Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plato's Midrash

I was listening to lecture about Aristophanes when the lecturer brought up Aristophanes' role in Plato's Symposium. The philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes, fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.

This story struck me as familiar. There's a midrash that describes Adam Harishon in exactly the same way:

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos.Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it saysAnd He took from his sides,[2] as it says, [3]R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world. He created [Man] from the east to the west. From where do we learn [that man was created from the east to the west]? As it says,  of the earth to the other]? As it says [4]And from where do we learn that before.[5] And from where [do we learn that man was created from one end Adam filled the space of the whole earth? As it says, [6]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it.

There are so many interesting things about this.
  • When I learned this midrash, no one mentioned Aristophanes. Like me, most frum people learn the midrash and have no idea that they are reading something that originated in Greek philosophy.  
  • It's yet another example that shows that the Jewish communities of the past were influenced by the cultures around them, so much so that elements of those cultures made it into what many people consider the Divinely-inspired, transcendentally meaningful explanations of Tanach.
  • It proves that extant ideas have been read back into tanach. Plato's Symposium predates this midrash by six hundred years, and  two-faced Adam is brought up by Resh Lakish, who had been immersed in Roman culture. There's little doubt that the idea came from the Symposium. Yet they manage to find proof-texts to hang the idea on.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all, the amoraim quoted in the midrash didn't get the joke! Aristophanes was being deliberately ridiculous to make a point, and these amoraim took him so seriously that 1700 years later, little kids in yeshiva learning parshas Bereishis learn that Adam was originally an androgynous two-sided creature.

It's also notable that in Aristophanes' version, there are three types of creatures, double-sided male, double-sided female, and male-female. After separation, each was motivated by love to seek it's other half, and Aristophanes says that this is all good, love is a gift from the gods, and we should leave it at that. The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females. Maybe because it doesn't fit with the narrative in Bereishis about Adam and Chava, maybe because of its positive attitude towards homosexuality, or both. 

1 comment:

  1. "The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females." I could see that coming as soon as I read the first sentence of the quotation.