In defense of Judeo-Christianity

By Razib Khan | January 14, 2009 8:18 pm

Ross Douthat (also, James Poulos) makes an intelligent, well-informed defense of the term using the general framework that I began with (as opposed to some people who simply insist on digressing immediately to forward their own position). There are also intelligent comments below. Instead of responding in a point-by-point fashion to Ross’s rejoinder in this post, I’ll just elaborate in the comments here and below. Rather, I want to tack to a different issue. My main concern as an atheist who lives in a progressively more religiously pluralist society characterized by liberal democratic values is to turn all religions into operational variants of mainline Protestantism. Implicit in this is that the extinction of organized religion will not occur in the near future, so in a pragmatic sense religion has to be take as one of the parameters which define our society.


As an atheist all supernatural constructs are nearly interchangeable to me, but obviously religious people don’t view it the same way. Additionally, like a liberal who has an attachment to his family’s Republicanism, or a conservative who remains a Democrat in name despite sympathies with the Right, people are strongly attached to the label and specific symbolisms which come down to them through inheritance. American Catholics whose religious outlook is fundamentally no different than that of Protestants balk at the suggestion that they should become Episcopalian. Reform Jews whose supernatural beliefs are minimal still remain attached to the rituals and customs hinged around the claims of Jewish supernaturality. This is human nature. For me my main concern is to destroy the grand orthopaxic claims which many religions make upon their adherents with the casual demands of mainline Protestantism and an emphasis on private (or at least ingroup) orthodoxy. One can not be a Hindu in the United States in a way that one could be a Hindu in India (in fact, one can not be a Hindu in urban India the way one can be a Hindu in rural India!). More pressingly, one can not be a Muslim in the West in the way that one can be a Muslim in the Muslim world. Protestant European society forced Jews to change their practices if they wished to integrate into the mainstream after the dissolution of the ghettos. This resulted in secularization and Christianization, but also a reformulation of Jewish religion which was palatable to mainstream. This allowed Jews to retain their distinctiveness in at least a notional sense, which has important proximate psychic utility. How does this relate to the term to Judeo-Christianity? I hope some of my comments below make it clear why I think people with an intellectual orientation and interest in these topics that isn’t superficial (granted, this is a very small set) should shift their terminology, and has to do with undermining the very way people view how these categories relate to cultures and history.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    ok, in response to ross on one specific point:
    though he glosses rather quickly over the implications of the Maimonidean-Scholastic connection
    i might not know enough about this, but i don’t see this as a big jewish influence at all. rather, i see maimonides and other philosophically inclined jews of spain as being influenced by particular trends within the islamic world, in short, the last embers of the falsafah orientation which attempted to integrate hellenic thought into islam. maimonides, as a citizen of that world because of the relative integration (and i mean relative, jews were as integrated into al-andalus as al-andalus was a multicultural paradise, i.e., it’s historically relative*) in that culture naturally participated in the neo-aristotelian internationale. but from a western christian perspective averroes (ibn rush, aka, ‘the commentator’) was much more influential. but hellenic thought didn’t just some from spain, it also came from byzantium, in some forms in a less mediated form, so not only don’t i grant jews pride of place in influencing the scholastics, but i think the al-andalan focus in the anglo-saxon world is somewhat unbalanced, probably because we fixate on the university of paris as opposed to the intellectual ferment in italy triggered by greek scholars fleeing west.
    so my rebuttal to that is three-fold:
    1) the jewishness of maimonides isn’t what influenced the scholastics, it’s the neo-aristotelianism current among many andalusian thinkers.
    2) i don’t grant maimonides or spanish jews an essential role in the transmission, though obviously they played a role, and this is to me the biggest exception or counter-argument to my claim that jews weren’t integrated in any influential way between 500 and 1800.
    3) as a modulation of degree i think focusing on al-andalus to the exclusion of byzantium goes a bit far in the english speaking work, so i reduce the “weight” on the jewish variable even further.
    to me, a judeo-christian culture requires some level of parity, even if not necessarily equality. i do not believe that exists.
    the rest of ross’ argument is harder to assail, because by the criteria he is using it is very easy to make the case that the jewish christian connection an relation is more intimate and familiar than that between islam and judaism. in fact, he could make the criticism of me that i have made of some of my critics: i’m not focusing enough on the intellectual currents which scholars presuppose as opposed to the operational reality of how people live. but, my main objection to the criteria is somewhat obnoxious i suspect from a religious perspective: i think scripture has mostly been a wash in terms of how it influences history or society. though it obviously did influence the fact that christians allowed jews to remain within christendom, at least in a spotty manner, while they forcibly converted all other groups.
    * again, this is not to mitigate jewish conversion to the other two religions, that happened a lot, but these people left jewish culture really quickly if the conversion wasn’t coerced.

