Saturday, February 13, 2016


 A personal statement may prevent misunderstanding.  I am an unaffiliated, non-observant, but committed Reform Jew.  Both of my wives have been Episcopalians.  My original and two married families embrace five religions, three races, two nationalities.  Despite our close family relationships, I am dead set against the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition because it disrespects Judaism and Christianity, and those who live their faiths.

The phrase Judeo-Christian tradition refers to any of a variety of ideas with widely different meanings.  Significantly, neither the phrase nor its meanings have the historical warrant which one would expect of a tradition: a distinctive and enduring set of specific attitudes and values; assumptions, beliefs, and principles; and practices—all different from other traditions in the same cultural domain.  First, a Judeo-Christian tradition would have to ensure that it did not overlap with other religions on most major points.  Thus, although Judaism and Christianity share the Golden Rule, most faiths have this principle central to their moral code.  Second, the tradition would require that Judaism and Christianity share realizations of these distinctive features equivalent in reality, not appearance only.  Thus, although Passover and the Last Supper are roughly alike and readily set apart from ceremonies in other religions, the additional features of the latter make it quite unlike the former; in fact, the Passover ceremony serves mainly as a Jewish context for a Christian message unrelated and inappropriate to the meaning of Passover.

Obviously, there are problems with the idea of such a hybrid tradition.  Until about the mid 1940s, Judaism and Christianity sharply differed on theological grounds and strongly reinforced those differences.  An earlier notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition was and remains a relatively new way to express the old doctrine of supercession, by which Christianity replaces Judaism.  In this meaning, the former repudiates the latter, rejects shared content, and sustains the anti-Semitic (more accurately, anti-Judaic) view that Judaism is defective because not completed or perfected by the arrival of the Messiah.  Ann Coulter adheres to this notion and advocates it without realizing—indeed, denying—that it is anti-Semitic.  This notion, far from indicating a shared tradition, signifies a sequence of opposed traditions.

Two different notions, one political, one religious, arose in the aftermath of the Second World War.  The post-war political notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition was a mix of vapid feelings and vague thoughts in contra-position to the Cold War emergence of the Soviet Union as the bastion of godless communism.  The notion persists today mainly in contra-position to Islam.  In short, this notion uses a union of Jewish and Christian religions to define a political in-group excluding “them,” be they atheists or infidels, and usually implies that they, especially Muslims, are un-American.

The post-war religious notion of a Judeo-Christian tradition reflected the response of some Christian academics, seminarians, and ecclesiastics to the Holocaust.  Its horrors shocked their admission that the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, as the Nazis euphemistically phrased it, traced its roots to centuries of Christian text-, teaching-, and preaching-based anti-Semitism.  They think that one way to expiate the guilt implied by this admission and promote tolerance between Christians and Jews is to emphasize similarities and elide differences between the two religions.  Their message, the obverse of that of proselytizing Jews for Jesus, is that Christianity can be comfortable with Judaism because Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew.  Yet this well-meaning Christian approach respects Judaism, not in its terms, but in terms of apparent congruency between the two religions in sharing the same figure, as if Jesus the Jew and Jesus the Christ are similar—ironically, a kinder, gentler version of the doctrine of supercession.

In the elaboration of this notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition, some viewed inter-religious communication and fellowship as signifying a Judeo-Christian tradition.  Their respectful, even friendly, relationships, although commendable, avoid, obscure, or devalue theological discriminations.  Improved professional and social relationships are not theologically shared elements of a religious tradition.  Even an apparently shared interest in, and support for, the State of Israel can reveal important differences between Jews and Christians.  Jews regard Israel as the Promised Land; some Jews urge others to relocate as a restoration of the Jewish people.  Many fundamentalist Christians regard Israel differently, as an instrument of Christian fulfillment stated in Revelations.  That is, the in-gathering of the world’s Jews, partly effected by Christian encouragement and support, is an immediate precursor to, and prompter of, Last Days and the Second Coming.  The value of Judaism is its utility for Christianity.

