Thursday, August 04, 2005

How Did I Become a Christian All of the Sudden?

Dennis Prager is at it again. This time, his construction of "Judeo-Christian" values leads him to attack "transgendered" persons, by which he means cross-dressers and other persons who act in a manner contrary to how their gender "should" behave (oddly, he specifically divides out transsexuals, IE, those who've actually gotten a sex change operation. These people he thinks are fine). Feministe does a great job of taking down this particular post, so I'll just concentrate on the generic problems with Mr. Prager's casual combination of "Judeo-Christian."

Mr. Prager is not new to the fallacious grouping of "Judeo" and "Christian". Indeed, his political discourse is predicated on the inseparability of "Judeo-Christian" as a term, and the proposition that the moral values that grow out of said union are critical to the American way of life. As I Jew, I've always found that position objectionable, because I think it cheapens the Jewish experience and perspective to falsely pretend it can be grouped as "just another" form of Christianity. Indeed, a key trait of appeals to the "Judeo-Christian" tradition is that it is almost always a Christian belief being asserted--occasionally, one in which Jews and Christians agree, but not always. Even where the two religions take fundamentally opposite positions, like on abortion (Judaism being traditionally pro-choice, Christianity being traditionally pro-life), that does not stop speakers from asserting that Judeo-Christian ethics mandate the "pro-life" position (IE, mandate the Christian belief as true and the Jewish one as false). Thus we get such peculiarities as this:
With the Judeo-Christian worldview, the unborn is believed to be a special creation by God. This individual is created in His image and has inherent worth and dignity. Worth is not based upon genetic qualities, but on the statements and actions of God. To abort would be to destroy something that God claims has worth. You would be in conflict with the word of God, claiming to be smarter than His wisdom. Thus, abortion is dangerous in the Judeo-Christian view.

What's all the more troubling (and emblematic of how "Judeo-Christian" is nearly exclusively "Christian") is how the terms "Christian" and "Judeo-Christian" are used nearly interchangeably. The author in this piece, a University of Pennsylvania Professor, stated at the start that his goal was to "contrast the Naturalist worldview with the Christian worldview" regarding genetic testing. Apparently "Judeo-Christian" is a subset (if not the synonym) of Christian, not, as would seem logical, the other way around. The subtext is that within the broad category of "Christian", we have our several groups--Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and oh yeah, those whack second cousins, the Jews. Eventually, they'll come around, but in the mean time we'll humor/kill/slander/absorb them. The choice is different, but the metatheory remains the same: Judaism, as an independent religion with an independent tradition, ceases to exist.

Furthermore, since "Judeo-Christian" is blatantly a constructed category, it is particularly vulnerable to being pigeon-holed to fit particular political agendas (such as Mr. Prager's). Consider the following passage:
[The general opposition to combining what God made separate] helps to explain one of the least known and most enigmatic laws of the Torah, the ban on wearing linen and wool together in the same piece of clothing (sha'atnez). Linen represents plant life, and wool represents animal life. The two are distinct realms in God's creation.

And that is why the Torah bans men from wearing women's clothing.

Now, considering that Mr. Prager has yet to write an article asserting that society can/should ban clothing made of combined fabrics, what we have hear is Mr. Prager ignoring what the Torah says while elevating what it doesn't say to divine status. I, for one, will give the Torah's text the higher weight, and give Mr. Prager's "interpretation" as much as I'd give to any other interpretation of Jewish law that is not Halakah and does not command the respect of even a significant portion of the Jewish community--very little (FYI: Interpretations of Jewish law are generally considered "right" or "wrong" based on the view of the majority of the religious community. Minority perspectives are considered equally holy to the majority, though--after all, the minority may one day become the majority. In certain cases, both minority and majority views can be considered "legitimate" for the purposes of law, although such cases are rare. See Suzanne Last Stone, In Pursuit of the Counter-Text: The Turn to the Jewish Legal Model In Contemporary American Legal Theory, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 813, 838-39 (1993).).

At root, Jews and Christians have different worldviews. That's why even religious Jews have tended to be more liberal than religious Christians. That's why Jews and Christians continue to have significant theological differences. That's why they're different religions. Although Mr. Prager is an exception, generally it is Christians who talk of "Judeo-Christian" traditions, and Jews who object. This makes perfect sense. For Christians, adding "Judeo" or other similar terms of inclusiveness ("people of faith") turns what would be an overt display of parochialism into a defense of common values. No longer trying to promote Christianity to the detriment of other faiths, the implication is that these Christian groups are fighting for everybody (regardless of whether the other religions want to join the cause or not). For Jews, by contrast, being grouped in with Christians means being drafted to fight wars they never signed on to, and often ones where the objective is one positively detrimental to Judaism (for example, prayer in school). Worse yet, since Christians, being the dominant religion, have far more access to media and other forums to assert their message than Jews have to disassociate from it, the risk is very high that Jews will become seen as popular accomplices to unjust policies. Having been "spoken for," nobody will bother to hear them actually speak.

