The Oracle and The Rabbi

The Oracle and The Rabbi

“This is the reason why thou dost recognize
Things now first revealed,
Because in thee resides
The Spirit that lives in all;
And thou canst learn the laws of nature
Because its author is latent in thy breast.”

Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself, Stanza VI, Ralph Waldo Emerson)


Pythia, the famed Oracle of Delphi, was the closest thing to a living deity that the ancient Greeks possessed. She was considered infallible. Pilgrims from all over the civilized world sought her prophecies. Her words determined the fate of kings, dynasties and empires. The education of Socrates and the birth of Western philosophy are credited to a statement by the Oracle. It is incredible the impact one person, believed to be speaking in the name of a divinity, has had on humankind.

In 2005, a dear friend of our family, Mr. Egbert Pijfers of Norway, commissioned the artist Nira Spitz, (mother of this author), to paint a water-color of the Oracle of Delphi, (above). For 2014, in honor of Mr. Pijfers’ 50th birthday, this writer has been commissioned to explore the painting and the inspiration behind it.

Aside from the striking yet subtle use of blues and greys, the artist boldly writes, (in transliterated Latin letters), the famous phrase that adorned Pythia’s chamber: “Gnothi Seauton” – popularly translated as “Know Thyself”. Interestingly, records show there was another phrase, not as popular, but perhaps no less important, chiseled over the entrance to the Oracle: “Nothing in excess.” Pythia, in the painting, as their tradition testifies, sits on her tripod, with laurel leaves in one hand and a bowl of Kassotis spring water in the other hand.

Since those ancient days, “Know Thyself” has been interpreted in a variety of ways and given over as wisdom and guidance to the masses. One interpretation is that a person should “know” their place and never seek to rise above their betters. An interpretation which I enjoy, is a view proposed in poetic form by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a stanza of which has been quoted above. Emerson in his moving and eloquent form urges that God is within each of us and by understanding that Godly part of ourselves we can understand God’s hand in all that surrounds us.

So what inspiration or guidance can a Rabbi find from an ancient, venerated icon of a culture which Judaism has often been at odds with, if not been outright mortal enemies of. More than two millennia after one of our major clashes, we still celebrate the Jewish triumph over the heathen Greeks after their conquest of Israel and defilement of our Temple. We light the candles of Chanuka for eight nights to celebrate our military, moral and religious victory. Why should we search the annals of idol worship, of debauched frivolity, of a pantheon of gods with attributed moral qualities below those of their worshippers?

The Talmud states that if someone tells you that Torah may be found among the gentiles, do not believe them. However, if they state that wisdom may be found among the gentiles – believe them.

Is there some wisdom to be found in the Oracle?

Jews like to bless. Amongst the many mundane and esoteric blessings that Jewish law urges us to recite, there is a blessing for exceedingly wise people, be they Jewish or gentile:

Blessed are you God, our Lord, King of the world, who has given from His wisdom to flesh and blood.

The institution of the Oracle of Delphi, of Pythia, lasted for at least twelve centuries, extending from at least the 8th century BCE until the year 395 of the Common Era – the last documented record. Pythia was always a woman. When she died, another priestess from the Temple of Apollo replaced her. Her office was probably amongst the longest lasting and impactful religious roles in the history of civilization.

I wonder what Jewish figures may have had the opportunity to cross her path. Our King Solomon was likely around at the inception of the Oracle of Delphi. There is a tale of King Solomon going on a long exile. Did he seek out assistance from Pythia as he sought to reclaim his throne from the demon Ashmedai? Did later kings of Israel send messengers to Pythia when the Jewish prophets, most notably our famed Elijah, disappeared or gave the idol-worshipping rulers answers that went against their interests? The Phoenicians that ruled the coast of Israel were of Greek stock and theology. Was Jezebel, in her power-hungry rule, not inspired by the same gods, though perhaps with Canaanite names and less sophisticated mythologies? The founders of the Mishna lived at the height of Greek power, when the Greeks ruled the land of Israel. The sages of the Talmud are recounted as sailing regularly to Athens to show homage to the Greek rulers and on at least one occasion to conduct philosophical debates. Did they visit Delphi at any point? Would any of the above personalities, any of the religious, political, military or spiritual leadership of Israel have stopped at the Oracle and sought an audience. Would they have blessed the purveyor of wisdom or would they have considered her a charlatan, a false prophet for empty imaginary deities?

Torah-abiding leaders would certainly not have offered the customary animal sacrifice before approaching Pythia – as it would be a violation of one of Judaism’s cardinal rules. However, some of the idol-worshiping kings of Israel, or their emissaries, would have few qualms to making such a sacrifice to yet another god.

One of the earliest records of an oracular statement from Pythia was that given to Lycurgus, famed lawgiver of Sparta. The Greek historian Plutarch reports the words that the Oracle told Lycurgus as he sought guidance on legislation he wished to establish:

There are two roads, most distant from each other: the one leading to the honorable house of freedom, the other the house of slavery, which mortals must shun. It is possible to travel the one through manliness and lovely accord; so lead your people to this path. The other they reach through hateful strife and cowardly destruction; so shun it most of all.

In our post formal enslavement era, it is easy to see the wisdom and nobility of Pythia’s statement. At that time, this was a courageous, revolutionary public statement by a priesthood that had much more to gain by cuddling to the rich and powerful. It had a truth to it that may have not been obvious to slave-owners.

