The Judeo-Christian Tradition
Jewish exceptionalism is an idea that is arguably rooted in Judaism’s theology of election, the idea “that God has created a permanent, non-revocable, relationship with the Jews that God has not created with any other nation . . . and that this relationship is of supreme value relative to any relationship God has created or will create with any other specific nation.”1 The secularization of the theology of election arguably yields an undertheorized notion of Jewish exceptionalism. But from a secular perspective, why are the Jews exceptional if God did not choose them? Many answers are offered, from historical ones (Jews are the most persecuted people) to cultural ones (Jews are well-educated) to moral ones (Jews are ethical), all of which are arguably rooted in theological election now transformed.2
Jewish notions of secularized exceptionalism in some way share common cause with the idea of America as exceptional, a notion that also has theological roots among radical Protestants who often viewed themselves as a “New Israel” part of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It was John L. O’Sullivan who first coined the term manifest destiny in 1845,
.... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.3
The idea that this new land was a gift from God through providence served as an early foundation of the idea of American exceptionalism that is now largely expressed through the realm of a political, or perhaps an imperialist, lens. In one sense, then, exceptionalism of one sort or another may be something America and Jews share and thus American Jews can find themselves doubly exceptional: members of one exceptional people (the Jews, living in the Diaspora but exceptional nonetheless) living in another exceptional country (America). In Israel Jewish exceptionalism merges the theological with the political more smoothly and thus resembles a Jewish, or Zionist, form of Manifest Destiny which is perhaps more accurately articulated as Manifest Promise or simply divine covenant. In the Diaspora where exceptionalism is, for the Jews, doubled, an interesting, and problematic, articulation of what I am suggesting can be found in the ever-popular notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition, an idea that originated in nineteenth-century Germany but was revived, in different circumstances, in early twentieth-century America.4 The Judeo-Christian tradition is one way the theo-political-territorial notion of American exceptionalism can also include the Jews. Alternatively, it can link the state of Israel to American exceptionalism in ways that we see in certain forms of Christian evangelical Zionism.
Below I examine this Judeo-Christian tradition through an essay written by the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen in 1969 entitled, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,”5 Cohen was ostensibly writing at a time when “Judeo-Christian” was deployed to express tolerance of the Jew as “other,” generously exemplified by the shared hyphen even as that hyphen, like many hyphens, is more illustrative of anxiety than comradery.6
Cohen’s intervention is embedded in his title, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” using “tradition” and “myth” to offset the lie that lurks beneath, or inside, the hyphen. Who gets to coin something a “tradition”? Cohen, following Foucault, suggests it is only those in power. After all, it is the Christian and not the Jew who invents the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jew may support the Judeo-Christian tradition for the purposes of power or influence but there is nothing intrinsic to Judaism that would need a Judeo-Christian tradition at all. Thus Cohen writes, “We can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations, but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding. How then, can we make of it a tradition?” By juxtaposing “tradition” and “myth” in the title, Cohen seeks to mine the origins of this move by Christian America. Why Jews, why “Judeo,” why forge a “tradition” with the very people whose rejection stands at the center of your covenant? And what then is the price or benefit of all this in a secular society, a secular “tradition” that has no history, perhaps invented only to fortify exceptionalism.
Cohen argues that this “Judeo-Christian tradition” is not a gesture of reconciliation at all but rather the consummation of absorption whereby the “Jew,” now Latinized/Christianized as “Judeo,” becomes fully a part of Christian America. For Cohen it is a cynical act of assimilation and the erasure of significant difference. Why then do American Jews buy in? Here Cohen sees this “myth” as a product of disaster and not triumph: It is the disaster of faith now lost and the triumphal substitute of secular religiosity. He writes, “Such secular religiosity is dangerous; it is the common quicksand of Jews and Christians.” Elsewhere Samuel Belkin, a leader of American Orthodoxy in mid century wrote, “The greatest danger to traditional Judaism lies in the philosophy of secular observance.”7 Belkin was likely referring to non-Orthodox observance but his comment resonates with Cohen; when secularism becomes the lens through which religion is refracted and in Belkin’s case, enacted, certain dangers emerge. For Belkin the danger may be the loss of authenticity; for Cohen it may be the erasure of the Jew. What is at stake for us, Jews and Americans, when this double exceptionalism becomes operative?