  • Gabriel

    “p.s. your first point doesn’t even address anything that i believe, fwiw.”
    It addresses your claim that Rabbinic Judaism post-dates the emergence of Christianity. The point is that not only are you wrong (or at least over-simplifying to the point of being, perhaps deliberately, misleading), but you are also completely out of kilter with that has been generally believed in the western tradition that you seek to define. The fact is that the majority of Christians have always seen Rabbinic Judaism as the launching pad and counter-reference point for their religion (which is important regardless of the degree to which that is actually true).* Thus Christianity has, in fact, extensively shaped itself around the contours provided by specifically Rabbinic Judaism.
    And, yes, a denouements go, it was rather dickish.
    *The truest statement would be that both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity grew in different directions from the same millieu. There is also good evidence that most Christian converts in the first 4 centuries AD were drawn from people who had been exposed to monotheism first by Jewish (mostly Rabbinic, assuming you accept Prince Judah II as Rabbinic) proselytisation or semi-proselytisation, analagous to the “Noahide” campaigns of today.

  • Gabriel

    So I guess what I’m saying is that the relationship of Christendom with the Jewish people (not just the people of bible, but the real existent Jewish people of the past two millenia) really is unique. It’s nothing like the relationship of Christendom with Islam or with anything else whatsoever. Without the Jews western civilization would simply look nothing like it does today.
    Whether this special relationship deserves to be expressed in the term “Judeo-Christian” is perhaps arguable, but, of all the sins of language that abound, this one seems to me pretty low on the list.
    And, with that, I’m done.

  • Gabriel

    One more thing (I lied, sue me). The belief that the Gospel can and should be emancipated from its Jewish roots is actually formal heresy, i.e. Marcionism.
    Ironically many Liberal Protestants who, I agree, Reform Jews do resemble, now embrace a form of Marcionism which manifests itself whenever they talk of the Old Testament. Indeed, among Liberal Anglicans this is, in my experience, more or less received opinion.
    What does this tell us about Judeo-Christianity? Well, first it tells us that it’s a very complex issue which it won’t do to be glib about. It’s a fact that most Judaizing movements within Christianity have emerged out of people mimicking (Rabbinic) Jews in near proximity to them. Their (i.e. the Jews) continuity with ancient Judaism was not doubted, nor was Christianity’s unbreakable and tortuous debt to it (except by heretics, including possibly Luther in his more hot-headed moments.)
    Has there ever been an analagous movement in Islam? Could there ever be considering their views on the Hebrew Scriptures and Rabbinical tradition?

  • a

    Interesting posts. I support your argument that the Islam and the (non Reform) Judaism have a lot in common. A good demonstration of the essential similarity, in my opinion, is the fact that both in the Islam and the Judaism you are either in or out, and you can’t make just a “little step” to the right direction.
    However, I do think that the term Judeo-Christianity deserves a place. It expressed some kind of relationships between religion and culture, which are relevant in the last 100 years*. But I agree to your main point that the term is currently overused because of ignorance
    * At first, I wanted to say that your opinion was entirely correct 150 years ago, but it sounded worse then what I meant.

  • tony

    I agree. A more fitting term would be Greco-Christian, since after the first century, Christians adopted all popular Greco-Roman religious ideas: hell vs heaven, immortality of the soul, combination Gods (trinities), etc… One could even argue that it should be called Euro-Christian since it even enveloped pre-Christian European religious practices from various lands into Christmas, Easter, and All-Saints day.

  • Sabina’s Hat

    Razib, thanks for the interesting postings. I am not competent to comment on the substance of your claim as a historical matter, but I wanted to make a quick note on a motivation for using the term “Judeo-Christian” not yet mentioned. Assuming you are correct, it would be more historically accurate to replace “Judeo-Christian” with “Christian.” However, when thinking about why I use the term, it appears to me that the primary reason is that I don’t wish to imply allegiance to Christianity or Christian values. By saying “Judeo-Christian” I cancel the implication of allegiance (e.g. “I value our Christian heritage” vs. “I value our Judeo-Christian heritage”) by placing it in a sociological or historical context. This might also help explain the term’s continued popularity in the U.S. (where allegiance to Christianity is much more common).

