrowed techniques central to their interpretations of Scripture from Roman philosophers. Rabbinical treatments of the Bible emulated Greco-Roman commentaries on Homer to the point that the Hebrew Bible was divided into the same number of books as the works of Homer: 24. “The Greeks and Romans,” writes Visotzky, “were people of the book before even the Jews were.”

In her review of Visotzky’s book, Hebrew Bible researcher Pamela Barmash qualifies Visotzky’s thesis only slightly, arguing that an interpretative approach to Scripture arose in Judaism well before the Hellenistic period, though it developed much further under Greco-Roman influence. Mostly, she agrees with Visotzky. “Jesus,” Barmash strikingly opines, “would have spoken Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. Perhaps the only question is how much Latin [he would] have understood.”

In his classic 1974 work Judaism and Hellenism, Martin Hengel offers similar assessments. For instance, he treats the relationship between rabbis and their students as an imitation of the teacher-student dynamics in Hellenic philosophical schools. Fittingly, Visotzky observes that early rabbis apparently dressed like philosophers, according to the stereotypes of the time.

Russell Gmirkin has documented in his 2019 book Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible many resemblances between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Greek law and philosophy, especially that of Plato. On matters from constitutional law to the writing of national history and even the format and presentation of the Ten Commandments, the author compares Old Testament texts to Greek analogues as well as Near Eastern ones. On the whole, he finds many more similarities to the former than to the latter. Although Gmirkin proposes a radical theory that the Pentateuch was deliberately constructed following Greek models, these resemblances paint Judaism as deeply Western whether they result from such influence or not. Even the Bible’s portrayal of King David, argues Gmirkin, has much in common with Greek warrior ideals.

Long before the Hellenistic period, Judaism had already been shaped by Zoroastrianism. Some may recoil from the idea that the Zoroastrian religion influenced the West, but Zoroastrianism is, after all, an Indo-European religion. Comparative religious scholar Shaul Shaked even calls the Rigveda “the closest literary monument available” to the Zoroastrian Gathas.

Academics have argued for numerous Persian influences on Jewish belief. In N. F. Gier’s account, universalism, eschatology, angels as we know them, heaven and hell, the devil, and “ethical individualism”—the notion that individuals, not groups, are answerable for their actions—are all ideas in the Jewish tradition that were borrowed from Zoroastrian belief. Jacob Neusner, the late American scholar of Judaism, similarly contends that Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” “last judgment,” and “laws of purity” show “remarkable affinities with Zoroastrian counterparts.”

Much in Judaism certainly existed before any Iranian impact. Jon L. Berquist notes in his 1995 book Judaism in Persia’s Shadow that the biblical tradition of “wisdom literature” predates the Persian period, and Hengel calls it a Semitic element. Naturally, experts debate what exactly was borrowed—for example, a plausible explanation of Jewish eschatology as an internal development has been advanced.

There is also difficulty in disentangling native Jewish trends from Zoroastrian influence. Shaked remarks that some changes to Second Temple Judaism stemmed from “indigenous ideas,” yet how exactly they unfolded was conditioned by an “Iranian pattern.” George William Carter professes essentially the same opinion. On the whole, while details are disputed, Judaism seems to have received extensive inspiration from Persian ideas.

We can gaze back even further through the works of Cyrus H. Gordon, who has documented many apparent Indo-European fingerprints on the earliest stages of Hebrew cultural development. In particular, Gordon’s article “Indo-European and Hebrew Epic” offers plenty of intriguing parallels. “Hebrew history dawned in a partially Indo-Europeanized Palestine,” he writes. “This is reflected in Hebraic literature and institutions from the start.” Among the Indo-European themes he finds in the Bible are cremation, injuries inflicted on the heel à la Achilles, captures and rescues of damsels in distress, morally ambiguous heroes, and even the famous scriptural “emphasis on genealogy.” Indo-European material is plentiful in the tale of Samson. And why is the Bible so brilliant at dirges and character development? It built on pre-existing Indo-European traditions in these areas. Like Gmirkin, Gordon compares Hebrew literature also to other Near Eastern traditions, repeatedly failing to find the tropes which Hebrew and Indo-European stories share.