It is reminiscent of the declaration in the Bible, about three hundred years later, by Jeremiah to the Jews of Israel to forsake the enslavement of their brethren:

The word that came unto Jeremiah from the Lord, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; that every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; that none should make bondmen of them, even of a Jew his brother; and all the princes and all the people hearkened, that had entered into the covenant to let every one his man-servant, and every one his maid-servant, go free, and not to make bondmen of them any more; they hearkened, and let them go; but afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids. Jeremiah, Chapter 34:8-11

Maimonides is famed for stating: “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”

It seems that Pythia, though centered and cloaked by the most powerful and often odious idol-worshiping culture of its time, was also a source of truth, wisdom and guidance.

As per Maimonides, we must accept her truths. As per the Talmud, we must believe her wisdom. As per Rabbinic law, we must bless her God-granted intelligence.

However, it is not so simple. We had a much closer example of a truth-spouting, wise, divinely intelligent personality. His name was Elisha ben Avuya. He was considered one of the greatest Talmudic Rabbis of his generation. But then something went awry. His relationship with God deteriorated. He was excommunicated. Laws that he had taught were no longer repeated in his name. When he had to be named he was merely named as “Acher”, meaning Other One. Only one student continued to study from Acher during his lifetime – Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir went on to become one of the foremost Rabbis of his own generation. It seems that Rabbi Meir and only Rabbi Meir had the capacity to listen to Acher and to draw out the precious gems of wisdom hidden within the sage with otherwise questionable moral and ideological traits.

With that view, Pythia would be very low on our list of sources to seek out for wisdom. If our paths should cross, it might be innocuous to hear what she has to say, but it would be unadvisable to cross the Aegean, climb to her Temple and offer the sacrifice and gold in order to hear her supposedly divine prophesies by the false sun-god Apollo, who if Homer is to be believed, was perceived by the Greeks as a dangerous, womanizing, spiteful, egomaniac who took quick vengeance when a woman rejected his unwanted advances. Greek gods, it seems, were worshiped more for drama and entertainment than for any moral or noble qualities.

Nonetheless, under what premise, what understanding of the sacred Jewish tradition would allow us to examine, to engage with potential beauty and wisdom from such an immoral (or amoral at best) source?

Here I will follow the lead of my teacher and the head of my school, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion, whose writings inspired Mr. Pijfers to commission this article.

As I understand him, Rabbi Lichtenstein argues that outside of our direct, rabbinic texts, sources, lifestyle and culture, there is an entire world. With proper boundaries, (how we go about defining such boundaries is worthy of another essay), we can be curious about such a world. We can be entertained by such a world. We can find inspiration from such a world. And perhaps most importantly, we are duty-bound to engage with such a world. We cannot reach the fullness, the heights, and the pinnacle of our spiritual and Jewish completeness without access, exposure and interaction with the general culture of the world.

Maimonides, (an Aristotelian scholar amongst so many other things), and sages before and after him embraced, or at least were intimately familiar with, the scientific, political, literary and cultural sources of their age.

Famed rabbinic commentator, the Ohr Hachayim, goes even further. He asks why it was that the gentile father-in-law of Moses, Jethro, is the one that instructs Moses as to proper disposition and organization of the Jewish court system. Jethro is further honored by being named on one of the central Torah portions, the one describing the receipt of the Ten Commandments. The Ohr Hachayim states that it is to teach that Jews are not the only wise people in the world and we are obliged to seek wisdom wherever we may find it.

Rabbi Lichtenstein states that exposure to general culture “can inform and irradiate our spiritual being by rounding out its cardinal Torah component.” In his words, general culture for the Jew can become a “civilizing and ennobling force.”

I would add another element. The best of general culture can also be humbling. Being cloistered amongst our own thoughts and writings can lead to a certain arrogance, a certain superiority complex, an elitism that our culture is the sole possessor of all wisdom and that anything from any other source is by definition inferior, damaged, questionable. The few times that something worthy is found outside the walls of our ghetto the invariable thought is that if it is good – it somehow originated from us.

That is not the world God created. “God shall beautify Yefeth and He shall dwell in the tent of Shem.” Noah prophesied about beauty and divine presence centuries before there were a Jewish people. True, as Jews we have a particular mission, but we are all together on this boat called planet Earth.

It is therefore humbling to encounter beauty, wisdom, passion, commitment, courage, determination, creativity, self-sacrifice, nobility and all the incredible positive human traits that one comes across in general culture in a way that connects, informs, inspires and moves in ways that are not found within the four walls of the “pure” Jewish experience. We can learn from it, we must learn from it.

It is inspiring to discover that Pythia, a religious leader from an idol-worshipping people proclaims against slavery centuries before Jewish leadership takes up the same call. Of course there is a world of difference between the Oracle of Delphi and our rabbinic tradition. One can explore all the religions, cultures and traditions of the world and find an almost infinite number of differences.

However, humanity was also gifted with an innate goodness that manifests itself in an infinite number of ways. That goodness is divine. There is no way to know how an individual will be inspired by others to goodness themselves. In many cases it is something learned from the home, from the school, from friends and community. But for many it is not inspiration – it is emulation. Many need to go far away from home to be inspired. They need to go as far away as possible, not only geographically, but also culturally. And often it is there, on the other side of the planet, in a strange and foreign culture that one discovers the essence of what they are looking for. They find the spark that inspires them to goodness. They may have known it all from home. They may have memorized the sayings of their teachers, but only that pure, beautiful spark from the most unlikely of places ignited their hearts to pursue a path of goodness.

Therefore, know thyself. And find thyself wherever you have to go to discover and realize the goodness that is within.

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