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    The fact is that the majority of Christians have always seen Rabbinic Judaism as the launching pad and counter-reference point for their religion (which is important regardless of the degree to which that is actually true).* Thus Christianity has, in fact, extensively shaped itself around the contours provided by specifically Rabbinic Judaism.
    what would be the primary citation besides your assertion? the “majority of Christians” is a really strong contention.
    There is also good evidence that most Christian converts in the first 4 centuries AD were drawn from people who had been exposed to monotheism first by Jewish (mostly Rabbinic, assuming you accept Prince Judah II as Rabbinic) proselytisation or semi-proselytisation, analagous to the “Noahide” campaigns of today.,/i>
    can you provide a citation on this? i am aware of starks’ claim.
    So I guess what I’m saying is that the relationship of Christendom with the Jewish people (not just the people of bible, but the real existent Jewish people of the past two millenia) really is unique
    the relationship of christendom with the greek intellectual tradition is also unique.
    Without the Jews western civilization would simply look nothing like it does today.
    without the greeks western civilization woul simply look nothing like it does today.
    A more fitting term would be Greco-Christian, since after the first century, Christians adopted all popular Greco-Roman religious ideas: hell vs heaven, immortality of the soul, combination Gods (trinities), etc… One could even argue that it should be called Euro-Christian since it even enveloped pre-Christian European religious practices from various lands into Christmas, Easter, and All-Saints day.
    i actually thing this is a debasement of language too. but, i can see the argument being made.
    However, when thinking about why I use the term, it appears to me that the primary reason is that I don’t wish to imply allegiance to Christianity or Christian values. By saying “Judeo-Christian” I cancel the implication of allegiance (e.g. “I value our Christian heritage” vs. “I value our Judeo-Christian heritage”) by placing it in a sociological or historical context
    edward said claimed to be an arab atheist raised an anglican whose civilization was islam. so i see where you are coming from, but i don’t think in an intellectual sense that this is accurate. if we don’t want a use a religious appellation, the ‘west’ would be fine too.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    and gabriel,
    1) yes, i was sloppy about the origination date of rabbnical judaism
    2) i grant that the relationship between pharisaec judaism and christianity (which i have termed elsewhere arguably a form of hellenistic christianity) was important in the early centuries
    3) i don’t think it was important after 500, nor do i think the jews were important after 500
    4) so just as i think the term ‘helleno-chrisitianity’ is misleading, seeing as the interaction between christianity and hellenic paganism during the period between 0 and 500 made christianity essentially what it is and was at 500 (and another bout during the aristotelian renaissance arguably), i don’t think the term is justified since after 500 it was just christianity.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    One more thing (I lied, sue me). The belief that the Gospel can and should be emancipated from its Jewish roots is actually formal heresy, i.e. Marcionism.
    Ironically many Liberal Protestants who, I agree, Reform Jews do resemble, now embrace a form of Marcionism which manifests itself whenever they talk of the Old Testament. Indeed, among Liberal Anglicans this is, in my experience, more or less received opinion.
    to be fair to these christians, they’re also the most likely to disavow the need to convert jews to christianity.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    Hebraists such as Jerome and the Protestant Bible translators were often reliant on Jewish scholarship and commentary on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    @razib, you said…

    “if we don’t want a use a religious appellation, the ‘west’ would be fine too.”

    You could also bring back the term, the “Occident“.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    I understand the arguments being made here pro and contra, but I fail to understand why the contribution of western Jews to the development of the countries they lived in needs to be measured by their influence on Christian westerns.
    A good argument brought in this direction in the last post was the presence of Christian Arabs in the Islamic sphere. But the difference is, that these Christians were marginal to western Christianity, while western Judaism was often just as important as Arab Judaism and, eventually, much more important that the latter in terms of constituting Judaism as a whole. This means for me that, generally speaking, Christianity did not reside in the Arab world (also Christians did), while Judaism did reside, together with Christianity, in the Western world.
    Which brings me back to the question: Why do you define western civilization as necessarily Christian, which in turn makes it necessary to prove or disprove Jewish influence on Christianity?
    I’ll give an example of what I mean. During the 15th and 16th centuries, more printing works were in the Iberian Peninsula than in any other European area. In this scene of Italian renaissance, which we probably all consider to be a very important phase in the development of what we now call western civilization, Jews coming from other European counties were heavily overrepresented. One could argue, of course, that they were mostly interested in printing Jewish texts (though they did occupy themselves considerably with Christian and humanistic Texts). But how can that make them less western?
    By the way: Christian printers also printed Jewish texts, since the demand was large and it was a good business. Does that make them less western too?