The false incorporation of "Jew" as a form of "Christian" can only come to negative consequences. Christians should feel free to advocate their positions and beliefs. But Jews shouldn't have to be dragged into it--and they certainly shouldn't commit sectacide (is that a word?) by pretending that their issues and our issues are one and the same.


Isaac said...

Judeo-Christian is as arbitrary as saying Christian-Islamic values, or Judeo-Islamic values, or whatever, given that the three religions are about equally close theologically, I'd think (hell, muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, Jews don't). Just that one happens to have non-white followers, and followers not concentrated in Europe and North America, so we'd never think of lumping it in with the other two.

Mark said...

This is almost a recycled post isn't it? Actually, I found it more convincing this time. This time 'round, I'm willing to concede that much of the popular usage of the term Judeo-Christian abuses the term. Not exactly like isaac, would imply, for there are some very non-arbitrary reasons for using the term. After all, unlike with Islam, Christianity did have its origins in 1st century Israel.

On the other hand the excerpted Prager fragment is more striking for its (in my understanding) bad Scriptural exegesis than anything else. Actually, however this brings to mind an good example of where Judeo-Christian tradition might be usefully used. For your Mr Prager quote brings to mind Leviticus. A highly respected (in the Christian community and I might guess Jewish) commentary on Leviticus was written by Jacob Milgrom. The very fact that Mr Milgrom is regarded as an expert commentator by both Jewish and Christian theologian in the field of theology means the term Judeo-Christian is not devoid of good sensible meaning, that is to say it isn't just a "blatantly a constructed category". Like "Christo-Islamic" might be. I might challenge you to name a work valued by Islamic and Jewish (or Christian) theologians jointly. I'm certainly no expert in theology ... and evidence that I can name one, probably means there are lots more.

That isn't to say the term isn't abused. But in the theological community especially, it does make sense in a lot of contexts.

Also, I think you should be careful about your statement that Jews and Christians have different worldviews. I think there are more than two worldviews in play here. 1st century Jews had more than one worldview back then. I'm willing to bet there is more not less diversity in that community ... setting aside for the moment the splintered worlview Christians are heir to especially since the Reformation and Enlightenment.

Isaac said...

But once you start talking about 1st century israel you are not talking about Jewish and Christian values, but about 1st century israeli values. The point is that it's weird to ascribe the values to religion (which Islam then shares) when it is really a cultural thing. That is, given that the content of religion qua religion as opposed to religion qua culture is the holy books, and Judaism accepts only its own holy books, Christianity accepts Judaisms holy books plus it's own, and Islam accepts all three, you'd be hard pressed to see why Judaism should be more closely linked with christianity than with islam...Though this is from the perspective of a jew ignorant of judaism and far more so of christianity in its varieties and then even more so of islam...So I'm not to be trusted. But I just have a hard time seeing why people only mention two monotheistic religions (judaism and christianity) when there are in fact three.

David Schraub said...

Mark: It's very similar to a past post (Prager brings out the worst in me), the difference being that the prior post was dedicated to specific differences between Jewish and Christian theology, while this one was more on the pragmatic negative implications of the combination.

Christian theology grew out of 1st century Judaism, but split off relatively rapidly (by the 2nd century, I believe, there was a Christian conference that explictly severed the link between Judaism and Christianity as different sects of the "same" religion; now, Christianity was seen as the evolution of Judaism, which was supposed to die off (Judaism 2.0!)).

Islam also was heavily influenced by 6th-7th century Judaism. As the former became hegemonically dominant from central asia across north Africa into Spain, much of Jewish intellectual life continued under Muslim rule. Maimonides, for example, was heavily influenced by Muslim philosophers he befriended in North Africa, and composed many of his works in Arabic. The "golden age" of Jewish life in Spain was when it was under Muslim rule--one of the first acts of Ferdinand and Isabel after the 1492 reunification was the expulsion of Jews from the country. The rapid detoriaration of Judeo-Islamic relations, such that today it is just assumed "it is conflict thousands of years old," is one of the great tragedies of the modern era.

Of course, when dealing with shared texts, it is always possible to find shared meanings. I would not go so far as to say there is NOTHING in which Jews and Christians have in common. However, since the main text of Christianity (The N. Test.) isn't accepted by Jews, and the main exegesis of the Tanakh (Talmud/Mishnah/Responsa etc) isn't accepted by Christian (and for that matter, since even in the shared text their are serious doctrinal and translation disputes), the majority of the traditions pass each other by. To be more precise, there might be individual "Judeo-Christian principles" one could find, but the overall traditions do not meld all that easily into a nice, coherent, "Judeo-Christian" tradition as they are portrayed. This is even more true given the "splintered worldviews" that exist in both Jewish and Christian life--one probably can pick and choose threads from all the pieces and say "look! Everyone agrees!", but it seems kind of ridiculous to assert that project isn't a construction.

