I am bothered by the construction Judeo-Christian tradition (ethic, ethic principles, morals, values) that seems to have cropped up in American English usage in the past 35 to 40 years. It seems to me that two factors are in play here. The first is associated with guilt and the second is associated with the US long-term commitment to Israel and the sustenance of democracy in the Middle East. Neither factor is particularly consequential nor accurate. The assumption of the first is that Christianity developed from and is the inheritor of (the fulfillment of, the extension of) Judaism; that the two are one in the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Judaism and Christianity are not born of the same tradition. In fact, the closest religion or religious tradition to Judaism is Islam in the sense that neither Judaism nor Islam compromise in the slightest regarding a strict interpretation of monotheism. Christianity, on the other hand, goes to great length to understand God as multiple entities somehow encapsulated in one; a singular trinity. While Christians draw from Jewish sacred writings, they choose to alter the order of those writings to suit an historical purpose. If Christianity did, in fact, arise from a sect of Judaism then there would be no need to recalibrate scripture. Islam’s sacred texts do not base their authenticity on the writings of another, rather, by paying attention to precursors, the Qur’an lays down its own monotheistic and ethical path that takes great pain to show appropriate respect to the “people of the book.”
As is currently the trend among both liberal and conservative Christian denominations, praising connections to their Jewish past has become something of an obsession. Jews are quite often suspicious of such “friendship.” History of relations with Christians, beginning with the words of Christian Canonical scriptural texts, are at best difficult. Christian triumphalism and reliance on the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Christian Bible has often led to mass slaughter of Jews, wholesale persecution of Jews, expulsion of Jews from Christian nations, and other lesser but equally onerous attacks on Jews. We need only turn to the first Crusade of 1096 when Christian Knights on the way to slaughter Muslims in the Holy Land stopped along the way to kill Jews in Germany, or explore the politics of the Spanish Holy Order of the Inquisition which caused Jews to convert to Christianity or be burned at the stake. In 1492 the Spanish Monarchs expelled Jews from the Iberian peninsula followed only a few short years later by the Portuguese monarch. Need I mention the pogroms in Poland and Russia against Jews by Christian zealots. Oh, and then there are the NAZI atrocities. The new found friendship, while welcome, is suspect. I believe it derives from a modern sense of guilt and a rational sense that the acts against the Jews of the past are unsupportable and unforgivable. The easy way out is to claim an allegiance, one disrupted for 2,000 years by a sort of family dispute, but one that is born of the same traditions and beliefs. The use of the term Judeo-Christian is a guilt ridden form of saying let’s bury the hatchet. I am reminded of Rodney King’s words, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
I am all for getting along but not for the wrong reasons. I think it is important for Christians to follow their belief system but to recognize that it is not nor has it ever been rooted in a Jewish tradition. To claim such is to misread both the Jewish and Christian texts. The New Covenant is not intended to extend the old, rather it is a full and developed replacement of the old covenant so far as the Christian is concerned. For the Jew there is but a single covenant between God and man. It is and has always been and has not been replaced by anything. For the Christian the Messiah has come while the Jewish believer still awaits the coming of the Messiah. The old joke about the argument between the rabbi and the priest about whether when the Messiah comes will it be Christ returning or something altogether different ends with the rabbi suggesting that the debate is easily settled. He says, “When he arrives, why not just ask him?” These are not similar traditions. Do they derive from something similar? Jacob Neusner (1984) in a well documented work argues that the voice of Jesus and the voice of Rabbinic Judaism, Hillel, seem to have said many of the same things. But is Christianity the religion of Jesus or that of Paul, the apostle to the gentiles? Neusner asks the question is the historical Jesus and the historical Hillel perhaps one in the same person?
If the ethics of Christianity and the ethics of Judaism are similar then, it seems to me, it is enough to find ways to act responsibly toward one another and toward the other without having to compromise one’s fundamental beliefs to assuage guilt.
The second reason, the political connection of the United States and Israel, does not require a religious connection. If the relationship between the United States and Israel is one that is productive for both sides then it is one worthy of pursuit. If, on the other hand, the relationship is not good for one or the other side or both then it is not. To think of the relationship as one that is connected to a Judeo-Christian connection is to marginalize the Muslim population of the Middle East. It is, for the Christian, the Crusades by proxy. The Judeo-Christian connection, in this sense, is obscene and not worthy of rational consideration.
On all counts, as a Jewish American, a voting participant in our grand democratic experiment, I soundly reject the Judeo-Christian connection on all grounds.
Neusner, J. (1984). Judaism in the beginning of Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
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