By Rabbi Richard Baroff
Since Dwight Eisenhower used the term over 60 years ago to describe our civic values, we often have heard “Judeo-Christian” to help edify public discussion of vital topics for our culture.
It is mostly an inclusive and friendly term from the point of view of the Jewish people. When the phrase is used, what is usually meant is that Jews and Christians share a similar value system different from that of other religions and from secular culture. The Jews are included in the host Christian civilization in America and, more broadly, in the West.
The Ten Commandments, for instance, which in tablet form are an American religious and civic icon, manifest Judeo-Christian values. Even though there are Jewish, Protestant and Catholic
versions of the commandments, the content is largely the same. All three versions reflect the ethical norms that flow from the theology of ethical monotheism. Ethical monotheism teaches us that the Creator of the universe demands that we strive to do good and to fight evil.
We do this because the universe created by G-d is characterized not only by time and space, matter and energy, but just as much by right and wrong, matter and spirit.
We learn about ethical monotheism mostly, of course, from the Bible.
The Pilgrims, Anglican and dissenter, came with their Bibles. So did later groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants from various parts of Europe. Of course the Jews came with the Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures (a small part of which is in Aramaic).
As the country expanded into French and Spanish territories, American civilization came into contact with Christian civilizations that reflected Judeo-Christian values to a limited degree. There was always, though, a general belief that the United States embodied Judeo-Christian values the most fully because our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution were framed by Enlightenment ideas that were inspired by the Protestant Old Testament, which in content is largely the same as the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is not an accident that the very phrase Jewish-Christian was first used by American writers in late colonial times. About 100 years later the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the phrase “Judeo-Christian ethic” in an uncomplimentary way to both religions.
It is well known that the Jewish Bible is the basis for the Christian Old Testament. Not as well known is the fact that the Old Testament differs among Christians: The Roman Catholic version is larger than the Protestant, and in turn the Greek Orthodox version is larger than the Roman Catholic. But what all three Christian traditions have in common is that at the heart of their Old Testaments is the Jewish Bible, even though the material is divided up and arranged differently.
For all three Christian traditions, the New Testament is the same.
In Reformation times in Europe the early Protestants decided to restore the Old Testament to the Hebrew books that were part of the Jewish canon only. Those originally Aramaic and Greek books, which were canonical for the Orthodox and the Catholics, they called Apocrypha — Greek for hidden books.
The earliest Christian Bible, even before the New Testament had taken shape, was in fact a Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Tanach called the Septuagint.
The spokespeople for the value system Jews and Christians share are found in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, including Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the minor prophets. Many of the framers of our government were Deist: Their conception of ethics flowed from the inspiring words of the prophets. For them, G-d was a remote figure. They did not hold to the trinity. As a result, the Judeo-Christian tradition of values originated from the mouths of the prophets, originally spoken, then written, in Hebrew.
The civil religion that is the hallmark of the monuments surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., is permeated with this value system. Both Jefferson and Lincoln were guided by their Bibles. Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments is found at the Capitol and at the Supreme Court.
Christian theology and Jewish theology are dramatically different. But the values that we have lived by, particularly in America, are similar. They are inscribed on the two tablets of stone brought down from Sinai not just for the Israelites, but for all humanity.
The bases for Western civilization are found in Athens and Jerusalem — the Greeks and the Jews. Buddha and Confucius were great spiritual teachers, and their wisdom is the common heritage for humankind. We should be grateful for their efforts and learn what they taught as well as the Bible. But their noble teachings were not foundational for our civilization. Neither is Islam.
This not a judgment of these traditions, but rather a description of how history in fact unfolded. Uncritical multiculturalism is profoundly ahistorical and so should be resisted.
The only way we will be able to preserve what is most precious of our legacy is if we are able to accurately identify what it is. The Ten Commandments should be up in our public buildings around the country as a reminder of our great heritage.
Rabbi Richard Baroff is the president of Guardians of the Torah.