Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Stop Saying “Judeo-Christian Values”

It has become more and more common that politicians, religious leaders, and laypeople discuss America through this lens, such as stating “America was founded & grew strong on a bedrock of Judeo-Christian values.” 

There’s a few major issues with statements like this. The first, which I think may be one of the more important in our political climate is that America was not founded on a “Judeo-Christian” value system:

The “Judeo-Christian tradition” was one of 20th-century America’s greatest political inventions. An ecumenical marketing meme for combatting godless communism, the catchphrase long did the work of animating American conservatives in the Cold War battle. For a brief time, canny liberals also embraced the phrase as a rhetorical pathway of inclusion into postwar American democracy for Jews, Catholics, and Black Americans. In a world divided by totalitarianism abroad and racial segregation at home, the notion of a shared American religious heritage promised racial healing and national unity.

Similar to the adding of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in the mid 20th century, the original narrative and reason has been washed away in place of a revisionist idea that it was always there (it wasn’t.) More recently, the term “Judeo-Christian” has been used specifically as an exclusionary device against other religions, “most often used to draw a line between imagined Christian values and a perceived (but false) threat of Muslim immigration,” as a colleague of mine explained so succinctly:

“Judeo-Christian” isn’t a thing. It a) positions Jews & Christians against Muslims, is Islamophobic b) elides Christian oppression & murder of Jews over more than 1000 years & c) ignores Jewish civilization worldwide & facts of key Jewish developments in Middle East & N Africa.

Indeed, the term “Judeo-Christian” has been used to isolate and discriminate against Islam, while those properting it seem to forget that “Jews have been systematically excluded from and terrorised by states that claim this Judeo-Christian foundation.” Unfortunately, the term, misguided as it is, has become a “dog-whistle” by the use of the Religious Right, in that 

The phrase appears with regularity in rhetorical attacks on Islam and the progressive left, in attempts to restrict immigration and LGBTQ rights, and in arguments in favor of religious freedom that would collapse the wall of separation between Church and state.

In other words, this term, which has a misunderstood origin (originally “a word for Jewish converts to Christianity”), has been weaponized to discriminate against those of Muslim origin as well as any other minorities that don’t fit to a particular interpretation of the Bible. This argument came up in the past few years when “Biblical Literacy” bills came about in the United States, with Right-winged politicians attempting to have the Bible taught in public schools. Just as the term “Judeo-Christian” is a loaded term with hidden agendas, so is the idea of teaching the Bible in schools:

Hebrew and Greek, as stated above, contain many ambiguities, but translators do not. Rather, they frequently push their subconscious or conscious agendas on the reader by choosing meanings of words that fit their theologies….Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, and many others would be subjected to a very particular “Bible literacy,” meaning a Christian interpretation of the words of the Bible by Christian translators, with Christian theology packed into the choices of the words on the pages. 

It was clear, right away to Jews at least, that teaching Bible in public schools meant teaching Christianity in schools, just as it is clear that those politicians who weaponize the word “Judeo-Christian” mean, simply, Christian values. The truth of the matter, ironically, is that Christianity exactly what Judeo-Christian means, but not for the reason the politicians would like. Despite the long history of prejudice, anti-communistic, and minority suppressing uses of the term, what is most important is that there actually no such thing as “Judeo-Christian” values. Why? Well mostly because:

Jesus was a (brown-skinned, Middle Eastern) Jew, but his followers were not. Jews changed their liturgy to be clear about that differentiation pretty early. And guess what? Judaism has continued to evolve since the Second Temple was destroyed!

To put it simply, Judaism and Christianity, while holding on to parts of each other when the latter came to be, soon began to evolve completely differently in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. As we discussed in previous chapters, cultic and Biblical Judaism changed dramatically when the 2nd Temple was destroyed, and began to transform under the guise of the rabbis, with documents such as the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash. While this was happening, Christians began writing the Gospels, the New Testament, and canon scripture, building between Jews and Christians “separate paths of the last 1900 or more years.” 

