Is Western Civilization a Jewish Invention?

Question: Why do you\r\nbelieve Judaism is the central intellectual development in Western \r\nhistory?


David Gelernter:\r\nIt seems to be, beyond doubt, that Judaism is the most important \r\nintellectual\r\ndevelopment in western history for two reasons: one having to do with \r\nthe\r\naesthetic and spiritual, and the other having to do with the ethical.  If I begin with ethical and moral\r\nissues, Judaism invented the idea of mankind as an entity. \r\n So we see striking differences between\r\nancient Israeli literature and Greek literature, let’s say in the first \r\n1,000\r\nyears, the first millennium B.C. \r\nThere is a word in Greek that has no equivalent in Hebrew, namely\r\n “barbarian.”  Barbarian meaning, somebody that\r\nbabbles—a Greek word meaning someone who babbles, who doesn’t speak \r\nGreek, who\r\nis foreign, who is culturally inferior by definition and of very little\r\ninterest.  Not only different, but\r\nboring.  Judaism, meanwhile insofar\r\nas to develop the idea of a single god, which was a revolutionary and \r\nbazaar\r\nidea at that time, first emerges 3,000 some odd years ago. \r\n I figured that if there really only one\r\ngod in the world, he had to be everybody’s god.  Everybody\r\n should have the right to say, this is my god.  Must\r\n have that right.  And then if you look who that\r\ncommunity, who the faithful are in principle, it’s everybody.  So, Judaism has the idea that ethical\r\nlaws, moral rules and strictures apply to everybody. Not that everybody \r\nhas a\r\nsort of liability to carry them out. \r\nThere were stricter requirements of Jews, or Israelis, than there\r\n are\r\nof people in general.  Judaism has\r\nnever been a proselytizing religion. \r\nIt doesn’t really care—as a matter of fact is indifferent—whether\r\n people\r\nbecome Jews or join the Jewish community, but is very clear on what the \r\nbasic\r\nmoral obligations of mankind are with respect for life, respect for \r\njustice,\r\nkindness to animals, a familial, what should I say, sexual fidelity and\r\nrefraining from sexual crimes. \r\nThese are the so-called “Seven laws of the sons of Noah,” meaning\r\n that\r\nthey apply to everybody. 


So, without going into a lengthy disquisition, \r\nJudaism has\r\nthe idea that there is a simple moral code which goes not only for the \r\nIsraeli\r\npeople, or the Israeli nation, but is applicable to everybody and has \r\nthe\r\nrevolutionary idea that not only is there one god, but there is \r\nessentially one\r\nman; one mankind, the whole world. \r\nSo on festival occasions at the Temple of Jerusalem, 70 \r\nsacrifices would\r\nbe brought at certain points.  It\r\nwas thought that there were 70 nations in the world; one for each \r\nnation. 


Judaism has an aesthetic and spiritual side also, \r\nof\r\ncourse.  Judaism is obsessed with\r\nimagery.  One often finds that its\r\nstereotypes are either basically right or exactly wrong. \r\n They are rarely sort of in\r\nbetween.  Judaism is often\r\ndescribed as being hostile to imagery. \r\nBut we know that can’t be right because of the Hebrew Bible \r\nunderlies\r\nwestern literature.  Hebrew poetry,\r\nthe poetry of the psalms, the prophets, the Book of Job, is the basis of\r\nWestern literature.  Hebrew prose\r\nnarrative is the basis of Western narrative.  There\r\n is no such thing as great poetry without imagery, the\r\nidea is absurd.  There is no such\r\nthing as great writing that isn’t vivid and vibrant and that means based\r\n on\r\nimages. And we find, in fact, the imagery of the Bible is the imagery \r\nthat\r\nrecurs throughout Western literature and Western art, from ... the \r\nsplit-open Red Sea, to the handwriting on the wall,\r\nto chariot of fire.  These are\r\nimages that are not only painted in the developing tradition of medieval\r\n art\r\nand western realist painting, but they recur in Western literature of \r\nall\r\nlanguages down to this afternoon.  


So for both of these reasons, Judaism has a \r\ncommanding role\r\nin the creation of the culture and civilization that we’ve occupied for \r\nseveral\r\nthousand years, and especially so with the emergence of the idea of the \r\nliberal\r\nnation.  The liberal modern nation\r\nwhich is a sort of joint invention of the United States and of Great \r\nBritain in\r\nthe 17th century and the 18th century. \r\nThese were Christian nations, but the Christianity of early \r\nAmerica and\r\nof Britain in the Elizabethan, and especially the age of the civil wars \r\nand\r\nCromwell, is what is often called “Hebraic Christianity,” or “Old \r\nTestament\r\nChristianity.”  It was a profoundly\r\nHebrew-inspired sort of Christianity. \r\nNot that people thought of themselves as Jews because they did \r\nnot, but\r\nboth the early United States and the early Britain repeatedly referred \r\nto\r\nthemselves as “The New Israel” and the idea of freedom and liberty \r\nemerges in\r\nthe United States on the basis of the story of the Exodus, the biblical \r\nverse,\r\n“Let my people go,” which is repeated many times by Moses to Pharaoh \r\nbecomes\r\nfundamental in American history not only when religious zealots, who \r\nwere\r\npersecuted in England immigrate in the 17th Century to the United \r\nStates, but\r\nwhen the United States declares it’s own independence and freedom as a \r\nnation\r\nduring the Civil War when the North becomes gradually resolved under \r\nPresident\r\nLincoln to free the slaves, and then the Civil Rights Movement of the \r\n‘60s,\r\nlate ’50s and ‘60s again.


So, the notion of freedom, the notion\r\nof equality, which is derived by the founders of English and American\r\nliberalism from the opening of the Bible, which says, “All men are \r\ncreated in\r\nGod’s image, therefore you’re not allowed to make distinctions on the \r\nbasis of\r\nrace, color, and creed.  All men\r\nbeing in God’s image are to be treated justly and fairly.” \r\n Abraham Lincoln put that most\r\nconcisely.  And interestingly, the\r\nidea of democracy too, if you read the early literature in the United \r\nStates,\r\ndeveloping the idea of modern democracy in the 1600’s, especially New \r\nEngland and\r\nin Virginia, to some extent,  biblical verses are \r\nquoted constantly.  Not only the ones in which \r\nMoses sets up what is described\r\nas a Jewish commonwealth, he’s told to essentially let each tribe \r\nfurnish its\r\nown leaders.  Tell Moses who his\r\nleaders will be.  But it’s also the\r\ncase of the Hebrew Bible is an aggressively anti-monarchy book.  There are vivid denunciations of the\r\nidea of a king, the rights of kings, an absolute king.  Prophets\r\n in the Bible confront kings\r\nfor them in the name of God to be fair and to be just and to be \r\nhonorable, and\r\nin fact, Israel was told that if it had any sense, they wouldn’t have a \r\nking\r\nto begin with. 


So in lots of ways—and this is something that used \r\nto be\r\nwell known—the last couple of generations in western culture, I would \r\nsay\r\nsince the Second World War, have been secularizing generations in which \r\nwe were\r\nmore apt to look at ancient Greece than ancient Israel.  But\r\n as a matter of historical record,\r\nit’s easy to trace these ideas, also in the philosophy of the English\r\nEnlightenment.  It’s easy to open a\r\nbook of Locke and notice that he keeps quoting the Bible, or Hobbes, or \r\nSeldon,\r\nor others of the English philosophers who provided the intellectual\r\ncounter-weight to the active and pragmatic liberalism of the founding \r\nfathers.

Recorded on April 1, 2010.

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

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