I love The Princess Bride. It is filled with so many memorable quotations: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something,” “True love is the greatest thing in the world. Except for a nice MLT: a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe,” and, of course, “As you wish.” One of my favorites, because it can be used so often in life, is from the scene in which Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik peer over the Cliffs of Insanity only to discover that the Man in Black is still pursuing them. After Vizzini uses his favorite expletive, Indigo turns to him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (I hope Mandy Patinkin does not troll me for this!) I am most tempted to use this particular quotation when someone uses the term “Judeo-Christian.”
I find the use of the term “Judeo-Christian” to be very disturbing, and I have never been quite sure what people mean when they use it. I am confident that most people who use are not quite sure what they mean by it, either. Most people, I think, use it as an attempt at inclusion: “Christians AND Jews agree with me because we believe the same thing!” The problem with this usage is that Christians and Jews do not believe the same things, and so what happens is an often times well-meaning attempt at inclusion becomes a misappropriation, and there for a negation of, Judaism. After all, if Christianity and Judaism are in fact the same thing, the only difference between us is the acceptance of Christ as savior, so Jews, what are you waiting for? At other times it used by fundamentalist preachers who use literal readings of Torah to justify their vitriol. Their deliberate misinterpretation of Torah is at best an entrée to conversion and at worst, Anti-Semitism (“Don’t be mad at me for wanting to kill homosexuals. The Jews came up with idea first!”).
Judaism and Christianity are not the same. Our concepts of G-d, the nature and role of faith are not the same, and, Jews have never read Torah literally. The differences between Christianity and Judaism are deep, central, and profound, and, like the sage Shammai, I find it impossible to explain all of them in the space of a single blog post. However, like the sage Hillel, I will none the less attempt, while metaphorically standing on one foot, to explain why Judeo-Christianity is a myth:
Do not bring a Christian view to an understanding of Torah. The commentary is vital. Do not ignore it.
Christianity is a Western religion, and Judaism is an Eastern religion. True, most people think of Judaism as western, but that is only because the majority of its practitioners live in the West. Christianity, as practiced by most of the brands in America, began in Western Europe; its framing theologians were Western thinkers schooled in neo-platonic philosophy; the logic of Christian thought is Western. Judaism, on the other hand, developed in the East; its progenitors were Eastern. Even throughout the Diaspora following the destruction of the Second Temple, most great Jewish thinkers were heavily influenced by Eastern thought. The logic of what is called Talmudic or rabbinic thought is Eastern and bares hardly any resemblance to any Western system of.
The Jewish Bible (what Jews refer to as Tanach) is included in many editions of the Christian Bible; however, there is more to Judaism than just Tanach. The study and practice of Judaism includes Tanach as well as five thousand years of oral and written legal/rabbinic commentary found in Talmud and Mishna, as well as the writings of sages such as Rashi and Rambam. This commentary is central an understanding of Judaism. Without interpretation, the practice of Judaism would be impossible. To read only Tanach and claim you understand all of Judaism is the same as ready only The Constitution and claiming you are now prepared to practice law.
I am not claiming that Christianity and Judaism are completely different. There is, in fact, much we have in common. However, to ignore the difference is to do a disservice to both Judaism and to Christianity. By exposing the myth of “Judeo-Christianity” I am hoping to focus us on the differences rather than the similarities because it is our differences that make us valuable to each other. David E. Fry, President Emeritus of Northwood University, is fond of pointing out that diversity is an advantage. We want, and need, people who think differently from us in our lives. As he often says, you do not want to get on a plane flown by a pilot with the same level of flight experience as you, or undergo surgery performed by a surgeon with the same medical training as you! If we all think and believe the same things then there is no reason for us to talk to each other. Differences, on the other hand, requires engagement with The Other. If inclusion is the goal (and I pray that it is) then we must recognize that the only path to inclusion is dialogue. We have much we can learn from each other, but we can only learn from each other if we are willing value our differences rather than viewing them as obstacles.
Christianity is not monolithic. I find myself saying, “I do not think it means what you think it means” in my efforts to distance myself from some understandings of Christianity. I am Mainline, not Evangelical. I am Protestant, not Catholic. I am a United Methodist and my denominational affiliation speaks to further diversity. (I believe there is no such thing as a “nondenominational” church.) I am episcopal, not congregational. Further, I can place myself on the continuum between high and low church. I am a Western and not Eastern Orthodox.
The West did not invent Christianity, but we did domesticate it. Agreed, Western thought was predominant. This wasn’t always the case as the Near East, Middle East, and North Africa beget the Church Fathers who determined doctrine and dogma. The interesting bit is teasing out how Eastern voices were translated by western speakers to western audiences.
The more time I spend on our blog/project and in your company the more aware I am of the degree of misuse/distortion of Torah by, particularly, conservative evangelicals. Their absurd proof-texting alternating between literal and metaphoric interpretation of scripture with little rhyme or reason is maddening. Certainly, they cannot be considered systematic theologians or competent exegetes. It strikes me that many of these same people support “Israel” while preaching how persons not belonging to their ilk of Christianity are damned.
Finally, as friend and coconspirator is there a primer entitled “Top 10 things Christians should stop doing or saying” or “Judaism 101 for the Curious Gentile?” In my considering the “other” I want to express respect and sensitivity in my writing. For instance, Christians use terms like Old Testament, First Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, but your article uses the word Tanach. What is the preferred term? Again, in writing my portion of this blog what sensitivities might I show to our diverse audience? How best might I or other persons be faithful to our own theological tradition/heritage/history without doing violence to other faiths?
Your response achieves several goals I had for this post. The first is to confirm that our friendship is based on more than just a mutual appreciation of cigars. I agree with all you have written.
The second is confirmation of my conclusion that discussion begins with difference, and later I will begin to address your questions.
But most important, you have demonstrated the unsaid premise of this post specifically and our blog in general: Faith, like most hings in life (including depression) is experienced individually. Religion may be practiced in community, but we all experience faith in our own way.
Like you, I repulse when anyone expresses a monolithic representation of any faith system.
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