Likewise, Ola Wikander argues that, even prior to “Greek or Iranian” influences, “Northwest Semitic” culture borrowed from local Indo-Europeans the mythological motif of a young, masculine “storm god” who slays a dragon. Indra does this to Vrtra in the Vedas; God does it to Leviathan in Isaiah. Even the monsters’ names appear related: “Vrtra” means, approximately, “Coverer,” while “Leviathan” means “Encircler.”

The Jewish people are a time capsule of a Near East that was far more Western and European than the region is today, having been thoroughly Islamicized and Arabized—which, in some respects, is the same thing. To retroject the area’s current cultural makeup into earlier periods is a common mistake given its rich Greek and Roman history. Likewise, much of the Middle East was Christian before Arab invasions hoisted Islam to dominance. In these and other ways, the Near East used to be considerably more akin to Europe than it is now.

Jews are like Iranians or Kurds. These are groups with a historical homeland in the Middle East that are ultimately, culturally, Indo-European. “In the midst of Islamic overlay and the Arabic impact,” Jaan Puhvel astutely writes, the Shahnama has helped to maintain Iran’s “native culture.” The nuance that Jews are, technically, of Semitic descent mainly creates needless confusion.

These reflections should further dispel the notion that Western civilization is founded on Eastern religion and, thus, that Europe needed to be civilized by an infusion of Asian faith. Much, if not most, of Judaism—and even more of Christianity—is Western in origin. In large part, the image of Judeo-Christianity as non-Western rests on the fact that its monotheism was unusual for Europe, as well as on the idea that this aspect is central to Judaism and Christianity’s historical benefits.

“Ethical monotheism,”comments one author, “taught us that we have intrinsic value.” This common belief that monotheism is almost a prerequisite for moral behavior has proved untenable. For instance, popular imagination holds that ancient Greeks and Romans saw nothing wrong with murdering babies before Christian ethics came along. To what extent the rise of Christianity did reduce the prevalence of infanticide is debatable, but historian Richard Carrier, though unpleasantly polemical, has convincingly refuted the stereotype that pagan Romans had no moral objections to this practice. Rather, Carrier shows, consensus opinion in pre-Christian Rome condemned the killing of infants who were not severely sick or disabled. As for Judaism in particular, Catherine Hezser has argued that Rabbinic law regulating “the exposure and sale of children” was not much different from that of the surrounding Roman empire.

The many merits of Christianity and Judaism derive not from the innovation of monotheism, but mainly from their incorporation of pre-existing Western elements. This is not a slight: The conservation of ancient European culture is a respectable achievement in itself. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche seems to regard it as the Jews’ foremost achievement that they have been “occidentalising [the West] anew” time and again by maintaining the rationalistic spirit of antiquity. And though in the same passage he portrays Christianity as working in the opposite direction, in his Nachlass he would remark that “Christianity as the guardian of elements of antiquity” was among the sources of modern science. Carter takes a similarly enthusiastic view of Zoroastrian borrowings. “To this foreign contact, therefore, we probably are indebted for some of the loftiest and most spiritual conceptions,” he concludes.

Marks is surely correct when he asserts that even Ashkenazi Jews are, in some sense, Middle Eastern. Yet it seems equally justified to say that even Mizrahi Jews are Western—part of the greater West, if you will. Whether Jews are “white” is, of course, an open question. It may interest some readers that a particular set of ancient Egyptian papyri describes just one of the twelve Jews it lists as “dark-skinned” and eleven as “light-skinned,” one even having “light blue eyes[,] a very rare mention in the papyri.” But then, does being “white” really make one a stranger in the Middle East? One can find plenty of blond, blue-eyed, or light-skinned Arabs in Syria or, for that matter, Palestine—and Kemal Atatürk was all three.

Simon Maass is a writer living in Germany. His work has previously appeared in publications such as Providence, VoegelinView, and Cultural Revue. He holds a degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and writes on various topics in politics, religion, and literature. 

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