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    A small correction (in the 2nd paragraph, in brackets): “also Christians did” -> “although Christians did”

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    In addition:
    If participation in the civilization we call here “western” is made conditional upon (whether Christian or Jewish) enlightenment, then this civilization would have begun in the 17th century at the earliest.
    That is a position one could, indeed, argue for in terms of history of ideas. However, this notion of western civilization is a very different construct than the one discussed in these posts and in the comments, where arguments often include references to (much) earlier chapters in history.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    A good argument brought in this direction in the last post was the presence of Christian Arabs in the Islamic sphere. But the difference is, that these Christians were marginal to western Christianity, while western Judaism was often just as important as Arab Judaism and, eventually, much more important that the latter in terms of constituting Judaism as a whole. This means for me that, generally speaking, Christianity did not reside in the Arab world (also Christians did), while Judaism did reside, together with Christianity, in the Western world.
    the example was to illustrate a specific point. obviously the ashkenazi were important even during the time of the flowering of the sephardic jews (e.g., rashi). but they were important to judaism. as i said, jews were in the west, but not of it. the point of comparison is how much christians and jews influenced muslims and christians respectively in these too domains. not much after the first few centuries when the minorities moved into ghettos and developed a parallel culture embedded within another civilization. there is a reason that many arab nationalists from christian backgrounds begin to identify with islam in a strange way…because islam was arab civilization.
    During the 15th and 16th centuries, more printing works were in the Iberian Peninsula than in any other European area.
    can i get a citation on this? i actually read in Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 that the iberian book publishing industry was moribund enough that flanders (a hapsburg possession) was where many castilian works were being produced in the 1500s.
    One could argue, of course, that they were mostly interested in printing Jewish texts (though they did occupy themselves considerably with Christian and humanistic Texts). But how can that make them less western?
    because they weren’t part of the new western republic of letters (as spinoza later was). in the language of biology, two populations which reside in the same spatial domain but do not interbreed are to be treated distinctly in population genetics.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    “obviously the ashkenazi were important even during the time of the flowering of the sephardic jews (e.g., rashi). but they were important to judaism.”
    - One could argue just as well that Thomas Aquinas was important to Christianity – and therefore not necessarily to western culture (which I do not argue, since I consider Christianity as part of western culture).
    I’m sorry about “Iberian”. I meant the Apennine peninsula. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense that Jewish printers would have been overrepresented in the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century, considering their expulsion in 1492…
    “because they weren’t part of the new western republic of letters (as spinoza later was).”
    - If they weren’t (which I’m not arguing), then that was actually a *Christian* “republic of letters”.
    - The conception of parallelism in Christian-Jewish relationships in pre-Enlightenment west is regarded today as obsolete also in reference to intellectual history, or was so at least during my studies some years ago. Of course, that doesn’t mean this conception is necessarily wrong.
    - Look up “Daniel Bomberg”, a Christian who printed the first rabbinical bible, a project that brought together Jews from different counties.
    - See also Israel Yuval’s “Two Nations in Your Womb”, where the author illuminates some aspects of the intellectual relationships between Christian and Jewish communities (whereas relationship and interwoven-ness do not necessarily mean cooperation and friendliness).
    Other than that, I’d like to ask if you can imagine the growth of the Polish (and later Polish-Lithuanian) kingdom without the migration of the Jews to those lands and without their participation in the mechanism of the Krakow court or their mediating function between Polish land owners and Ukrainian surfs? Another example: Can you imagine the blossom of Venetian trade without the financial credit supplied to the merchants by Jews?
    IMHO, the structure of what we retrospectively call the “western civilization” collapses, the moment you take out the Jewish corner stone, even if this corner stone was at times hated, geographically marginalized etc.
    But, what bothers me even more, is your phrasing of “in the west, but not of the west”, as if that would be a religious-theological and not a historical question. What I’m saying is, that *even if* Christian and Jews could have lived completely separated from each other (which they couldn’t and didn’t), the Jews would still be of the west, for the simple reason that it is logically impossible to live in a place – any place – for such a long time without forming communities, earning a living by producing goods or performing services others require or want, and generally developing civilization. In other words: Not being of the west would mean the Jews magically managed to exist transparently in the west, like some expedition living in Antarctica, without conducting any of the activities normally required for human beings to survive, establish a community and hand it down to the next generation. (But as I argued above, not only did Jewish communities contribute to sustaining that civilization they had to be interwoven with in order to survive, but they also played essential roles in its development.)
    All that brings me back to my basic question: Why do you identify western civilization only with its Christian component(s)?

