I had the extraordinary good fortune, when I was 19 and 20 years old, to stumble into the two great cultures of Western civilization, ancient Greece and ancient Israel, and four decades on, I still cannot get over the contrast between the two.
At the end of my sophomore year at Amherst College, I got very drunk on tequila at the Classics party — it was the ’70s, okay? — and committed, loudly and firmly, that I would do a four-year Greek major in my last two years.
My drunken word was my sober bond, and over the next four semesters and the intervening summer, I did four years’ worth of Greek and a year of Latin, to boot. I got to read, in the original, Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, Sappho, Sophocles…the whole crew.
And then a year later, I wandered into the seminary in Jerusalem to which my sophomore year-roommate had transferred, having spent much of his junior year abroad at Hebrew University.
I’m obviously a laydown for ancient texts, because I ended up with a lifelong practice of reading the Bible and Talmud in their original Hebrew and Aramaic.
The thing that I cannot get over is the fact that you have these two entirely different cultures with entirely different interests, operating at the same time, on opposite sides of the Mediterranean.
Today, you can fly from Athens to Tel Aviv in about an hour, but back then, the gulf between the two cultures was all but impassable.
Take the Hebrew Psalms.
While the traditional belief was that King David wrote all or most of them, they were likely composed by various authors over a period of centuries.
Across the Mediterranean, at the same time, the legendary blind poet Homer was composing the Odyssey and the Iliad, and the female poet Sappho was writing about her experiences being in a school for women on the Greek island of Lesbos (hence the term).
The author or authors of the Psalms came back to the same themes over and over again: God; nature; music; evil; and an unnamed but clearly threatening set of enemies.
Homer was writing about a man on a mythic voyage home to his wife on the Greek island of Ithaca.
Sappho was writing about the intense jealousy she felt for the male friend of one of her female students.
She wrote that she was literally burning up from envy — she felt “green as grass.”
Two radically different sets of cultural interests, one in ancient Israel and one in ancient Greece.
Ancient Greek poetry and theater all “scan” — they follow a rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter, which we recognize from Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee To A summer’s day?”
BA-BUM, BA-BUM, BA-BUM, BA-BUM, BA-BUM.
I’m talking about the Odyssey and Iliad all the way down through the 5th century dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes — they all scan.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Psalms did not scan. That kind of rhythm was of no concern to the Psalms’ authors.
There were two or three metrical “feet” to each half of a line of the song, but you cannot dance to them.
Maybe you think that I’m making something out of nothing. To me, these differences are
The same sun shone down on both regions, ancient Greece and ancient Israel.
The same animals grazed in both localities. The same plants, by and large, grew. And yet, the cultures are worlds apart.
The divine versus the secular, the godly versus the day-to-day.
I don’t know, and the answers are lost in the mists of time.
But that doesn’t stop me from wondering, every time I re-read some of the Psalms, or whenever I think about what I learned about ancient Greece.
Perhaps these two cultures represent the dualism in each of us — the divine and the secular, the holy and the profane, the spiritual and the physical, the heart and the soul.
Whether we are Jews, Christians, or Muslims, our religious lives derive from ancient Israel, and our secular life and form of government come from ancient Greece.
Yin and yang, to borrow from another culture.
Just something to think about. Both sides, now. It’s who we are.