Is Western Civilization a Jewish Invention?

The “Judaism: A Way of Being” author makes the case for Judaism as the most important intellectual development in Western history.
  • Transcript


Question: Why do you believe Judaism is the central intellectual development in Western history?

David Gelernter: It seems to be, beyond doubt, that Judaism is the most important intellectual development in western history for two reasons: one having to do with the aesthetic and spiritual, and the other having to do with the ethical.  If I begin with ethical and moral issues, Judaism invented the idea of mankind as an entity.  So we see striking differences between ancient Israeli literature and Greek literature, let’s say in the first 1,000 years, the first millennium B.C.  There is a word in Greek that has no equivalent in Hebrew, namely “barbarian.”  Barbarian meaning, somebody that babbles—a Greek word meaning someone who babbles, who doesn’t speak Greek, who is foreign, who is culturally inferior by definition and of very little interest.  Not only different, but boring.  Judaism, meanwhile insofar as to develop the idea of a single god, which was a revolutionary and bazaar idea at that time, first emerges 3,000 some odd years ago.  I figured that if there really only one god in the world, he had to be everybody’s god.  Everybody should have the right to say, this is my god.  Must have that right.  And then if you look who that community, who the faithful are in principle, it’s everybody.  So, Judaism has the idea that ethical laws, moral rules and strictures apply to everybody. Not that everybody has a sort of liability to carry them out.  There were stricter requirements of Jews, or Israelis, than there are of people in general.  Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion.  It doesn’t really care—as a matter of fact is indifferent—whether people become Jews or join the Jewish community, but is very clear on what the basic moral obligations of mankind are with respect for life, respect for justice, kindness to animals, a familial, what should I say, sexual fidelity and refraining from sexual crimes.  These are the so-called “Seven laws of the sons of Noah,” meaning that they apply to everybody. 

So, without going into a lengthy disquisition, Judaism has the idea that there is a simple moral code which goes not only for the Israeli people, or the Israeli nation, but is applicable to everybody and has the revolutionary idea that not only is there one god, but there is essentially one man; one mankind, the whole world.  So on festival occasions at the Temple of Jerusalem, 70 sacrifices would be brought at certain points.  It was thought that there were 70 nations in the world; one for each nation. 

Judaism has an aesthetic and spiritual side also, of course.  Judaism is obsessed with imagery.  One often finds that its stereotypes are either basically right or exactly wrong.  They are rarely sort of in between.  Judaism is often described as being hostile to imagery.  But we know that can’t be right because of the Hebrew Bible underlies western literature.  Hebrew poetry, the poetry of the psalms, the prophets, the Book of Job, is the basis of Western literature.  Hebrew prose narrative is the basis of Western narrative.  There is no such thing as great poetry without imagery, the idea is absurd.  There is no such thing as great writing that isn’t vivid and vibrant and that means based on images. And we find, in fact, the imagery of the Bible is the imagery that recurs throughout Western literature and Western art, from ... the split-open Red Sea, to the handwriting on the wall, to chariot of fire.  These are images that are not only painted in the developing tradition of medieval art and western realist painting, but they recur in Western literature of all languages down to this afternoon.  

So for both of these reasons, Judaism has a commanding role in the creation of the culture and civilization that we’ve occupied for several thousand years, and especially so with the emergence of the idea of the liberal nation.  The liberal modern nation which is a sort of joint invention of the United States and of Great Britain in the 17th century and the 18th century.  These were Christian nations, but the Christianity of early America and of Britain in the Elizabethan, and especially the age of the civil wars and Cromwell, is what is often called “Hebraic Christianity,” or “Old Testament Christianity.”  It was a profoundly Hebrew-inspired sort of Christianity.  Not that people thought of themselves as Jews because they did not, but both the early United States and the early Britain repeatedly referred to themselves as “The New Israel” and the idea of freedom and liberty emerges in the United States on the basis of the story of the Exodus, the biblical verse, “Let my people go,” which is repeated many times by Moses to Pharaoh becomes fundamental in American history not only when religious zealots, who were persecuted in England immigrate in the 17th Century to the United States, but when the United States declares it’s own independence and freedom as a nation during the Civil War when the North becomes gradually resolved under President Lincoln to free the slaves, and then the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, late ’50s and ‘60s again.

So, the notion of freedom, the notion of equality, which is derived by the founders of English and American liberalism from the opening of the Bible, which says, “All men are created in God’s image, therefore you’re not allowed to make distinctions on the basis of race, color, and creed.  All men being in God’s image are to be treated justly and fairly.”  Abraham Lincoln put that most concisely.  And interestingly, the idea of democracy too, if you read the early literature in the United States, developing the idea of modern democracy in the 1600’s, especially New England and in Virginia, to some extent,  biblical verses are quoted constantly.  Not only the ones in which Moses sets up what is described as a Jewish commonwealth, he’s told to essentially let each tribe furnish its own leaders.  Tell Moses who his leaders will be.  But it’s also the case of the Hebrew Bible is an aggressively anti-monarchy book.  There are vivid denunciations of the idea of a king, the rights of kings, an absolute king.  Prophets in the Bible confront kings for them in the name of God to be fair and to be just and to be honorable, and in fact, Israel was told that if it had any sense, they wouldn’t have a king to begin with. 

So in lots of ways—and this is something that used to be well known—the last couple of generations in western culture, I would say since the Second World War, have been secularizing generations in which we were more apt to look at ancient Greece than ancient Israel.  But as a matter of historical record, it’s easy to trace these ideas, also in the philosophy of the English Enlightenment.  It’s easy to open a book of Locke and notice that he keeps quoting the Bible, or Hobbes, or Seldon, or others of the English philosophers who provided the intellectual counter-weight to the active and pragmatic liberalism of the founding fathers.

Recorded on April 1, 2010.