Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. -- a monotheist's nightmare.
"The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish 'gevalt,'" said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. "We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini."
But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.
Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were everywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty's new exhibition, "The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present."
"One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way," said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. "While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response."
Eliav co-directs the multidisciplinary Statuary Project at the University of Michigan, which, among other endeavors, peruses classical Jewish texts for references to statues (there are at least 6,000 of them -- many appreciative of the figures' beauty and tolerant of female nudes).
The texts reveal that the rabbis were fluent in Greek and in the customs of the ancient world. "Not only did [they] repeatedly mention statues by name, such as Aphrodite, Mercury ... emperors, or even the 'faces which spout out water in the towns' (t. Avod. Zar. 6:6), they were also conscious of the social and political dynamics associated with the positioning of statues," Eliav wrote in an essay.
Thus they were able to work out pragmatic rulings on how Jews should interact with the ubiquitous sculpture. In a Mishnah debate on idolatry, just one scholar, Rabbi Meir, insisted that "all statues are forbidden"; most of the others argued that only statues meant to be worshipped were off limits. A passage in the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, suggests that informal rituals conducted in front of public sculptures did not necessarily turn them into idols -- a practical viewpoint in a society where the informal veneration of statues, including processions and the sprinkling of libations, were common.
As Eliav traversed a room filled with statues of Aphrodite (also known as Venus), the goddess of love, he recounted the Mishnah anecdote about Rabban Gamaliel in the "Aphrodite bathhouse." When a pagan asked how Gamaliel could tolerate the bathhouse's statue of the goddess, the rabbi said the sculpture didn't function as a deity, but rather was "an ornament for the bath." Gamaliel reasoned that Romans would not walk around naked in front of a statue they intended to worship; he added that: "She [Aphrodite] is standing by the drainage, and all the people are urinating in front of her."
Eliav paused by a statue that could have decorated such a bathhouse -- a small, second century marble Venus, missing her head and arms, but still sensual with wet-looking drapery clinging to her curvaceous body.
"Many bathhouses had statues like this Venus, which would have been appropriate, because Venus was born of the sea," Eliav said. "The rabbis would have engaged this kind of statue on a daily basis, because everyone in the Roman world loved bathhouses -- they offered warm, clean water, which people didn't have in their homes."
Next, Eliav pointed out a very different image of Venus: A massive, clothed statue that may well have been worshipped (one possible giveaway was her size.) The rabbis noted other ways to discern statues that were worshipped -- such as those wielding "a stick or a bird or a ball" (the eagle was associated with Zeus, for example).
"What fascinates me is that the rabbis knew the attributes the Romans used to identify their own deities," Eliav said.
Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, joined Eliav in the gallery.
"The rabbis re-contextualized the statues and found ways to 'read' them that made them acceptable on a day-to-day basis," he said. "And their world view often allowed them a great deal of variability, because they, like us, lived in a complex society, where on the Sabbath they were [strictly] Jewish and on Tuesday they might serve on the city council and on Wednesday they were perhaps working in their blacksmith shop, making armor for the centurions."
Eliav, 43, spent much of his childhood in the ultra-Orthodox community of B'nai B'rak in Israel. His father, an ardent Zionist, separated from the more observant branch of the family in order to join the army, to attend a secular university and New York University law school.
Eliav attended yeshiva in New York for five years before moving back to Israel, where he enrolled at Hebrew University. "My religious identity was always shaky, but I always had a lot of passion for Jewish texts," he said. "I decided to study the Talmud, but with the help of my professors, I realized I didn't want to study it out of context. That is when I began studying classics and archeology in order to understand the environment in which the texts were created."
Today, Eliav's specialty is the encounter between Jews and Graeco-Roman culture. His book, "God's Mountain: The Temple Mount in Time, Space and Memory," won the 2006 prize for best first book from the American Academy for Jewish studies.
He believes that the findings of the Statuary Project will have relevance for Jews today.
"It shows that the rabbis worked to pave a path that would allow people to embrace their Jewish identity within a multicultural environment," he said.