Judaism and Christianity have much in common. Christianity emerged from Judaism; it includes the Hebrew bible in its canon and accepts its ethical precepts.
The phrase “Judaeo-Christian tradition” first emerged in the USA in the 19th century as a means of distinguishing monotheistic faiths from other religions. It was used by organisations in the USA such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, to indicate opposition to neo-fascist organisations like the Christian American Crusade. In 2019 the Washington Post called it a core tenet of American national identity, part of the civic religion of the United States.
Today the term has become sadly politicised. There appears to be a racist element to it. After all, Christianity and Judaism are just two of a trinity of monotheistic faiths, often called the Abrahamic religions, of which the third is Islam. Judaism is far closer to Islam in terms of theology and practice than it is to Christianity, yet Islam is omitted from the idea of a Judaeo-Christian tradition. OK, Islam came to the USA later than Judaism, but it is now an integral part of modern America. To speak of an American society today shaped by Judaeo-Christian tradition smacks of a deliberate attempt to exclude Islam from the cultural make-up of the United States.
Indeed, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ now often surfaces in the ethical and civic quarrels that are currently tearing American society apart. It is presented by its advocates as representing authentic American spiritual virtues. American society, according to these advocates, is being torn apart by those who spurn this tradition. As a particular perversion, it has also been cited by those who oppose stricter gun controls in the USA. A Texan republican congressman recently expostulated: “The United States of America has always had guns. It’s our history. We were built on the Judaeo-Christian foundation and with guns.”
And so we come to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion. Some on the Christian right see this as a triumph for the so-called Judaeo-Christian tradition. One US website has praised an archbishop in San Francisco for denying communion to Nancy Pelosi, the pro-choice Speaker of Congress. The president of the organisation whose website praised the archbishop said: “I feel confident that I speak for all of us in congratulating Archbishop Cordileone for his moral vision and faithfulness to Judaeo-Christian tradition.”
This is nonsense. Unlike the Catholic church, Judaism is not categorically opposed to abortion. There is no dogma in Judaism which declares that life begins at conception or indeed at any other particular moment. There is no need for such a dogma, that’s not how Judaism works. The Jewish religion is a way of life; there are things we do and things we don’t do, but in most instances we rely on our legal authorities to interpret our traditions and weigh up the consequences of an action, before deciding whether it should or should not be done. And when it comes to the moment at which life begins, we do not have an official view. A foetus is different from a living person. There are no statutory mourning rituals for a miscarried foetus.
The Jewish position on abortion is very clear. The mother’s life has primacy. If a foetus is deemed to be endangering the mother’s life, an abortion is not only permitted but mandated. And the critical matter here of course is what we mean by danger. Are we speaking only about physical danger, that the mother will not survive childbirth? What about her mental health or her inability to raise children, for example, due to learning difficulties or poverty? Do these count as danger too?
There are no easy answers to these questions and most rabbinic authorities would not countenance abortion on demand, for the sake of convenience, without being able to show that the mother is in some way endangered. But this is a far cry from prohibiting abortion, ab initio, due to a dogmatic position that life begins at conception.
The idea of The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a myth. It may have served a purpose once as a symbol of solidarity against fascism and anti-Semitism. Today it has become a symbol of bigotry, a rallying cry for the evangelical far right, for those who would impose a blanket ethical world view upon others, rather than encouraging the Jewish religious values of education, interpretation and debate.
Philip Goldenberg, Member of the Jewish Faith
** Please note that blogs are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of WPoF.
Date: Monday 11th July 2022