The “myth” in Cohen’s mind serves the failure of each against the other and then both against a common enemy (the non “Judeo-Christian”). “The Christian comes to depend on the Jew for an explanation of unredeemedness. The Jew . . . must look to Christianity to ransom for him his faith in the Messiah, to renew for him his expectation of the nameless Christ.” This is reminiscent of an older idea attributed to the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen that false messiahs are necessary as they keep the messianic idea alive. Arthur Cohen suggests the Jew and Christian use one another, must use one another, to satisfy the lack in both. But they use one another at their own peril. For Arthur Cohen the price for the Jew may be too high and the benefit is too meager. But something more pernicious may be going on in this new (Christian) gesture to the Jews. Santiago Slabodsky writes about how some theorists have suggested that the existence of this new fangled Judeo-Christian project sets conditions for yet another possible atrocity.
Indeed in recent decades several scholars have pointed to the existence of a ‘new ecumenical deal’ in religious and political secular forms that enables Western Christianity to expiate her sins incurred from her ideological and material complicity (or leadership) during the Holocaust. The outcome of this new Judeo-Christian project, dissident voices argue, goes even further than ethno-religious exculpation. It has enabled the West to perpetuate the same civilization atrocities by, ironically, justifying their reproduction with the excuse of protecting its former victims. In this way Jews became re-inscribed into the same dualistic paradigm that was responsible for the annihilation of one-third of their population during World War II.8
While the prediction may seem overly dramatic, the point is well-taken: the enemy becomes the friend to perpetrate new acts of oppression on a common enemy (the non Judeo-Christian). Have Jews been drawn into a secular orbit of power that threatens the religious tradition upon which their identity is based? What of Judaism has been abandoned to be part of the Judeo-Christian tradition?
For Cohen this theo-political expression of exceptionalism all illustrates the death of religion, both Judaism and Christianity. If Jews and Christians should find their footing inside “tradition,” he argues, each would dismiss the “myth” as unnecessary and could (happily) return to seeing the irreconcilability of one to the other. In short, for Cohen, irreconcilability is lost when each religion “loses its religion.” That is, if each had their tradition, there would no longer be a need for a Judeo-Christian tradition. If they do not, and the myth persists as “masking the abyss,” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it will be the catalyst for the disappearance of both, which means, I think, that only Christianity remains, albeit an imperialistic shell of itself. The “myth” is constructed from the shards of each “tradition” shell-shocked by modernity’s critique. What gets saved is only power and what gets lost is the (prophetic) critique of power in both religions. Cohen, of course, cares for the Jews here above all – can the Jews survive in a tolerant society, even one that wants to embrace them through a Judeo-Christian tradition? His answer is that only if it resists the embrace because the embrace is self-serving of a Christianity that “can no longer deal with actual history.” The Jew then becomes the consolation of history.
The Christian erasure of the Jew for the sake of the common enemy comes through quite starkly in Steve Bannon’s talk at a 2014 symposium at the Vatican where he laid out his world-view.9 In his expansive remarks lasting almost an hour, Bannon consistently referred to the “Judeo-Christian West” but whenever he defined it, he always reverted to exclusively Christian language, i.e. “the church militant,” “the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity,” a time when “Christian faith was predominant throughout [a] Europe of practicing Christians.” The only place where he mentions Judaism is in reference to capitalists who, he says, “were either active members of the Jewish faith, [or] active members of the Christian faith, … and they took their beliefs in the work they did.” This is, of course, empirically false at least in regards to Jews and capitalism. Many Jewish capitalists in Western Europe were quite assimilated and many, especially in Eastern Europe, who had strong ties to religion were sympathetic to socialism. In any case, in some way agreeing with Cohen, Bannon says, “I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.” Yet what Bannon wants to do is re-insert “religion” as the theological foundation of a secular exercise in power against the true enemy: Islam. For Bannon it is the Judeo-Christian tradition that serves as the exceptionalist fuel to engage in a war against Islam, dragging the Jews into a modern-day Christian crusade.
