The term “the Judaeo-Christian tradition” was coined in the United States during the 1930s to acknowledge that Hitler’s attitudes to religion threatened both Judaism and Christianity. After the war, it came into general usage as a quick way to state that Judaism and Christianity have a shared monotheistic and ethical tradition.
It is useful to have a term to express the fact that, however different some of their theology, Jews and Christians both draw on the Hebrew Bible for the key religious imperatives of ethical behaviour and improving society. The phrase has also meant that one no longer hears people saying, as they did a generation ago, that a good deed is “the Christian thing to do” — as if to imply that ethical behaviour is a Christian monopoly.
During the 1950s, the American Jewish community fought hard for its use of formulations such as “the Judaeo-Christian tradition” and “Protestant-Catholic-Jew”. Representatives of the three traditions would give invocations at public occasions, although the rabbi represented far fewer than the priest and the minister.
Also in the ’50s, the links began between Jewish and Christian theologians that we now take for granted. Writers such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel gained influence beyond the Jewish community, and Heschel co-operated with Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Merton.
Some writers have strongly objected to the term “Judaeo-Christian tradition”: they consider it blurs the real differences between Judaism and Christianity. In The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (1970), Arthur Cohen denied any possible mutual recognition by Judaism and Christianity because, he argued, continued Christian mission towards Jews showed contempt for the integrity of Judaism as a valid continuing covenant with God.
Belief in Jesus as redeemer is radically different from Jewish concepts of God, he wrote: “The debt of Christianity to Judaism is profound — there is a Christo-Jewish tradition. It is questionable whether there is a Judeo-Christian tradition.”
In 2005, Amy-Jill Levine, a Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University Divinity School (still an unusual job for a nice Jewish girl), said she would like to ban the term because it “refers only to the Old Testament plus New Testament and then the Christian interpretation of both”.
Environmentalists, feminists, homosexuals, Muslims, and others have used “the Judaeo-Christian tradition” as shorthand for approaches they find oppressive. Sometimes they are objecting to a concept such as the fall of Adam, which is found only in Christianity, thus demonstrating how Jewish and Christian teachings can seem uniform — especially to those outside both religions.
In a battle of biblical interpretation, some environmentalists have criticised the Judaeo-Christian tradition, blaming Genesis 1.28 (where God says “Fill the earth, dominate and rule over it”) for the centuries in which the exploitation of natural resources either went unchallenged by religious authorities or was supported by them.
Jewish and Christian environmentalists prefer to cite Genesis 2.15 “to serve [Eden] and to keep it” as expressing biblical teaching on care of the world. As a rabbinic interpretation says: “Do not desolate and corrupt My world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.”
Similarly, secular feminists have criticised the Judaeo-Christian tradition as a source of discrimination. Jewish and Christian feminists prefer to see our religious traditions as open to a more egalitarian reading, and capable of inspiring both women and men to spiritual growth.
There was a stage when some Christian feminists tried to suggest that because Jesus was egalitarian, retrograde Jewish influence should be blamed for inequality in the Church. Jewish feminists and others questioned the truth of this, and deplored its divisiveness, suggesting that it would be more useful for Jewish and Christian feminists to co-operate against sexism.
Asserting that we can gain more from emphasising the similar issues we all face than from questionable claims to superiority might also be helpful when Muslim women claim that Islam teaches more equality for women than the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Another such shorthand term is “the Abrahamic religions” to describe the linked heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It conjures up a shared history going back to Abraham. He realised the existence of one God, and taught by example obedience to God and hospitality to others.
All three faiths recognise the importance of the prophets and teachers who followed Abraham — even if all differ in their list of prophets. All three share monotheism, a belief that religious teachings are “the way”, named “halachah” by Jews and “sharia” by Muslims, and believe in prayer and giving to the poor.
Each has developed a sufficiently different culture, to the extent that dialogue is often better conducted in pairs — Jews and Christians, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews — where we can discuss our particular links and contrasts rather than try to conduct two different conversations simultaneously. There may be some topics, however, such as euthanasia, where all can speak out from a common ethical imperative.
Much of the work of dialogue lies in deepening our understanding of the ways in which other traditions differ from our own. The “Judaeo-Christian tradition” can be a reminder of that which Jews and Christians have in common, the family likeness within which each individual develops a separate identity. Yet Judaism and Christianity are not the same, and when we enter into dialogue, we hear some very different music rather than an echo of our own song.
Rachel Montagu is Scholar in Residence at the Council of Christian and Jews.