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    By the way, it just occurred to me what you’re actually saying in the last paragraph of your last comment:
    Playing a very important role in the printing culture of Italian Renaissance doesn’t seem to mean anything to you, if the printed texts (or a considerable amount of them) were Jewish texts.
    That’s an incredible statement!
    One would usually think that the information revolution of that time consisted in printing and thus distributing texts to an extent never known before in human history, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But now it seems that you’re introducing a new criteria: While you do consider Christian or pagan (Roman or Greek) texts as part of this revolution, you exclude Jewish texts per se, whether classical or later, just because they’re Jewish texts.
    I could argue now, that some of these Jews texts were very important also for Christian Humanists. But, even though it’s true, I don’t want to make that argument.
    Instead, I want to focus on the Babylonian Talmud, which western Jews began to use in the form of books, while Arab Jews were still limited to handwritten copies. That’s exactly the same difference as with western Christians and Arab Muslims. But according to your view, western Jews don’t belong to the western sphere, but are closer to the Arab one. That means, that according to your view they did not really take part in fulfilling this revolution of western civilization, for the “simple” fact that the texts they were making it happen with, were, alas, (mostly) Jewish texts…
    At this point I’m left with just one question: Did I understand you correctly? Is this really what you’re arguing? If not, please correct my impression!

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    See also Israel Yuval’s “Two Nations in Your Womb”, where the author illuminates some aspects of the intellectual relationships between Christian and Jewish communities (whereas relationship and interwoven-ness do not necessarily mean cooperation and friendliness).
    thanks, i’ll check that out.
    Other than that, I’d like to ask if you can imagine the growth of the Polish (and later Polish-Lithuanian) kingdom without the migration of the Jews to those lands and without their participation in the mechanism of the Krakow court or their mediating function between Polish land owners and Ukrainian surfs? Another example: Can you imagine the blossom of Venetian trade without the financial credit supplied to the merchants by Jews?
    yes. jews were not necessary, though they were sufficient, in their particular role. they played an important role in the polish-lithuanian domains, but that participation, to me, does not rise to the significance where i feel i should modulate my assertion.
    IMHO, the structure of what we retrospectively call the “western civilization” collapses, the moment you take out the Jewish corner stone, even if this corner stone was at times hated, geographically marginalized etc
    well, western civilization does have a hebraic intellectual foundation in terms of the hebrew bible. my point is that the jewish contribution is trivial between 500 and 1800, so the development of western civilization was not a christian-jewish project. it was a christian project, which jews later joined. the non-haredi jew is fundamentally heir to a cultural tradition with roots in christian europe, not the ashkenazi rabbinical jewish tradition.
    All that brings me back to my basic question: Why do you identify western civilization only with its Christian component(s)?
    because the rabbinical jewish tradition which existed in parallel with christian europe is not very important to the formation of modern western culture. some commenters have pointed out some genuine influences, maimonides, the kabbalah, the importance of jewish scholars and scholarship in the area of hebrew for protestants and christians who were trying to produce new bibles and biblical scholarship. this exists, but it does not rise to great significance.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    oh, and btw, to be clear, i do believe that jews were incredibly shaped by christians & muslims between 500 and 1800. my argument is that jews weren’t too influential after the formative periods in terms of shaping the direction of christian or muslim culture. the analogy to population genetics is pretty obvious, if there is gene flow between population A and population B and A is much larger than B, B will come to resemble A much more than the inverse.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    ut are closer to the Arab one. That means, that according to your view they did not really take part in fulfilling this revolution of western civilization, for the “simple” fact that the texts they were making it happen with, were, alas, (mostly) Jewish texts…
    At this point I’m left with just one question: Did I understand you correctly? Is this really what you’re arguing? If not, please correct my impression!
    i saw this comment after the previous comment. i think i answered your question. the issue goes back to the term ‘judeo-christian’ culture, which indicates some level of parity. i’m arguing there wasn’t any, it was a christian culture. the point about judaism being more like islam was a narrow one relating to the theological & ritual similarities between these two religions as opposed to christianity.
    in hindsight i may have to revise what i said about the jews not being part of western culture. i think i might be focusing too much on the nature of rabbinical discourse, which i perceive to be somewhat inward looking. but obviously jews had to interact with christians, and changed their dress, food, etc., to match those of their gentile neighbors (or were influenced). jews were then in this model simply another western subculture which was more different than the rest, characterized by a peculiar ethnic identity and religion. none of the above though changes my objection to the term ‘judeo-christian.’