Where Bannon shows what he means by the “Judeo-Christian West” comes out twice in his remarks. First, defining it against “a barbaric empire of the Far East,” and second, “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam.” To the second point, Jews never had a “struggle against Islam,” at least not until the advent of Zionism. There was certainly oppression and persecution but the notion of a “struggle against Islam” is not endemic to the Judaic tradition. In fact, arguably without Islam the entire medieval Jewish philosophical tradition would not exist. It was through Arabic translations of Plato and Aristotle in the ninth century that Jews were exposed to the Greek philosophical corpus. And more practically, Jews generally lived better under Muslim rule than they did in Christendom, which persecuted, tortured, and murdered them for centuries. Not very “Judeo-Christian.” Bannon here proves my claim that Judeo-Christian is really an iteration of secular Christian exceptionalism, a position that can perhaps include present-day Israel because it, too, struggles against Islam. In his 2007 book A Match Made in Heaven, Zev Chafetz aptly calls this situation a “Judeo-Evangelical Alliance.”10 But in reality there is no “Judeo-Christian West”; there is the Christian West and the myth of a Judeo-Christian tradition.
But perhaps what this is really about, for the Jew and for the Christian, and certainly for Bannon and his supporters, is the reiteration of the exceptionalism of both through the prism of the other. That which both were historically prohibited from doing with the other emerges in the hyphen that brings them together. Cohen’s essay was written decades before the rise of Islamism and Islamophobia and before the Israeli occupation (it was written only two years after the Six-Day War). What can Cohen say to us about the Jew today, construed, or re-invented as “Judeo,” at this time when American exceptionalism has both become government policy in Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign (an inversion of American imperialism that amounts to same thing) as well as a religious mandate in a theo-political register through the rise of evangelical political piety? Has Cohen’s godless communism today become Radical Islam? Has the secular Cold War morphed into a resacralized crusade giving white nationalists like Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, and the alt right, new voices on the American landscape?
As I read Cohen, there is a double-exceptionalism going on in the Judeo-Christian. Cohen argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition is really a tool of domination in regards to Judaism and Jews. I add that it also invites the Jew to have a hand in wielding the hammer of power against the non Judeo-Christian. It invites the Jew to join American exceptionalism by re-framing her own exceptionalism in the service of America. By subsuming the “Judeo” in the Christian, Christianity owns its “Judeo” roots and thus takes from the “Jew” that which the she always used as the firewall between it and its perceived theological foe. In this case, tolerance is the mask of domination. As I have argued elsewhere, President Trump’s unilateral decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, taking the vexing issue of Jerusalem off the table as a pre-condition of negotiations, is not only a victory for Israel but also a victory for America (and thus Christianity).11 It may be Israel’s capitol but America is really the sovereign. For the Jew the price of its joining its exceptionalism with America is high indeed.
The state of Israel and the role it plays in the American Judeo-Christian exceptionalism is something Cohen never addressed. Recently in America, the “Judeo” does not only mean the “Jew” but also the “Jew/ish” nation-state. In this sense, Judeo-Christian is part of a larger Zionist narrative expressed by today’s American politicians who proudly proclaim that “there is no light between the US and Israel” who unilaterally decide who “owns” Jerusalem. Even the hyphen collapses. This benefits the “Jew” as “Israel” in precisely the same way it threatens the “Jew” as “American.” The theo-political “Judeo-Christian” is a tool of exceptionalism to the non “Judeo-Christian,” the Muslim “other,” the Palestinian, the enemy (non-Zionists?). The historical pact between Jews and Muslims that is in many ways crucial for Israel’s long-term survival has been subverted such that the Christian now becomes the political ally of the Jew against the Muslim through the “Judeo-Christian” expressed, in part, through American fidelity to Israel. Israel, as the “Judeo” becomes an appendage of American exceptionalism.
With Cohen, but for different reasons, I think this merging exceptionalism is a dangerous game. First, as Slobodsky suggested above it offers a new theo-political exceptionalism that may seem more palatable because it includes the “Judeo” and thus gestures toward enlightened progress. “We will no longer seek to convert you, we will now include you,” but this inclusion comes at a price: you are now part of our exceptionalism. This itself is a kind of exclusion, not only of the Jew who is distinct from the “Judeo” (perhaps the Jew who is critical of Israel?) but for the non-Judeo-Christian in America as well. But as a myth, of course, it only “masks the abyss” here being the moment when it is no longer necessary.
Second, the new “Judeo-Christian” severs, at the very least complicates, ties between Jew and Muslim, making the former now a party to the latter’s complex history of the latter. In this sense, the Judeo-Christian makes the Jew a pseudo-Christian in the Christian-Muslim narrative of theo-political power. So now it is the Zionist Jew who becomes the “Judeo” in the Judeo-Christian. Many Israeli leaders readily, and cynically, court Christian Zionists knowing that their end-game is very different. But that support has its price. The freedom such collusion offers may very well be the servitude of the “Judeo” (perhaps even Israel) to the Christian (America) if and when things change.
