Why bother with Jews and other odds and ends

Someone named Schvach Yid left an irritated comment in response to my post about the term Judeo-Christian. He also sent me a short email clearing up the fact that Judaism is more than legalism, and that it is steep to consider Jews non-Western. I think addressing these questions is worthwhile insofar as others might wonder what business a blog whose central theme focuses on evolutionary genetics has with venturing into topics such as the discussion of the history of Judaism and Christianity.

First, the blog is an expression of my interests. My interests are rather broad. Though I tend to put more weight into my evolutionary preoccupations on this weblog, I do like to occasionally touch upon other issues. As I told Schvach Yid I am interested in animal behavior. Jews and Christians are animals whose behavior I wish to understand in greater detail. My copious posts where I discuss religion as a natural phenomenon should indicate my interest in this topic. Why does the human animal behave as it does? Ultimately I believe that Nature is One. There are practical reasons that disciplines are clustered the way they are, but cross-fertilization often allows us to sharpen our perceptions.

In regards to the specific post regarding "Judeo-Christianity," it was more than just semantical, rather, I think that information was being loss via the term. Let me be clear: the issue here is that I think that if many Westerners understood that Islam resembled Rabbinical Judaism a great deal then they could comprehend more accurately the nature of the religion. As it is, the tendency to conflate Islam with "eastern" religions set against Judeo-Christianity results in the loss of this information because the assumption is that Islam will naturally be an outgroup. Many people are well acquainted with the analogy between the Catholic-Protestant divide and that between Shias and Sunnis. Similarly, I think some "free" information can be imparted by understanding that many Muslims conceptualize their relationship to the West as Satmar Hasids might. Except you increase the numbers by at least an order of magnitude.

Finally, about Jews being Western. I do not believe that Rabbinical Jews were part of Western culture, nor do I believe they contributed appreciably to it so that its overall character would have been changed if you removed them from the equation. Obviously Judaism is part of the character of Western culture, but that Judaism is not the Judaism which finds its expression in the Babylonian Talmud. Rather, it is the Judaism from which Christianity emerged in the centuries before the redaction of the Oral Law. Though I think the Pharisaec Jews who were the direct cultural ancestors of Rabbnical Judaism were the dominant element during the period when Christianity arose, I think it is plausible that Christianity arose in the alternative subcultures of various Hellenistic Jewish communities and the gentiles with whom they associated. In this formulation Rabbnical Judaism and Christianity are both descendants of the Judaisms which existed before the destruction of the Second Temple. Though Jews were in the West, I do not believe that before the 19th century they were of the West. Ashkenazi Jews were not full participants of European cultures as the Jews of medieval Spain were. They were a people apart. The assimilation of Jews as a Western people during the 19th century after emancipation was concomitant with the emergence of "liberal" and Reform movements within the faith and the wholesale secularization of much of the European Jewry, as well as the abandonment of the ritual associated with Rabbinical Judaism which set them apart as a nation. To use an analogy, to say that the Jews were a Western people because they lived in the West is to say that the Gypsies are a Western people because they lived in the West. This just isn't so.


More like this

I've always been ill at ease with the term "Judeo-Christian." As someone from a Muslim cultural background I was minimally familiar with the tenets and principles of the Islamic religion. As someone who was socialized with both Jews and Christians I was reasonably familiar with the outlines of…
One of my more quixotic quests has been to dispute the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" in normal conversation. Many people who use the term do so without much forethought, it's just one of the definitions you use to point to the bracketing of the two traditional religions of Western civilization…
William Saletan has a piece up over at Slate, Jewgenics, which covers his reactions to a talk (you can view it online) sponsored by AEI around Jon Entine's book Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. I've read the book, though I don't have time to listen to the talk…
I was putting off commenting on this, and wondering whether I had any value to add. But a reader pointed me to Noah Feldman's Orthodox paradox, a piece in The New York Times Magazine where the author, a young Harvard law professor, reflects on his journey from the Modern Orthodox subculture into…

I agree with your point about Judaism being similar to Islam. I have heard the phrase "Judaeo-Christian-Islamic" a few times, and I hope that will become more common.

