Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book review: “The Emperors and the Jews,” by Ari Lieberman. Mosaica Press. 2019. Hardcover. 354 pages. English. ISBN-13: 978-1946351746.

Trivia question: How many foreign rulers are mentioned in the Talmud and Jewish liturgy? I am not sure of the definitive answer. However, in “The Emperors and the Jews,” author Ari Lieberman provides a more in-depth look at five emperors and other leaders mentioned in the Talmud.

The five Greek and Roman rulers detailed are Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Vespasian, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

The connection between these five is that they controlled large populations and dominated extensive territories. Given that, they came into contact with the Jewish people and its leaders. Given that world history and Jewish history are inexorably linked, it is essential to get a full understanding of these characters, to which Lieberman has written a most engaging work.

Of the five, Alexander the Great is arguably the most influential. In the Talmud, Alexander presents 10 philosophical questions to the Elders of the South. While some of the questions may initially appear as trivial, Lieberman does an excellent job in explaining the backdrop for his encounter with the sages and the underlying theme and tension in each of these 10 questions.

Far from being insignificant, these questions were meant in part as a pretext to attack specific Jewish ideas. The 10 questions were really an excuse for Alexander to try to implement Greek ideas on the Jewish people.

Part history, part philosophy and large part political, Lieberman has written an interesting and engaging book that brings to light figures that are often mentioned but, for many people, never delved into.

By Ben Rothke