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    my understanding is that andalusian jews interacted much more with the wider culture in an intellectual sense than ashkenazi jews ever did before the emancipations. andalusian jews were then part of andalusian culture, and there was a judeo-christian-islamic andalusian culture. the main caveat i would put on this is that i think moderns tend to back-project their own sense of what a cosmopolitan society is like, and underestimate the genuine differences and barriers between the religious groups during that period, despite the relative integration.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    “i think i answered your question.”
    Well, I don’t :-)
    No, seriously, I really don’t think you answered my question.
    I suppose you also consider the happening of the print revolution in the 15th and 16th centuries to be a very important step in the development of western culture. (If you don’t see it this way, we have very, very different notions of what (western) civilization is and how it developed. In this case, any discussion between us on the place of Jews in this civilization is, frankly said, useless.)
    Fact is, that Jews played a very important role in making this revolution happen. They were highly overrepresented both as producers and as consumers of this innovation (for example: If I remember correctly, it were mostly Jews, who were responsible for introducing print in Eastern Europe). It will take a while before Christian culture will reach a similar spread of literacy.
    Now, either this means Jews played an important role in this development of western civilization, or it doesn’t mean that.
    If you think it doesn’t, please make an argument to explain this position. If your position is based on the fact that most books produced and consumed by western Jews were Jewish texts, well, then I can only say that I don’t consider this as a valid argument, because it actually means that you consider Jewish thought, for example, *as such*, i.e. just because it’s Jewish, to be non-western. If this is the case, there’s no point in having this discussion about the place of Jews in western civilization, because no matter what Jews will do – you will ignore it, unless they don’t act as Jews.
    BTW, I hardly know anything about biology, so please don’t use that kind of arguments…

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Fact is, that Jews played a very important role in making this revolution happen. They were highly overrepresented both as producers and as consumers of this innovation (for example: If I remember correctly, it were mostly Jews, who were responsible for introducing print in Eastern Europe). It will take a while before Christian culture will reach a similar spread of literacy.
    if jews played a key role as you say then i am willing to revise my argument seeing as printing is extremely important. the devil is in the details, can you give me a cite i can follow up? (i already interlibrary-loaned the book you referred to above)
    If you think it doesn’t, please make an argument to explain this position. If your position is based on the fact that most books produced and consumed by western Jews were Jewish texts, well, then I can only say that I don’t consider this as a valid argument, because it actually means that you consider Jewish thought, for example, *as such*, i.e. just because it’s Jewish, to be non-western. If this is the case, there’s no point in having this discussion about the place of Jews in western civilization, because no matter what Jews will do – you will ignore it, unless they don’t act as Jews.
    i guess it depends on what you consider ‘jewish.’ some people, antisemites, consider marxism ‘jewish,’ so that is jewish thought in action? i don’t consider marxism very jewish really, so i wouldn’t count that. if you consider spinoza’s work very jewish, then again, jewish contributions did play a role in the west. but again, i’m skeptical that spinoza was a jew as much as he was a precursor to the type of enlightenment man who focused on philosophical systems as the hinge of their existence as opposed embedded communities and traditions.
    if you are talking about rabbinical and biblical commentaries, etc., which only jews would be interested in, then yes, i would ignore that. no one cares about that but jews and some non-jewish scholars who have an interest for direct and indirect reasons. there weren’t enough jews in the west where their own internal cultural production which doesn’t impact the 95-99% of the population which is non-jewish would be of any consequence to me.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    They were highly overrepresented both as producers and as consumers of this innovation (for example: If I remember correctly, it were mostly Jews, who were responsible for introducing print in Eastern Europe). It will take a while before Christian culture will reach a similar spread of literacy.
    i wouldn’t be surprised if jews are the vector of introducing western innovations into the east. though during this period jews were banned from england & france from what i recall, so that modulates down the real influence they could have as these were very important regions of culture-production.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    I can recommend the following book as a starting point: Amram, David Werner. The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy: Being Chapters in the History of the Hebrew Printing Press. London: Holland Press, 1963
    Other than that:
    1. You seem to focus very much on *intellectual* history. Intellectual activity is, of course, a very important aspect of culture, but not the only one.
    2. You assume Jewish thought needs to have a substantial impact on Christians in order to be considered “Western”, but you do not assume Christian thought needs to have a similar impact on Jews in order to qualify as “Western”. (This brings us back to you principally identifying “Western” with “Christian”, unless proven otherwise. I don’t consider this legitimate, but I’ll go with this.) You seem to base this non-symmetrical assumption on the fact the vast majority of the population was Christian. That’s a quantitative argument, which we should examine more closely: How many of them were intellectuals? That is, how many of them – as you would suppose – had any interest in what Thomas Aquinas had to say, or even heard of him (before general school systems were gradually introduced in the 19th century)? How many of the people living in, let’s say, the USA of today have ever heard of Thomas Aquinas? The point I’m trying to make is, that if you want to quantitatively examine intellectual activity, then the general public – the peasants, the surfs, other workers and most of the marchants etc. and probably most of nobility too – doesn’t play any role. The question that should be asked is: Did Christian thought – i.e. treatises written by Christians etc. – make 95-99% of the intellectual activity in the Western civilization up until the Enlightenment? I don’t think so. Think for example on Christian priests before and reformation (and also some time after that), who were often illiterate themselves! As for the Jews, well, I didn’t conduct any research on the topic, but I think that the overrepresentation of Jews as consumers of intellectual products (=literacy) can indicate overrepresentation also as producers of such activity.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    So now you’re implying Christian Poland wouldn’t be at that time part of what we now call Western civilization? Come on…
    About being banned: You say, the Jews were banned from centers of Western culture. I say, a (IMHO important) part of Western culture was banned from these countries.
    So basically, you have to explain why Western culture should be limited to its Christian part. And as I wrote in my previous comment: The quantitative aspect doesn’t seem to help you out here.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    1) you didn’t provide a citation about the spread of printing. could you tell me where you got that?
    2) So now you’re implying Christian Poland wouldn’t be at that time part of what we now call Western civilization?
    no, where did i imply that?
    3) So basically, you have to explain why Western culture should be limited to its Christian part.
    i say it should be limited to its christian part because the jewish culture of that period had very little to zero effect on us, unless we are orthodox jews. modern non-orthodox jews are the cultural descendants of christians and post-christians of the enlightenment and romantic era, not the orthodox reaction of the 18th century (e.g., the hasidic movement, the mitnagdim, etc.).
    4) chill on the tone, you’re starting to sound like a heckler and repeating the same point over and over again. i don’t include the jews in the west because no one cares about what jews the were doing between 500-1800 except for the cases i mentioned (e.g., kabbalah). they’re not important, even to most modern jews.