As for whether Judaism is part of Western culture, I think answering that requires us to define "Western culture." Western culture is not inherently Christian, though I do believe elements of Christianity helped to shape it in some ways. Jews partook of Western culture just by living among Christians over the centuries. I expect that Muslims and other religious groups will, also.

My theory is that Western culture as we know it is rooted partly in the ideas of Paul. By distinguishing between the "letter" and the "spirit," and depreciating the former, he made it harder to identify spirituality with legality. Luther drew inspiration from that and kept the Roman Church from developing a "Christian law," which I think they wanted in the late middle ages. I think Reform Judaism is a "Protestant" form of Judaism, stressing Judaism's "spirit" rather than its "letter," and I hope there will be Protestant forms of Islam, too.

As a result of Paul and Luther, probably even Orthodox Jews live more freely than they would've without them. I think secularization is a positive development and doesn't have to be perceived as anti-religion. It only means there is a sort of "neutral space" in our lives where people with different ideas can interact and coexist.

So yes, I do think Jews are part of Western culture, and I hope everybody else will come to be, too.


please note that i was precise in who i was talking about:. I do not believe that Rabbinical Jews were part of Western culture, nor do I believe they contributed appreciably to it so that its overall character would have been changed if you removed them from the equation.

in short, the jewish culture as it existed between the emergence of the babylonian talmud in the 6th century through the commentaries of rashi on down toward the 18th centuries when the twin developments of hasidism and haskalah resulted in a great deal of change. certainly rabbinical jews interacted with their gentile neighbors insofar as they played a specialized occupational role, but, in general they didn't engage culturally with the peoples amongst whom they live. certainly they absorbed some elements of gentile culture (language, dress), but i don't see any major influence of ashkenazi jews upon western culture until the 19th century, when the world of rabbnical judaism was fractured by the various movements as well as secularization and mass conversions to christianity.

how, it is true that the definition of the west is going to be imprecise. the west evolves. and where you draw the lines of its beginning tell you what it necessarily entails. but, if you use the analogy of a stream, the west has antecedent tributaries from the ancient jews, greeks and romans. christianity was the religious expression of the cultural synthesis which arose in the late antique period. my point is that after the rise of christianity jews withdrew from the world and created their own universe. today americans and europeans are used to jews being full and equal citizens within their nations, basically simply french or americans with a religion that is somewhat different. that doesn't transmit what i believe was the normal sense of otherness which jews maintained for 1,500 years.

now, back to analogies, it is with islam that this all becomes relevant. one can draw some correspondences between the assimilation and acceptance of the european jewry into the mainstream and muslims. both come from isolated cultures which were non-western, and once the monopoloy of control and authority by the religious powers that be were broken individuals had to negotiate their own position on the spectrum of identification. some converted. some remained as they were. and many created new forms of being jewish (e.g., reform, or a "cultural" jew who is an atheist and consumes pork). there are of course major differences, the main one being that jews brought a lot of social capital to the table (they tended to swamp the professions once formal bars were removed).

I don't disagree with anything here, just a semantic question: Whats the difference between the term "western culture" and "christian culture", especially for the 4th to 19th centuries discussed here. Why not just use the term "christian culture"?

if race is a fuzzy concept, culture certainly is. "western" means different things to different people and different things at different times (e.g., in south & east asia muslim arabs and persians were westerners). but, to respond to your time frame the key is that across that period christianity was polycultural.

1) on a precise quibble, in the 4th century the roman empire was dominated by the christian faction, but it was not a christian empire. cultural production was still predominantly non-christian until the 5th century (as was the aristocracy).

2) but pushing even further into time, it seems in the 6th century the western portions of the sassanid empire were far more fundamentally christian than the western portions of the former roman empire. the locus of christianity until the rise of islam was definitely in the eastern mediterranean (remember that the popes were officially subjects of the byzantines until the 8th century).

3) even into the period of the arab conquests it can be argued that the middle east west of the persian lands was still fundamentally christian until around 750, when the islamicization of the culture producers began apace. the last of the church fathers was a certain john of damascus, a functionary in the court of the ummayads in the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

4) quantitatively there may have been more christians in the lands of islam than in all of europe last late (or later) than the year 1000 (though after 750 their culture production fell off as the elites became explicitly muslim).

so, during the early period christianity was not western. relics of this persist in the christianity of the coptic and ethiopian church as well as the various "eastern" christian denominations. this is just a rump of what was, and recall that before 1000 last swaths of western europe were still pagan (scandinavia and repaganized parts of the british isles). eastern europe has large pagan pockets until the late 1300s.

