On the semiotics of “Judeo-Christian” as a misdirection

Recently on Twitter there emerged another flare-up of the debate as to whether the term “Judeo-Christian” was coherent, useful, and defensible. In general, I take a very skeptical view of the term, because I think it misleads the public as to the nature of some important facts and dynamics in the history of the West.

Perhaps intellectuals can agree amongst themselves that the term has utility for manipulating the masses, but oftentimes it seems even intellectuals don’t have enough of a grasp of religious history to understand why the usage is literally problematic (I’m not using problematic in a euphemistic catchall manner, I think it’s semantically confusing, not offensive).

First, traditionally Jews and Muslims have been much clearer in recognizing each other as non-idolatrous monotheists, as against Christians. The dominant non-Unitarian nature of Christianity, and the importance of divine representation in both medieval Eastern and Western traditions (with statuary in the latter), were the key issues for Muslims and Jews. This point is not dispositive, but it’s not irrelevant.

In the Western context, it seems American Christians in particular are attached to the term Judeo-Christian. I believe this is the outcome of a specific American history, where different European immigration streams were forged into a common people in the 20th century, especially in the post-World War II era. The general model is the one outlined by Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the emergence of a white America united by shared values, with establishment mainline Protestantism at the center, and Roman Catholicism and Judaism as helpmates. Though the title of the book points to the real religious particularism still prevalent in that period, it was an early form of what Rod Dreher and his fellow travelers would term “morally therapeutic Deism.” The idea that it didn’t matter as to the details of the confession and practice of your faith, so long as you believed in God and were a good person.

Of course not all people who assert the utility of Judeo-Christian as a category are so religiously naive. But most Christians who adhere to the category seem to have a hard time not understanding Judaism as anything other an earlier form of their religion. In other words, Judaism as Christianity without the Christ.

I think this is very misleading. Rather, Judaism as it evolved after the rise of Christianity, and then Islam, was a distinct religion from the Judaism which Christians are familiar with from their Old Testament. Jewish religion in the first millennium A.D. became the religion of the Pharisees. That is, Talmudic Judaism, or Rabbinical Judaism. What we in the West often term Orthodox Judaism. Though there were schismatic sects, such as the Karaites, developments such as Hasidism, and isolated groups such as the Bene Israel of western India who seem to have practiced a more archaic form of the religion, over time Judaism qua Judaism became the religion which evolved out of the same milieu of Roman antiquity as Christianity. Though Christianity evolved out of the religion of the Hebrews, the Jews, the religion of the Jews evolved at the same time as well. It was not static, in chrysalis.

A whole Jewish Diaspora, what became the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim (and Yemenite Jews and other assorted groups), developed a parallel cultural world to that of Western and Eastern Christianity, as well Islam.* Though Jews interacted with gentiles in a professional capacity, whether as physicians, merchants, or money-lenders, the intellectual exchange was relatively limited (Al-Andalus being an exception).

This may surprise many people, because Jews are extremely prominent intellectually in the West today. But this is a feature of the last few centuries, as they became absorbed by Western culture during the Jewish Enlightenment. Even a Jew who predates this period and influenced the course of early modern Western philosophy, Baruch Spinoza, did so after being expelled from the Jewish community, and occupying a sort of gray land of Deism. Neither Christian nor Jew.

What this gets to is that even if Judeo-Christian has some abstract ideal reality, there was no Judeo-Christian civilization before large numbers of Jews abandoned the civilization of Judaism as it had developed organically over the centuries. The civilization only became labeled Judeo-Christian in rhetoric after most Western Jews had abandoned their customary and traditional religion, whether for a congregational faith more recognizable to Christians in the form of the Reform movement, out and out secularism, and in a large number of cases, conversion to Christianity (to name three individuals of Jewish familial origin who were raised Christian no matter their adult faith, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, and Karl Marx).

The civilizational tension among Jews is evident today in the world’s only Jewish state, Israel. Many secular Jews are for all practical purposes members of Western civilization who happen to have a Jewish ethnic and nominal religious identity. In contrast, Haredi Jews are fully steeped in the mores and orientation of the classical Jewish civilization that matured in early modern Europe. The conflict between the Haredim and secular Jews is not just one of religious observance but of civilizational identity and affinity (with Masortim occupying the middle ground).

Western civilization as a project after Late Antiquity and before the modern period was never a partnership between the Jews and Western Christians. It was the project of Western Christian societies, which eventually fractured during the Reformation, and repaired themselves back into some sort of whole in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia. The transformations of the 18th century ushered in the revolutionary changes which allowed for Jews to become participants in Western civilization as something besides Christians.