  • Yoav Sapir

    I sent a whole comment – before the short one of “So now you’re implying”. Don’t tell me it got lost…?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    you are right that most people are not intellectuals, but:
    As for the Jews, well, I didn’t conduct any research on the topic, but I think that the overrepresentation of Jews as consumers of intellectual products (=literacy) can indicate overrepresentation also as producers of such activity.
    jews were probably more literate than christians. in fact, they almost certainly were because of the social-demographic profile. but they didn’t direct their energies out of the general culture before 1800, in part because the only way they could was was to convert to christianity, at which point they were lost to jewish culture. the main exception being andalusian jews, but they were halfway in christendom (since parts of spain were muslim, especially before 1250), and spinoza.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    the travails that befell moses mendelssohn recounted in the pity of it all reflects the general dynamic that i’m describing. jews might have been literate and scholarly, but the activity was all directed inward until around 1800. this was in part thanks in part to mendelssohn’s arguments, but most of his children converted to christianity, and his last jewish descendant died in the late 19th century. the jewish intellectual activity of the 18th century continues in the contemporary yeshivas, and in communities like lakewood, NJ. but i don’t see this as particular important to anyone but orthodox jews.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    i found the comment, no need to repost. see above.

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    1. You can’t explain why pre-Enlightenment Jews are not to be considered Westerns, using the argument, that they were not important to some “us”, who were by definition non-Jews. That’s circular.
    2. Norway was also not particularly important to other Westerns, and except for the vikings probably much less important than the Jews. There were also not too many Norwegian thinkers… Let alone such who had an impact on non-Norwegian culture. Does all that that make Norway non-Western?
    3. If you’re right about low intellectual interaction between Christian and Jewish intellectuals, then there was no “general” intellectual culture to be targeted from the first place, but rather two spheres, existing next to each other, of (probably) about the same size, *within* what would be called later “western civilization”.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Norway was also not particularly important to other Westerns, and except for the vikings probably much less important than the Jews. There were also not too many Norwegian thinkers… Let alone such who had an impact on non-Norwegian culture. Does all that that make Norway non-Western?
    when was the last time you heard about the norwego-christian tradition?
    hen there was no “general” intellectual culture to be targeted from the first place, but rather two spheres, existing next to each other, of (probably) about the same size, *within* what would be called later “western civilization”.
    the two spheres continue. the pre-1800 jewish culture continues into orthodox judaism. the christian culture became post-christian and is now called western.

