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Alexander the great?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-01-14

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I have always had a weak spot for Hollywood reinventions of history, and I was really looking forward to seeing Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’. But, like most others, according to the critics, I was bored and disappointed. I don’t want to go into what went wrong with the film, but rather why Alexander the Great deserves such a special place in our (Jewish) memory.

No other great leader in history has been given such a positive place in the Jewish collective consciousness as Alexander. Of course the Maccabees fought against ‘Greece’ and the Talmud expresses serious antagonism towards ‘Greek Wisdom’, but not to Alexander.

He is the only great non-Jewish leader whose name has been adopted positively and creatively as a Jewish name. Alexander, Sender, and other variations have become accepted as authentic Jewish names in ways that Caesar or Napoleon have not!

According to legend, wherever Alexander (who lived about 2,350 years ago) went on his voyage of conquest from Macedonia to Uzbekistan and India, he insisted on his effigy being put in each temple of the people he conquered. This was not because he wanted to impose his religion as much as his political and scientific authority. Remember he was a child prodigy who had been educated by Aristotle (Maimonides’ philosophical hero). Wherever he went he sent back scientific samples to his mentor. He believed that people should be free to believe whatever religious ideas they fancied, so long as they lived their lives according to a logical and systematic programme. Putting an effigy in a temple was no more than symbolic; it certainly was not religious compulsion.

The legend says that the Jews asked Alexander, instead, to be allowed to name after him all Jewish boys born in the year he passed through the Land of Israel on his way to Egypt (323 BCE). Jerusalem was not on his route.

There are other legends recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. One is that Shimon HaTsaddik, Simeon the Just, the High Priest, appeared before him in his white Yom Kippur gear and so impressed Alexander that he conceded everything that Simeon asked. It seems he had dreamt about being visited by a white figure the night before. A similar story is told about Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Vespasian. Good stories bear repeating! The other famous Talmudic story is that other local nations appeared before him and asked him to dispossess the Jews, but he allowed the Jews to defend themselves against false charges and their enemies were routed.

After Alexander died his empire was divided up. Israel fell between the Seleucid Empire, based in Damascus, and the Ptolemies in Egypt. Over the next two hundred years regimes changed, came and went. Jews fought Jews, and fought Syrians and Egyptians in turn, In general, they were left alone religiously (except, of course, under Antiochus IV and a later Ptolemy). It was political allegiance that counted. And, of course, our religion survived.

So Alexander was always looked back on affectionately. After the Second Temple was destroyed, Alexandria in Egypt became one of the greatest centres of Jewish life--another reason why the name would have been revered.

Still, given Alexander’s very ambiguous sexuality, this respect accorded him in Judaism is still hard to explain. Perhaps there was another reason. Upon returning from his visit to Alexander, Simeon is reputed to have said that there was only one way to combat the impact of Greek civilization, and that was to borrow and adapt their educational methods.

Greece brought new technologies and scientific advances. If you’ve seen ‘The Life of Brian’, you’ll remember the scene where the Judean rebels argue amongst themselves over what the Romans ever did for them, apart from roads, sewage, baths, aqueducts, etc. Actually it exactly replicates a similar discussion in the Talmud!  Greek thinking was then the equivalent of modern technology. Many Jews welcomed it. The pro-Greek Jewish priests, were the first to introduce these new inventions into Jerusalem. It was not technology that was the problem, but the morality of the people using it. In this respect the rabbis of that time got it right. Focus on the positive, increase Torah, make Judaism attractive, rather than adopt a Luddite agenda. Alexander was seen as a great man precisely because he encouraged technology without trying to impose his religious views.

He encouraged his Macedonian soldiers to adopt the positive in the countries they took over. He himself married an Eastern princess, Roxanne. He insisted on settlements of Greeks staying and contributing to the cultures he entered, and some academics argue that a lot of what we call Eastern religion and thought was far more influenced by Greek ideas than we realize or are willing to concede.

What Judaism opposed in Greek thought was not its technology or science but its sexual and its physical overindulgence, despite the stoic strain in Greek philosophy. Judaism insisted on a non-rational, spiritual dimension, and a system of law and morality that had to apply equally to everyone, regardless of rank or power. If Alexander worshipped ideas, Judaism emphasized behaviour. But somehow the failings of Greek values were seen as the fault of Alexander’s successors. And, in particular, the Roman heirs to Greece were blamed for putting refined technology and materialism above spirituality.

Alexander is revered as a great man who appreciated other religious traditions without trying to suppress or control them. If he ‘went native’, we Jews saw that as a compliment. Because that is what we have always done. From Spain to India we have adopted local colour, dress, technology and culture, while remaining true to our core religious values.

Here is an example of how Hollywood took an exciting moral crusade and turned it into a bore. But that’s Hollywood. The Lord of the Rings wins; Alexander loses!