In general, though I understand that for the public history is often a useful fiction, I prefer attempting to model the past with the greatest fidelity to the reality we can reconstruct among those with the will and ability to understand. The emergence of Western civilization as we understand it, post-Christian civilization, the nymph stage of the universal liberal democratic civilization which was to conquer the 21st century (but hasn’t, and may never!), is historically contingent on particular peoples, places, and cultural threads. Those threads properly constituted simply make the term Judeo-Christian seem peculiar and inappropriate. Therefore, amongst those who aim to know, the proper appellations must be applied so as to illuminate rather than obscure and obfuscate.**

* Some Jews also existed outside of the world of Christianity and Islam, such as the Cochin Jews of southern India, or the Jews of Kaifeng, who were probably originally an extension of Central Asian Jewry. These groups were part of the Diaspora intellectual and culturally, at least initially (the Jews of Kaifeng eventually lost their last rabbi, probably in the 19th century, and assimilated into the Han majority or converted to Islam).

** I have not written much about Islam in this post, but the term Judeo-Christian also misleads many people into thinking that traditional Christianity and traditional Judaism have more similarities of belief and practice than either do with Islam. In fact Islam and Judaism are arguably more similar than either is to Christianity due to the emphasis on prescribed ritual and law incumbent upon the laity guided by a non-priestly scholarly class, whether it be rabbis or the ulema.

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60 thoughts on “On the semiotics of “Judeo-Christian” as a misdirection

  1. I’m still not quite buying it — seems to me that large-scale immigration from North Africa, lack of integration, and radicalization of the second generation have happened under French governments of all stripes.

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  2. it confuses ignorant people as to the nature of the emergence of the west.
    In what way? When Iffen writes “all my childhood Biblical heroes were Jews” it seems arbitrary to say those figures are not part of Western heritage. Likewise, it seems arbitrary to say that Jewish physicians and financiers to medieval royalty, the Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Jewish participation in the Age of Discovery such as French-Jewish mathematicians and astronomers inventing the Jacob’s Staff (measured the angle between celestial bodies) aren’t part of the story and heritage of the West.

    Most areas of the emergence of West will have Jews involved if you dig around, such as Jews in the Spanish Americas, Jews aiding Cecil Rhodes in Africa, or Jewish financiers financing the American revolution.

    i have no idea what any of this has to do with stealing jews from the left.
    The argument doesn’t seem to be factual. It seems to be in line with stereotypes of the Right’s old attitudes toward Jews. If we don’t correct Liberals’ and Jews’ misconceptions, by the time anybody wakes up, demographics will have shifted so far even Texas will be voting Blue. We have to be a positive influence on the world right now.

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  3. In what way?

    people routinely are shocked that jews were not as important before 1800 as they are after 1800.

    aurelius, if you read this blog, you know i know a lot of history. i also know a lot about jews for various reasons (i had a phase where i was super interested in the history of jews before i was blogging). i obviously have a different interpretation of history than you, which i think i’ve laid out. you aren’t going to convince me because i doubt you know more than me (mostly because most of the stuff you mention i already know, but i don’t weight in the same way as you do!).

    If we don’t correct Liberals’ and Jews’ misconceptions, by the time anybody wakes up, demographics will have shifted so far even Texas will be voting Blue.

    i live in texas. if the latest primaries are a guide blue texas is a LONG way away 😉

    i’m not as demographically alarmist as you, though i think alarmism is a defensible position.

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  4. schatz, for example, is married to a chinese american, so i doubt he is very conscious or cares too much about his jewish identity tbh

    Amy Chua’s children identify as Jews and consider themselves Chinese “only in food and stuff.” And it was Chua who encouraged them in their pursuit of Jewish identity.

    I don’t know what John Derbyshire is like in person as you do, but he sure does consort with white nationalists and supremacists despite his Chinese wife and “mud” children as he once (half-jokingly?) called them.

    In the U.S. in any case, when whites (or Jews, for those you who put them in a separate category) and East Asians marry, the family cultural assimilation seems to weigh toward the former in the main.

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  5. When Iffen writes “all my childhood Biblical heroes were Jews” it seems arbitrary to say those figures are not part of Western heritage.

    That was more cultural co-option than inclusion of Jews and Judaism into formation of the West. Frankly, when ordinary Western Christians of a bygone era imagined David slaying Goliath, they were imagining a fair-skinned curly-blond boy (Christian) throwing a slingshot at a swarthy pagan Oriental giant. In other words, they were co-opting Jewish stories and imagery for themselves, not including Jews – the actual people – into their civilization.