Basically, the term "Judeo-Christian" holds implies a particular status between Jews and Christians that is very dangerous. If someone said "both Jews and Christians" believe X, I'd be far happier than "the Judeo-Christian tradition asserts X." The former implies that two separate religions have found common ground (based on past history?), the latter implies that one tradition is speaking with a unified voice, and that any disputes that are out there are essentially intramural.

Russell said...

While it is generally true that there are substantial differences between religious Christian views and religious Jewish views on a lot of things, your selection of abortion is not the best example. Judaism is not traditionally pro-choice. In fact, Judaism does generally forbid abortion-on-demand but does permit it in cases where Christianity traditionally does not.

A more interesting contrast might be found in the stem-cell debate, where the positions are indeed diametrically opposite, Judaism not deeming embryos as protected life until they have implanted in the womb.

And it turns out that there are meaningful political implications to the term "Judaeo-Christian" - among these, it seems to me, is the willingness of Christians to embrace it and indicate a very different attitude from those who see their values as specifically "Christian."

Mark said...

Again you make some very good points. I'm going to have to think about whether the existence of scholars like Milgrom (Jewish), who in writing (shared and esteemed) commentary on a shared text (Leviticus), and who is seen by the Christians and Jewish community as an expert on Leviticus is sufficient to state that a term Judeo-Christian might have meaning. Furthermore, it would be my guess that Jacob Milgrom is not unique in his status as a O.T./Tanakh scholar who's work is seen as valued by both communities.

For, As you aptly point out, there are a lot of reasons why that term is at best misapplied and and worst leads people to make incorrect assumptions.

David Schraub said...

Russell: That is a very good article you point me to. The thing is, I'd consider the position taken in the article to be "moderately pro-choice" (though I agree with the author that the position doesn't neatly fall within the black/white paradigm we've set up for the abortion issue).

Basically, what I gather from the Halakahic rules on abortion is that a fetus life has value, but aborting it isn't "murder". It isn't a good thing, per se, but it isn't murder. Removing the action from one of murdering a child allows for a range of other factors to come into play--factors which must be balanced against the interest of the fetus. This prohibits abortions-of-convienance, so to speak, but I don't think that's a large portion of abortions. It would allow abortion for "compelling reasons", which are debatable--but once we're at the point where psychiatric issues are even being debated as legitimate/illegimate reasons to allow an abortion, I think we can safely say we're past the threshold of where the pro-life movement in America sits. Certainly, it shows a significant difference between the Jewish/Christian conceptions of abortion, which is all I'm arguing for anyway.

Unfortunately, I do not see any sort of moderating tendancy amongst those who say "Christian" values and those who say "Judeo-Christian"--at least in contemporary discourse. I suppose the latter might mean better, but they still use in support of positions rejected by a majority of Jews (see, e.g., The Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration), which means it bites the very harms I say it does--falsely incorporating Judaism into positions Jews find objectionable.

Anonymous said...

I was pointed here by The Moderate Voice and while I have nothing intelligent to add, I did want to say that I found both the original post and the comments of the highest quality. Far too often, a thread with more than 3 comments turns into a flame war over even the tiniest disagreement. This discussion of an already interesting idea was civil and added a lot to the original post. Thank you all for that.

Anonymous said...

I very much appreciate this post - very, very, very much.

As an observant Jew on the traditional side of the Conservative Jewish Movement (United Synagogues), I not only agree, I want to point something out, too.

Among the (1) Humanist, (2) Reform, and (3) Reconstructionist Jewish movements, gay/lesbian/trans folks are openly accepted. These folks can marry and enter clergy.

The Conservative movement (where I affiliate) is a bit of a mish-mosh on that point . . . but speaking for my own synagogue in Western New York? Well - we're strictly Kosher, have a male Rabbi and a male Cantor . . . . And *VERY* openly gay and lesbian members of the congregation.

And the congregation itself?

A great way to alienate yourself is to come in and confess to being a Republican.

This "Juedo-Christian" garbage has to stop. Over my time in both the Midwest and the North East, not only have a reached the same conclusion as your fantastic post . . . I have also noticed something else.

The "Juedo-Christian" label is a label used to punish someone more often than not.

If one just uses the "Juedo" label, one can still even to the Modern Orthodox synagogue in my community where the Rabbi still accepts all people with gentle humanity . . . if not perhaps with the same standing in the community as the other movements noted above offer . . . and that is really saying a great deal.

I have yet to see that kind of acceptance out of any Fundamentalist Christian.



Thank you for standing up for us Jewish Folks, babolah!


Jonathan said...

I have to say that your comment about Jews and Christians having different "worldviews" is a bit of a false dichotomy.

For instance, I do not think that there is one Jewish or one Christian worldview. To do so would be to undermine subjectivity I think, and by doing so undermine that Roman slogan of "ecce homo" - behold the man.

We cannot behold the man when we pigeonhole him into the monolithic worldviews that we so arbitrarily draw.