Cohen was afraid for the American Jew. He viewed the American Judeo-Christian tradition as a veil for the erasure of Judaism at the price of the survival of the Jew. And in 1969 talk of Jewish survival was a growing concern, not as much because of anti-Semitism but because of assimilation.12 The Judeo-Christian myth for Cohen was one form of that assimilation in the form of a pact of shared exceptionalism. Post 9/11 things are of a different order. Today the exceptionalist implications are more global, certainly for (Christian) America and even for the (Judeo) Jew. I think this was the underlying premise of Bannon’s remarks. Each (Jew and Christian) can now more readily than in 1969 use the other for its own exceptionalist purposes: the Jew by saying that finally Christians have understood that without Judaism Christianity cannot survive theologically, and Christianity by saying that we can subsume the Jew through assimilation with the mere inclusion of the word “Judeo.” Each gets something from the bargain. The Zionist Jew gets America to support its exceptionalist claims. And Christianity gets to feel exonerated by now including the Jew, whom it very recently tried to destroy, into its orbit of power and dominance. And both Jew (Zionists and Israel) and Christian (imperialist America) can use the Judeo-Christian to justify its claim to exclusive right (and perhaps even divine right) to pursue its intended goals, even as the Judeo-Christian may make those goals impossible to achieve.
1 Jerome Gellman, “Jewish Chosenness and Religious Diversity – A Contemporary Approach,” in Religious Perspectives on Religious Diversity (Leiden: Brill, 2016).↩
Interestingly, militant rabbi Meir Kahane responding to the Israeli Parliament claiming he was a racist, argued that secular Zionists and secular Jews in general, that is, those for who Zionism of Jewish election is not founded exclusively on divine revelation are “racists.” “This is why the religious Jew must raise his voice night and day against the continued specter of racism that is the very essence of the secular Jew.” Meir Kahane, “I hate racism” (1987) in Rabbi Meir Kahane: beyond Words vol. 5 (Jerusalem, 2010), 226. In his Judaism and Zionism: A New Theory, David Novak makes a similar, albeit not as sharp, accusation regarding secular Jewish claims to the land of Israel. See Novak, Judaism and Zionism: A New Theory (Cambridge Cambridge University Press), 2,3,71, 144 and also Magid, “Politics and Precedent: David Novak, Meir Kahane, and Yoel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe) on Judaism and Zionism,” in Covenantal Thinking: Essays on the Philosophy of David Novak (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).↩
Alan Brinkley, American History, A Survey Volume 2. 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), 352.↩
On the history of the term, especially in America, see Mark Silk, “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America,” American Quarterly 36.1 (Spring, 1984): 65-85.↩
See Cohen, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” Commentary Magazine, November 1, 1969 at https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-myth-of-the-judeo-christian-tradition/. The essay also appeared as the title essay of Cohen’s , The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (New York: Schoken Books, 1971). For a similar critique of the Judeo-Christian myth published in The Jewish Liberation Journal, November, 1970, see Aviva Cantor Zukoff, “The Oppression of America’s Jews,” re-printed in Jewish Radicalism, Jack Nusan Porter and Peter Dreier, eds. (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 42, 43.↩
See Berel Lang, “Hyphenated Jews and the Anxiety of Identity,” Jewish Social Studies 12.1 (Autumn, 2005): 1-15 and Jonathan Sarna, “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,” Jewish Social Studies 5, nos. 1, 2 (Autumn 1998—Winter 1999): 52—79.↩
Belkin, Essays in Traditional Jewish Thought NY: Philosophical Library, 1956.↩
Santiago Slabodsky, Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal failures of Barbaric Thinking (New York: Palgrave, 2014),6,7.↩
See J. Lester Feder, “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” Buzzfeed, November 15, 2016 at https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world?utm_term=.xqWMeyVV9#.ho8NaOrrx. Cf. Hannah Roberts, “Steve Bannon’s alt-right academy – and one village’s fight to stop it,” FT Magazine, https://www.ft.com/content/d38ffde2-6bf6-11e9-a9a5-351eeaef6d84.↩
Zev Chafetz, A Match Made in Heaven (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).↩
See Magid, “Gold-Plated Jerusalem in Contending Modernities, December 14, 2017 at http://contendingmodernities.nd.edu/global-currents/gold-plated-jerusalem/.↩
See Jonathan Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews (Bloomington, IN: Indianan University Press, 1986).↩