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The history of discrimination, persecution, and annihilation because of religious differences has encouraged many to prefer to emphasize religious similarities to religious differences.  The cost of this preference for homogenization is the diminution of religion, the denaturing of Judaism and Christianity, and the eradication of the important choices of moral and religious significance which they provide.  In reactive opposition, I proceed to sketch a few of the major differences between these religions until the mid-twentieth century to recognize the integrity of each as worthy repositories of moral and religious guidance and inspiration.  I sketch in general terms which ignore postwar innovations.

However, I begin with a story, purportedly Talmudic, but likely apocryphal.  It goes like this: with the Archangel Michael at His right hand, God debates the most learned rabbi of the day about the proper interpretation of a point of Torah.  The debate goes back and forth for some time.  Finally, God delivers His last and strongest argument for His interpretation.  After a respectful pause, the rabbi rebuts God’s argument and makes his best and final argument for his interpretation.  God sees that the rabbi is right.  He turns slowly to Michael and, beaming with pride, says, “that’s my boy!”

Such a story is possible in Judaism, impossible in Christianity, for Jews can and do argue with God, but Christians cannot and do not.  This difference is easily understood.  Jews have a contract with God.  God is all-everything, but the law of contracts binds both God and Jews to their deal.  The deal seems simple enough: God promises Jews the Promised Land; they promise to obey His law.  But what do the terms of His law mean?  Their contract with God gives Jews the right to question their meanings and the standing to debate them with God.  Thus, His law is a living one, which evolves as both parties to the contract mature in moral thought and feeling.

Christians have a different essential relationship with God.  God offered His Son as a gift to humankind to redeem them from sin; Christians, through their faith in His Son as their Savior, accept God’s gift of grace with thanks.  They lack any basis for quarrel with the giver of an unconditional gift which they freely accept or with the gift itself.

As in later contrasts, there is no need to judge one relationship superior to the other.

Judaism and Christianity have other significant differences.  Jews and Christians do not share any foundational texts.  Jews call their sacred texts Holy Scriptures; Christians call their sacred texts The Bible, comprising the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Christians wrongly assume that the Old Testament and Holy Scriptures are the same.

The order of contents is different.  In Holy Scriptures, the Book of Ruth occurs in the Writings and concerns identities and loyalties; in the Old Testament, it occurs in the Historical Books and concerns religious evolution.  The meaning of words is different.  The Hebrew word for “maiden” becomes the Greek word for “virgin.”  A maiden may be sexually inexperienced, but a virgin must be, with conception immaculate because sexually unsullied, thus miraculous.  Interpretations of text are different.  For Jews, the story of Abraham and Isaac teaches not only Abraham’s greater love of God than of his first-born son, but also the rejection of human sacrifice; for Christians, it teaches the first lesson but a different second one, an allegorical prefigurement of God’s love for mankind in sacrificing His Son.  The differences are enormous; the meanings, contradictory; the analogy ugly.  For, in the language of family relations and the law of human society, a father who plans his son’s death commits murder.

Jews and Christians read these foundational texts for different purposes.  Jews read Holy Scriptures for moral instruction and mythological bases for religious observances.  If Abraham and Isaac never existed, Jews would still read and interpret the story for its moral lessons.  If Moses never existed, Jews would still tell the story that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments to give to the Jewish people because it dramatically emphasizes the importance of God’s laws given to the Jews.

Christians read the Old Testament as historical predictions come true, to vindicate Christianity; they read the New Testament not only as realized predictions, but also for doctrinal truth.  But therein lies the threat: no Jesus, no Gospel stories, no miraculous birth of the Savior, no crucifixion of the Messiah, no God’s gift redeeming believers of their sins.  One response to this threat is Biblical literalism; the Word of God is true in all respects lest the text be historically suspect and prompt theological doubt.  The opposite response is to ignore the historical Jesus entirely.  Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed omit all reference to the life of a historical Jesus except his suffering under Pontius Pilate.  The distinguished scholar John Meyer, author of a magisterial, multi-volume biography, thinks that the historical Jesus is irrelevant as a matter of faith to the risen Christ.  Ironically, such would be a “Jewish” reading of The Bible.