5) after the conquest of constantinople i think one can contend that eastern orthodox civilization became distinct and separate from the full west. from the eastern orthodox perspective of course they are the authentic west; but since i'm not a partisan of that civilization i'm biased ;-) one can argue that the eastern orthodox elites refused to some extent with the western christian elites after the 18th century, but i think the ottoman dominion, the tatar yoke, as well as the demonization at the hands of the poles left their mark.

a unitary christian european west in this framework basically existed only for a few centuries during the early high middle ages, when byzantium was still vigorus, russia was part of the royal marriage system and the western europe was fully christianized.

I think I would put the break between the West and Eastern Orthodoxy further back. I think an enlightening thing to consider is the effect of western Europe's relatively poor and "barbarous" state in late antiquity. The Romans abandoned that part of their empire at least partly because it was poorer than the East. So the Byzantine Empire maintained itself for a number of centuries, while the West was broken into a bunch of petty Germanic states.

Even if the popes were subjects of the Byzantine Empire--that's a very interesting point if true--they did step into the power vacuum created by that fragmentation. They were the most stable authorities in the West for centuries. Around 800, the papacy helped to create a revival of the "empire" in the West (with Charlemagne), perhaps as a counterweight to the authority of the Byzantines. This helped to promote their claim to supremacy in the Church.

But eventually, stronger kingdoms would arise in the West, so there would be a conflict of authority between the secular and the sacred. If a cleric (such as Ockham or Luther) was unhappy with the pope, he could turn to a king or prince for support. If a subject was unhappy with his king, he could turn to the pope for support. I think that helped to facilitate the rise of secularism and pluralism in the West. I think you can say that Thomas Jefferson's idea of separation between Church and State is the logical culmination of that development. Instead of fighting for supremacy, religious and secular authorities need to be independent of each other.

In contrast, I think you can say that even in the Eastern Orthodox countries, the tie between Church and State has been stronger. I understand that even in the Soviet Union, the Church could almost be defined as a sort of department of the State. And in Romania and Greece today, there's a lot of resistance to proselytism by non-Orthodox churches and other faiths. The idea is sometimes expressed that if you're Romanian, you're Orthodox.

You mentioned that Jews had an occupational position in Western society before the 19th century. I guess I think that's all it takes to make them "part of Western society." Also, I think we can understand the rise of Nazism better if we understand that they did "have their place" in traditional European society. The problem was that, with the coming of modernity, a lot of people perceived them as not "keeping their place." Modernity bothered a lot of people because once you have a pluralistic society, people who were once your "inferiors" might be doing better than you financially.

I think the position of the Jews in the last few centuries can be explained by two factors: 1) their relation to Christianity; and 2) the rise of Europe to world supremacy. Factor 1 meant the Jews would have something of a place in European society (which gradually Christianized) because Jesus was a Jew. But they would also be subject to persecution because they didn't convert to that faith. Factor 2 meant that the rise of power and wealth for the West would also mean an increase for them. In fact, some such as the Nazis would claim that they were in control of the whole picture. But if more of the Jews had emigrated to say, India or China, their image in the world would have been completely different.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a kind of outgrowth of Western colonialism. It comes from the fact that Jews (at least Ashkenazic Jews) had a connection with Europe.

I suppose my Factor 1 (the Jews' connection to Christianity) might seem kind of doubtful. Why would the simple fact that Jesus was Jewish make it okay for Jews to live in Christian areas? I suppose they were already living in those areas to some extent before the areas were Christianized. So maybe that really is doubtful. But I think another, perhaps more relevant, point is just that after the destruction of Jerusalem in antiquity, the Jews didn't have a state. (Maybe the Khazar state south of Russia in the Middle Ages could be a partial exception, but I don't think it lasted long.) The lack of a state made their status different from that of Muslims in relation to Western Europe. They didn't have armies. So they could more easily live in Europe, but, as Factor 1 points out, they would be subject to persecution if they didn't convert.

So in general, I think the relation of Jews to Europe explains a lot of the struggles they've had in the last century.