The “Judaism: A Way of Being” author makes the case for Judaism as the most important intellectual development in Western history.
Question: Why do yournbelieve Judaism is the central intellectual development in Western rnhistory?rnrn
David Gelernter:rnIt seems to be, beyond doubt, that Judaism is the most important rnintellectualrndevelopment in western history for two reasons: one having to do with rnthernaesthetic and spiritual, and the other having to do with the ethical. If I begin with ethical and moralrnissues, Judaism invented the idea of mankind as an entity. rn So we see striking differences betweenrnancient Israeli literature and Greek literature, let’s say in the first rn1,000rnyears, the first millennium B.C. rnThere is a word in Greek that has no equivalent in Hebrew, namelyrn “barbarian.” Barbarian meaning, somebody thatrnbabbles—a Greek word meaning someone who babbles, who doesn’t speak rnGreek, whornis foreign, who is culturally inferior by definition and of very littlerninterest. Not only different, butrnboring. Judaism, meanwhile insofarrnas to develop the idea of a single god, which was a revolutionary and rnbazaarrnidea at that time, first emerges 3,000 some odd years ago. rn I figured that if there really only onerngod in the world, he had to be everybody’s god. Everybodyrn should have the right to say, this is my god. Mustrn have that right. And then if you look who thatrncommunity, who the faithful are in principle, it’s everybody. So, Judaism has the idea that ethicalrnlaws, moral rules and strictures apply to everybody. Not that everybody rnhas arnsort of liability to carry them out. rnThere were stricter requirements of Jews, or Israelis, than therern arernof people in general. Judaism hasrnnever been a proselytizing religion. rnIt doesn’t really care—as a matter of fact is indifferent—whetherrn peoplernbecome Jews or join the Jewish community, but is very clear on what the rnbasicrnmoral obligations of mankind are with respect for life, respect for rnjustice,rnkindness to animals, a familial, what should I say, sexual fidelity andrnrefraining from sexual crimes. rnThese are the so-called “Seven laws of the sons of Noah,” meaningrn thatrnthey apply to everybody.rnrn
So, without going into a lengthy disquisition, rnJudaism hasrnthe idea that there is a simple moral code which goes not only for the rnIsraelirnpeople, or the Israeli nation, but is applicable to everybody and has rnthernrevolutionary idea that not only is there one god, but there is rnessentially onernman; one mankind, the whole world. rnSo on festival occasions at the Temple of Jerusalem, 70 rnsacrifices wouldrnbe brought at certain points. Itrnwas thought that there were 70 nations in the world; one for each rnnation.rnrn
Judaism has an aesthetic and spiritual side also, rnofrncourse. Judaism is obsessed withrnimagery. One often finds that itsrnstereotypes are either basically right or exactly wrong. rn They are rarely sort of inrnbetween. Judaism is oftenrndescribed as being hostile to imagery. rnBut we know that can’t be right because of the Hebrew Bible rnunderliesrnwestern literature. Hebrew poetry,rnthe poetry of the psalms, the prophets, the Book of Job, is the basis ofrnWestern literature. Hebrew prosernnarrative is the basis of Western narrative. Therern is no such thing as great poetry without imagery, thernidea is absurd. There is no suchrnthing as great writing that isn’t vivid and vibrant and that means basedrn onrnimages. And we find, in fact, the imagery of the Bible is the imagery rnthatrnrecurs throughout Western literature and Western art, from ... the rnsplit-open Red Sea, to the handwriting on the wall,rnto chariot of fire. These arernimages that are not only painted in the developing tradition of medievalrn artrnand western realist painting, but they recur in Western literature of rnallrnlanguages down to this afternoon.rnrn
So for both of these reasons, Judaism has a rncommanding rolernin the creation of the culture and civilization that we’ve occupied for rnseveralrnthousand years, and especially so with the emergence of the idea of the rnliberalrnnation. The liberal modern nationrnwhich is a sort of joint invention of the United States and of Great rnBritain inrnthe 17th century and the 18th century. rnThese were Christian nations, but the Christianity of early rnAmerica andrnof Britain in the Elizabethan, and especially the age of the civil wars rnandrnCromwell, is what is often called “Hebraic Christianity,” or “Old rnTestamentrnChristianity.” It was a profoundlyrnHebrew-inspired sort of Christianity. rnNot that people thought of themselves as Jews because they did rnnot, butrnboth the early United States and the early Britain repeatedly referred rntornthemselves as “The New Israel” and the idea of freedom and liberty rnemerges inrnthe United States on the basis of the story of the Exodus, the biblical rnverse,rn“Let my people go,” which is repeated many times by Moses to Pharaoh rnbecomesrnfundamental in American history not only when religious zealots, who rnwerernpersecuted in England immigrate in the 17th Century to the United rnStates, butrnwhen the United States declares it’s own independence and freedom as a rnnationrnduring the Civil War when the North becomes gradually resolved under rnPresidentrnLincoln to free the slaves, and then the Civil Rights Movement of the rn‘60s,rnlate ’50s and ‘60s again.rnrn
So, the notion of freedom, the notionrnof equality, which is derived by the founders of English and Americanrnliberalism from the opening of the Bible, which says, “All men are rncreated inrnGod’s image, therefore you’re not allowed to make distinctions on the rnbasis ofrnrace, color, and creed. All menrnbeing in God’s image are to be treated justly and fairly.” rn Abraham Lincoln put that mostrnconcisely. And interestingly, thernidea of democracy too, if you read the early literature in the United rnStates,rndeveloping the idea of modern democracy in the 1600’s, especially New rnEngland andrnin Virginia, to some extent, biblical verses are rnquoted constantly. Not only the ones in which rnMoses sets up what is describedrnas a Jewish commonwealth, he’s told to essentially let each tribe rnfurnish itsrnown leaders. Tell Moses who hisrnleaders will be. But it’s also therncase of the Hebrew Bible is an aggressively anti-monarchy book. There are vivid denunciations of thernidea of a king, the rights of kings, an absolute king. Prophetsrn in the Bible confront kingsrnfor them in the name of God to be fair and to be just and to be rnhonorable, andrnin fact, Israel was told that if it had any sense, they wouldn’t have a rnkingrnto begin with.rnrn
So in lots of ways—and this is something that used rnto bernwell known—the last couple of generations in western culture, I would rnsayrnsince the Second World War, have been secularizing generations in which rnwe werernmore apt to look at ancient Greece than ancient Israel. Butrn as a matter of historical record,rnit’s easy to trace these ideas, also in the philosophy of the EnglishrnEnlightenment. It’s easy to open arnbook of Locke and notice that he keeps quoting the Bible, or Hobbes, or rnSeldon,rnor others of the English philosophers who provided the intellectualrncounter-weight to the active and pragmatic liberalism of the founding rnfathers.
Recorded on April 1, 2010.