What Jews and Christians read and how they read these texts are also different.  In general, Jews do not read the New Testament, and Christians read both testaments.  They debate among themselves about interpretations of the text, but they do not consider or criticize aspects of Christianity in doing so.  Christians often interpret the Old Testament in ways reflecting misunderstandings of Judaism or serving polemical ends.

For example, Christians commonly compare the “angry God” of the Old Testament to the loving God of the New Testament by focusing on the God of the Torah, the first five books of Holy Scriptures, and ignoring the God of later books.  They ignore both the evolving concept or nature of God, who earlier stresses righteousness and punishes sins but later stresses love and forgiveness, and the corresponding change of emphasis in the narrative of Holy Scriptures.  This change reflects a turning point in history, between the Hebrew tribes before the Persian Exile and the Jewish nation after it.  The pre-exilic God of the Hebrews had to make a people of the various tribes.  To do so, He had to enforce the laws which established unity and identity, and, like a loving father, angered by disobedience, to punish violations of His law.  The post-exilic God of the Jews had no such need; the exile, seen as punishment deserved for violating the terms of the deal (no obedience to His law, no Promised Land), had unified the Jews, made them one people, and caused them to repent.  This later God is Jesus’ God, whom he addressed as “Abba” (father), is forgiving, loving, and personal.  The Christian contrast between an “angry God” and a loving one is polemic; likewise, other common dichotomies—law versus love, letter versus spirit, justice (or revenge: a misreading of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” or just compensation) versus mercy—are also polemic.

The many important differences between Judaism and Christianity—perhaps the most important being between waiting for a messiah or worshipping The Messiah—make clear that, in my definition of “tradition,” these religions do not share one.  Which means that each religion has an integrity of its own.  They can be compared without competing or ranking.  The certainly cannot respectfully be compared by making one’s religion the measuring stick of the other and the implement to beat it.  At their best, they urge, not tolerance, but respect.  Accordingly, we should reject the very idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition as disrespecting both Judaism and Christianity.

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These tables indicate other points of contrast with basic Jewish and Christians beliefs.  I recognize that some individuals and some denominations never have and do not now invariably subscribed to some or all of these points.  I provide those which have long been associated with traditional Jewish and traditional Christian beliefs at least until the mid-twentieth century.

1.      God is undifferentiated as One
1.      Godhead is trinal: Father, Son, Holy Spirit
2.      God is a righteous, loving, and forgiving god
2.      God is a loving, forgiving god
3.      God created the world good; it remains good despite man’s sins
3.      God created the world good; it became bad by mans original sin
4.      God’s relationship is with a people (“Israel”) and persons
4.      God’s relationship is with individual persons, maybe mediated by a church
5.      A Jew’s relationship to God is reverential and respectful
5.      A Christian’s relationship to God is reverential and submissive

1.               Salvation is universal to all by right conduct according to Noachian laws
1.             Salvation is universal to anyone who believes in Jesus as Christ
2.               Non-Jews merit salvation depending on their ethical conduct in their everyday lives
2.             Non-Christians do not merit salvation because they do not believe in Christ
3.               Jews are people chosen to receive God’s law and live by it, to set a moral example for the world (laws are mitzvahs, or “blessings,” because living according to laws makes a person a moral being)
3.             Christians are the new Israel and are joined together in and by Gods love
Note: The Messiah of Judaism is awaited as a political and religious savior and leader who will bring justice and peace to Israel; the Messiah of Christianity has arrived and brought salvation to those who accept him as their Savior.

1.             Humankind is morally guided by universal laws
1.             Humankind is morally obliged by love of all
2.             Jewish law is basis of ethics: justice paramount (=just compensation – eye for an eye)
2.             Christian love is basis of ethics: mercy paramount (=forgiveness – turn the other cheek)
3.             Righteousness is demanded of one’s self
3.             Forgiveness is requested for one’s sins
4.             Conduct – rite and right
4.             Creed – faith (& works?)
5.             Negative Golden Rule
5.             Positive Golden Rule
6.             Jews emphasize social reform
6.             Christians emphasize personal charity
7.             Reward for a good life of good living is a good life (no “dress rehearsal”)
7.             Reward for a good life of faith (and works) is in the afterlife

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