So what does this mean? Quite simply, the values inside Biblical Judaism were (and are) interpreted through a Jewish lens by the rabbis, the books of law and interpretation, and finally into law codes and responsa that now form Modern Judaism. Parallel to this were the values that Christians interpreted from Biblical Judaism focusing on their theological ideas, such as, for instance, the typological predictions of Jesus, and seeing the laws and stories of the “Old Testament” through the lens of a “new” one. In other words, there never were any Jewish-Christian values, nor can there ever be, because as soon as the Jesus movement began in the 1st century CE, the followers of Jesus began to rework and reinterpret Jewish values into their own. Now, one might ask, “what about the moral statutes in Judaism and Christianity that we can bond together?” These are perfect examples. Let us take one of the more simple and well known commandments of the Torah, “You shall not murder.” This commandment, which occurs in the “decalogue” in Exodus 20 and in its similar retelling in Deuteronomy 5 is a wonderful place to start. For one, most Jews and Christians alike have mistranslated the Hebrew to be “You shall not kill,” which is incorrect as “killing” is a prescribed punishment for countless sins in the Torah and elsewhere. But more to our discussion, most laypeople would argue that both the Jewish and Christian “value” is to not murder. However, those doing so make a critical error in theology, particularly that of the reason for morality, the reason to not murder. In Christian theology, sinning has a specific punishment (Hell), and in some cases a specific remedy (forgiveness), but in Judaism there is no such system:

Jews do not believe in a God who would use “hell” as an incentive to make them moral. Jews are moral because that is the proper way to live. Unlike “fear,” this is a fine incentive…Further, we deny hell altogether as barbaric and contrary to the nature of God. 

Therefore, while Jews and Christians follow the law to “not murder,” it is for different reasons, and thus different values are placed behind the following of that law. This is the same for all “laws” and “values” found in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (and beyond). Jews and Christians may want the same things at times, but for different reasons. 

Let us revisit this idea through a more positive commandment, which has come to be known as the “golden rule.” When interpreting the Levitical commandment of “Love your neighbor,” Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, states, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” As a scholar and charismatic teacher, we are right to assume that Jesus most likely was aware of the Jewish teachings of his time and before, including the words of a famous Rabbi, Hillel, who, a generation earlier when challenged by a gentile to summarize the Torah while he stood on one foot, stated, “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow, that is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation, go and learn it”. These words are recorded in the Mishnah, ,as we have said, a rabbinic text of collected teachings dating from the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE. It is not surprising, then, that Jesus, being aware of the literature of his day, was moved by Hillel’s words, “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow,” and sought to rewrite it in the form of the affirmative. While this can be taken as a wonderful example of similarities in Judaism and Christianity, one that I personally have used to build bridges of dialogue, it should not be forgotten what the context of the two texts are, and what agenda the two teachers are interpreted to have. In the Gospel of Matthew, the context is as follows:

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Whereas, the context for Hillel which occurs in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a is:

Another time a non-Jew came before Shammai and said, “I will convert if you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed the non-Jews aside with the ruler that was in his hand. The non-Jew came before Hillel and Hillel converted him saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study.”

Within the Gospel of Matthew the context surrounds concepts of good and evil, and the mentions “Father in heaven,” which is in accordance with very Christian ideals and theology. The Talmud tells of a story of a proselyte, one who wished to convert to Judaism, and how to lead those down the path of conversion (at least according to two sages, Hillel and Shammai.) While both teachers, Hillel and Jesus, spoke nearly the same words, they were said for very different reasons, and thus have very different values attached. 

I bring this to the attention of the reader not only for a lesson in political misuse of religious terminology, but as a blanket to spread over the beginnings of dialogue between Jews and Christians. If there ever was a term in antiquity entitled “Judaeo-Christianity, it would be described this way, as Daniel Boyarin summarized:

Judaeo-Christianity, not now Jewish Christianity, but the entire multiform cultural system, should be seen as the original cauldron of contentious, dissonant, sometimes friendly, more frequently hostile, fecund religious productivity out of which ultimately precipitated two institutions at the end of late antiquity: orthodox Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

To go back to the original topic from above, when Jews and Christians approach each other’s holidays, one cannot simply say to the other “we want to celebrate what Jesus celebrated.” Not only is that statement historically inaccurate, but the reason for holidays in the Jewish tradition and the values associated with them have been changed through Christian thought and evolution so that when Christians attempt to celebrate Jewish holidays (without Jewish supervision) the original value system is lost. In sum, Judeo-Christian values do not exist, but there are semantic similarities in Jewish values and Christian values. 

About the Author
Ordained rabbi and social justice advocate with extensive experience serving congregations and leading large-scale community change. Published author who concentrates on bringing deep Jewish understanding to the lay public. Doctoral student with a focus on how Jewish philosophy can drive social justice work in the United States. Passionate Jewish educator using innovative teaching methods to reach unaffiliated Jews. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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