Thursday, June 26, 2008

Free to be Jews: Judaism Needs No Hyphen

I do a lot of reading on the web. I read blogs and web articles, Wiki, and other sources mainly because I enjoy thinking about the development of ideas and I like to see how people express those ideas in their own lives. Thus I am attracted especially to blogs and other sources in which people discuss their philosophies and their religious beliefs, their politics and their educational ideas.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I have noticed that there is a great deal of ignorance about the differences between Judaism and Christianity. Whether the writer in question is attacking Christianity or supporting it, more often than not Judaism is conflated with Christianity in that dreadfully inaccurate term "Judeo-Christian" and Judaism is not recognized as a separate world view, complete with a unique system of law, ideas, and thought. I have usually addressed the issue in comments to the writers, however that format does not allow the careful discussion of ideas necessary to outline the uniqueness of Judaism among the world religions.

In this "sometimes" series of blog entries, I intend to discuss and clear up the misconceptions surrounding the misbegotten term, 'Judeo-Christian', and establish the idea in reader's minds that Judaism comprises a complete and whole religious philosophy. Judaism does not require nor does it benefit from a hyphenated identity.

Today, I will briefly take on the term Judeo-Christian itself.


Prior to WW II, the term 'Judeo-Christian' was not commonly used, and when it was it implied a continuity from Judaism to Christianity in the development of the latter as a separate religion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was originated by scholars in the discussion of the emergence of Christianity as a religion.
Since WWII, the term has been extensively used, especially in American politics, to describe a common framework of Western religious values. It has also been used in an effort among Christians to appear to be tolerant and inclusive.

The problem as I see it is that the term tends to conflate the minority religion of Judaism with the majority-held religion of Christianity, thus implying that Judaism is some form of Christianity-lite, a kind of Christianity without Jesus.

An Aside: I cannot tell you how often well-meaning and ignorant Christians have tried to explain to me that Judaism's major tenet is that Jesus is not the Messiah. In actuality, Judaism does not define itself by any particular definition of who Jesus was or even if he existed at all.

Although the term is intended to indicate openness and acceptance, it actually erases the identity of Judaism as a world religion in its own right. In thinking about it, it is easy to see why it is the identity of Judaism that gets erased by assumption; Christianity as the majority religion in the West, is well understood by adherents and non-adherents alike, whereas Judaism is not well understood. So when the term 'Judeo-Christian' gets bandied about, it is understood primarily in light of the hearer's understanding of Christianity. Thus the term implies commonalities between Judaism and Christianity that do not, in fact, exist.

Thus, I am often dismayed (and somewhat bemused) to read bloggers that attack Judaism for the "pernicious doctrine of original sin" or laud Judaism for the " 'commandment' to 'judge not.'" Neither of these ideas are Jewish. Christianity's mind-body problem comes to it via the classical Greek philosopher Plato via gnosticism; it was not brought down from Sinai by Moses. Judaism does not have a philosophical 'mind-body' problem. The concept of eternal damnation to the fires of Hell comes to Christianity from Persian (Zoroastrian) dualism, not from Torah. Judaism has no concept of eternal damnation, and Jewish philosophy is agnostic about an afterlife. And I could go on...

Thus, although there is definitely a relationship between Judaism and the development of Christianity, and I am aware that modern Judaism and Christianity share certain classical Western values, I cringe when I hear the term "Judeo-Christian" used without qualification.
It is a term I never, ever use.


Amie said...

When I hear "Judeo-Christian" I think of the 10 commandments.

Interesting post, especially about the difference in afterlife beliefs.

Swylv said...

I'd be interested in hearing more about the Jewish view of afterlife. All I read in Torah is "and he was gathered to his fathers" did they just not know one way or another if there was something beyond? Again just interested. If you've read my weblog, you know I embrace Torah as being something even born again in Yeshua believers should adhere to. As Heston said "There is no freedom without the Law" ... I love that line.

I've never viewed the word Judeo-Christian as making less nor more of either religious view. chrischuns need to realize that Judaism is our root, not some church in antioch.

We're all waiting for the Messiah's appearance - some for the first time and others for the second time.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Amie and swylv:

When I say that Judaism is agnostic about an afterlife, what I mean is that there is no particular focus on it. Many Jews believe that the soul survives death in some way, some Jews believe in reincarnation, some Jews (especially those who lived in medieval times) accepted belief in the physical resurrection of the body upon appearance of the Messiah. And some Jews do not believe in any afterlife at all.
Regardless of what a Jew believes about this, the focus of keeping the commandments is upon living fully in this life. Physical existence is deemed to be good--and so it was pronounced to be in Genesis 1, where human existence is considered to be 'very good.'

swylv, with all due respect, Christians and Jews are not waiting for the same "messiah." For Jews, the messiah (anointed) is a human being, an earthly ruler, a descendent of David, who, in the belief system of some Jews, would restore the Davidic line and free Israel from foreign rule. The Christian concept of the messiah is different; it is a belief in a human incarnation of G-d (not a Jewish belief) who redeems humanity not from earthly servitude but from Original Sin (also not a Jewish concept). Undoubtedly you understand this better than I.

Amie, yes, I suspect that many Americans would think of the ten commandments, but even the way Jews and Christians number them is different. Our first commandment is: I am Adonai your G-d, who led you out of Egypt to be your G-d. The graven images one is our second commandment, etc.

I do believe that Judaism and Christianity share certain important Western values, and that Christianity picked up on certain Jewish values, but there is much theology that we do not agree upon at all, as would be expected between two different religious traditions.

momof3feistykids said...

I was fascinated by your post and by your comment clarifying the afterlife question. I am surprised at how little I really know about Jewish tradition and faith. Actually, as a quasi-practicing Christian, I don't know nearly enough about my own religion either.

I never thought much about the term "Judeo-Christian" before. Usually I've heard it used by politicians when lauding our "Judeo-Christian" values in a vague way. Usually they're really pushing "Christian" values, but -- as you said -- they want to appear inclusive.

CJ said...

Regarding the wonderful Jewish Community of Corpus Christi, TX, one wonders how a persn can be both Jewish and Corpus Christi-an! :-)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, CJ!

Shalom from New Mexico, where I drive over the Sangre de Cristo mountains once a week.

I guess you have heard of Utah Jewish identity problem. They say that they live in the only state of the union where they are consiered to be gentiles! :)

And I was at Corpus Christi once. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Melora said...

Good post!
When I hear Judeo-Christian, the 10Commandments are what come to mind for me too. I didn't know they were numbered differently, though!

Since Judaism came first, claiming that its major feature is rejection of Jesus as Messiah seems very odd.

I didn't realize that Judaism doesn't include the idea of original sin! I always learn something here!