  • Yoav Sapir

    1. “when was the last time you heard about the norwego-christian tradition?” – I didn’t, but not because Norway doesn’t belong to Western tradition as you claim Jews wouldn’t, but because Norway never constituted its own “sphere” and is already included in the “Christian” part of “Judeo-Christian” and thus in the Christian part of Western civilization. Which goes to show, that relative importance for *other* parts of (=within) Western civilization is no valid criterion for either inclusion or exclusion.
    2. I think most orthodox Jews don’t really care about pre-Enlightenment Christian thought. Nevertheless, they probably will consider it to be part of Western tradition.
    3. “the two spheres continue” – with changes on both sides, also in terms of mutual interwoven-ness.
    4. “the pre-1800 jewish culture continues in linear fashion into orthodox judaism. the christian culture became post-christian and is now called western.” – So you admit that you exclude Western Jews, if they’re orthodox, *by definition* from Western culture? If so:
    a) Can you provide an argument *other* than the level of importance of European Jewish Orthodoxy for other parts of Western civilization? (see point no.1 “Norway” for why importance of one subgroup for another and vice versa is no criterion).
    b) If you don’t have another argument, I would conclude the discussion with the following saying: You oppose the term “Judeo-Christian” as a parallel term for “Western” because you exclude traditional Jewry as such from your own (subjective) definition of “Western”.
    5) Do you think more people in what you consider to be “Western civilization” are interested in the works of Moses Mendelssohn than in the works of the Maharal or Shneor Zalman, the composer of the Tania? And if so: Do you think the difference in favor of Mendelssohn is great enough to justify his inclusion vs. the exclusion of the latter examples?
    6) Do you consider the Amish to be Westerns? If so: Do you see them “as particular important to anyone but” the Amish themselves? (BTW, if I had to choose, I would consider Orthodox Jews to be much more Western than the Amish)

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    4. “the pre-1800 jewish culture continues in linear fashion into orthodox judaism. the christian culture became post-christian and is now called western.” – So you admit that you exclude Western Jews, if they’re orthodox, *by definition* from Western culture? If so:
    DO NOT USE A BADGERING TONE!!!! e.g, “so you admit.” i run this weblog, show a modicum of politeness.
    i consider the modern orthodox part of western culture because they are integrated into western societies. the haredi are a more complex case, they are influenced by the west, but i believe they should be viewed as a separate culture. so, the modern orthodox are a hybrid between the two cultures.
    Do you think more people in what you consider to be “Western civilization” are interested in the works of Moses Mendelssohn than in the works of the Maharal or Shneor Zalman, the composer of the Tania? And if so: Do you think the difference in favor of Mendelssohn is great enough to justify his inclusion vs. the exclusion of the latter examples?
    moses mendelssohn had feet in both cultures, and gentiles viewed him with respect, even if they was ambivalent antisemitism wrapped up with. great rabbis of the 18th century whose minds might well have been far more brilliant than mendelssohn are forgotten by non-jews because that is a different cultural stream.
    6) Do you consider the Amish to be Westerns? If so: Do you see them “as particular important to anyone but” the Amish themselves? (BTW, if I had to choose, I would consider Orthodox Jews to be much more Western than the Amish)
    the amish are from western culture, but i would agree that they are not really western anymore. by analogy, mormonism is from christianity, but it is no longer christian. yes, i consider the modern orthodox more western by far than the amish. some of the more extreme haredi probably i would equivalent to the amish, even the time depth of their archaisms (e.g., dress, speech, etc.) matches the amish (who ‘froze’ around 1800 self-consciously).

  • http://www.chronologs.de/yoavsapir Yoav Sapir

    “so, the modern orthodox are a hybrid between the two cultures.”
    - I should have wrote “orthodox or pre-orthodox”, because I actually meant the mutual breeding ground in pre-Enlightenment Europe. That can also be seen from 4(a): “European Jewish Orthodoxy”. But anyway, since you consider modern orthodoxy to be a “hybrid”, it is clear that you’re assuming an exclusion of traditional Jewry from what you subjectively consider to be the history of Western civilization. One might also see that out of the fact that you didn’t give any new argument for this – apparently arbitrary – exclusion, after the previous arguments have turned out, IMO, to be circular or inconsistent.
    My take on the whole issue is therefore: You have explained at length, in the posts as well as in the comments, why “Judeo-Christian” should not be considered as a parallel term to “Western”. But as far as I understand, it turned out to be a matter of definition rather than of arguments. Since you subjectively, arbitrarily and eventually also explicitly define “Western” as excluding traditional Western Jewry and as basically consisting of only the Christian parts of European intellectual activity, it is only logical that you will reject the parallel term “Judeo-Christian”. But that doesn’t have so much to do with pre-Enlightenment European history as with the glasses you use to look at this history.
    In any case: Thank you for this interesting discussion.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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