    Likewise, it seems arbitrary to say that Jewish physicians and financiers to medieval royalty, the Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Jewish participation in the Age of Discovery such as French-Jewish mathematicians and astronomers inventing the Jacob’s Staff (measured the angle between celestial bodies) aren’t part of the story and heritage of the West.

    It’s not that Jews were absent from the West, it’s that they were – at best, marginal and maginalized players – in the core events and philosophical developments that formed the basis of “Inventing the West,” the midwife of which was the Catholic (aka Western) Church. There was a tremendous difference in attitudes toward Jews and their role in society between pre- and post-emancipation in the West.

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  6. the Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition

    Along these same lines, many people will deny American blacks a part in America’s heritage, even though their ancestors were here from the beginning.

    As to which individuals and groups are important:

    They also serve who only stand and wait.

    Milton via Professor Thompson

    Arguing over who gets to claim mythical persons and their nature and characteristics is not limited to persons in the Bible.

    As to what is fundamental or essential, is there a scenario whereby Christianity comes into being without the substrate of Jews in the Levant? Do Hellenized Jews not count as Jews?

    people routinely are shocked that jews were not as important before 1800 as they are after 1800.

    I understand this. I also see the problem with giving Judeo equal billing with Christian. But given the politics that surrounded the popularization of the term in the early ‘40s, and the politics that surround it currently, can’t we keep it as a marker for a while longer?

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  7. It is not a misdirection, but rather an acknowledgement of fact. Christian belief was built upon Jewish belief. See the well-known verse Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true.”
    Obviously observant people now live and worship differently depending on whether they are Christian or Jewish, but that is not what the term “Judeo-Christian” is used for.
    Look at the top results in Google’s NGram Viewer for words following “Judeo-Christian”. The top results will include: tradition, values, culture, religion, ethics. These relate primarily to the influence of scripture on people’s beliefs.

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  8. Along these same lines, many people will deny American blacks a part in America’s heritage, even though their ancestors were here from the beginning.

    i thought of this actually. for the USA i think ignoring the black role in the construction of the national identity, for the good and the bad, is pretty dumb. you can’t understand the USA without black americans.

    OTOH, i do think attempts to insert marginalized into european/western history is wrongheaded in that it misleads people. though highlighting these people and their history (eg romani) can be interesting and illuminate interesting threads.

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  9. people routinely are shocked that jews were not as important before 1800 as they are after 1800.
    This is used as the motivator for the argument, but everybody should be challenging it. Anybody can recall Jewish figures in antiquity and the 1800s, but only rare history nerds can name a single Jew between those periods. A narrative that completely skips over a group can’t be said to be prioritizing that group.

    It’d be easier to argue that many other European ethnicities didn’t ultimately make valuable contributions than to argue that about Jews. (Jews’ influence on the West by contributing Christianity is huge by itself.) Those European ethnicities falsely believe they played a valuable role in European history! Why are you posting on this, but not that?

    And what kind of culture lacking in magnanimity are we coming from that we’d want to make that argument about those European groups? That’s what Leftists do, not the Right, and is the opposite of what the Right should be doing.

    We might object to referring to Ireland as “The Emerald Isle,” as that deceives people into thinking it’s made out of emeralds, but if it’s part of their heritage, and Ireland is actually very green, the argument against it is very questionable.

    Twinkie: they were imagining a fair-skinned curly-blond boy (Christian) throwing a slingshot at a swarthy pagan Oriental giant.
    Good. It’s the highest praise when people put stories in their own context and make them their own. There are no petty Leftists here.

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  10. but only rare history nerds can name a single Jew between those periods.

    what jews would you name in that period?

    maimonides, rashi (he’s so big within jews themselves that i think he warrants it) and spinoza. perhaps sabbatai zevi.

    Those European ethnicities falsely believe they played a valuable role in European history! Why are you posting on this, but not that?

    you’re kind of starting to fucking piss me off now. you’re being lawyerly.

    when people conflate russia with the west, i DO POST on it. IF SOMEONE STARTED TALKING ABOUT OUR FUCKING ORTHODOX-WESTERN CIVILIZATION AND IT BECAME PART OF THE PARLANCE I WOULD FUCKING POST ABOUT IT.

    and you could make the argument it’s beneficial though because russia and the west should ally with each (i think that’s a defensible position on the merits).

    We might object to referring to Ireland as “The Emerald Isle,” as that deceives people into thinking it’s made out of emeralds, but if it’s part of their heritage, and Ireland is actually very green, the argument against it is very questionable.

    that analogy is total bullshit.

    my patience is fucking over.

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