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.