Shaul Magid on Cynthia Baker’s Jew
In her discussion of the term Ioudaios, or “Jew” as it emerges from antiquity, Cynthia Baker in her new book Jew makes the following comments:
As this brief survey suggests, not only do the terms “ethnicity” and “religion” come down to us through the prism of early Christian discourse about the Jew, but the narrative of progress from ethnicity to religion resembles an explicitly Christian historiography, one that morally subordinates ethnicity (as primitive and particular) to religion (as universal aspiration) much as it morally subordinates Judaism and Jew to Christianity and Christian.… Christian historiography and its current secular iterations have, in fact, effected a supersession far beyond what triumphalist ecclesiology was ever able to accomplish, and Jews—at base, at least in part—is/are a Christian construct.
Baker takes her intervention up to the present by suggesting the modern dilemma for the Jew is often inhabiting this “‘conjunctive disjunction,’ a space where unity and difference, belonging and alienation, longing and being, hover in a delicate—and sometime indelicate—balance.” I want to take this observation and refract it through a polemical essay written by the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen in 1969 entitled, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Cohen was ostensibly writing on the other side of the Christian differentiation that Baker alludes to. He writes at a time when “Judeo-Christian” was deployed to express tolerance of the Jew as Other, generously exemplified by the shared hyphen, even as that hyphen, like many hyphens, may be more illustrative of anxiety, or difference, than comradery (see Jean-Francois Lyotard, “On the Hyphen,” in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity). But of course even in Baker’s singular Jew the Christian is proximate; after all, as she intimates throughout, it is the Christian gaze that makes, or marks, the very term Jew.
The “Judeo-Christian tradition” has a long and multivalent history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists its first appearance in 1899, as referring to a “Judeo-Christian continuity theory” connecting certain church rituals to Second Temple Jewish practices. We can see this as well in William F. Albright’s notion that this Judeo-Christian continuum begins in the Hebrew Bible (“from Samuel on through the Essenes”) and continues through the Reformation to the Hasidic movement! It is only later that it marks a shared value system between Judaism and Christianity that has become common today in the halls of Congress. Jacques Maritian, whose wife came from a Russian-Jewish family, used it as a shield against anti-Semitism to claim that Christian anti-Semitism was a form of self-hatred. Others such as Reinhold Niebuhr, especially in his 1939 Gifford lectures, used the term to stress the “Hebraic-prophetic” roots of Christianity to argue that true Christianity moves toward the Hebraic and away from the Hellenic (he changed course a bit later). Paul Tillich and the later Niebuhr offered another variation, arguing that “Judeo-Christian” works to subvert each religion’s claim of exclusive rights to the absolute. In his 1955 The Self and the Dramas of History, Niebuhr writes, “At best, the two can regard themselves as two version of one faith, each thinking the other as an heretical version of the common faith.”
Pushback came from the Jews from various corners, perhaps most prominently in Trude Weiss-Rosmarin’s Judaism and Christianity in 1943. She may have been the first to argue “Judeo-Christian” was a form of erasure threatening the survival of Judaism in a society where the rights of Jews were legally assured. Others in this period, such as Will Herberg, were less troubled. A student of Niebuhr, Herberg viewed Judeo-Christian as a way to help Judaism combat the slippery slope into secularism, which he determined was American Jewry’s bigger danger. Countering that, in 1973 Israeli philosopher Natan Rostenstreich claimed the “Judeo-Christian” was not a bulwark against secularism but in fact an invitation for American Jews to become absorbed in the secularism of universal Christianity.
Arthur Cohen’s intervention is worth closer examination. His polemic is embedded in his title, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” using “tradition” and “myth” to offset the lie that lurks beneath, or inside, the hyphen. What is the difference between a “tradition” and a “myth”? And who gets to label something a “tradition”? Cohen seems to suggest it is only those in power. And why would those in power cede any of that power to create a “tradition” that includes its opposite? It is the Christian and not the Jew who invents the Judeo-Christian tradition just as—according to Baker—the Christian also invented the term Jew. Thus Cohen writes, “We can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations, but the one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding. How then, can we make of it a tradition?” “Tradition” for Cohen is only something that lives when it is not written, when it a story. Tradition begins when God stops speaking. Put otherwise, tradition begins with a silent God and a talking prophet (the prophet can only begin to speak when God is silent). But when the story is no longer told (he writes, “in our time we no longer have the enthusiasm to tell the story”), when “belief” is only about what was, tradition can only become a myth, meaning for Cohen, an exercise in “meaninglessness” whose end has little to do with perpetuating “tradition.” By juxtaposing “tradition” and “myth” in the title of his essay Cohen seeks to mine the origins of this move by Christian America. Why Jews, why “Judeo,” why forge a “tradition” with the very people whose rejection stands at the center of your covenant? This is, of course, an old story that extends at least back to Tertullian, who used Judaism as a marker of the Christian past.
With Weiss-Rosmarin, Cohen argues that this is not a gesture of reconciliation at all but rather the consummation of absorption, an act whereby the “Jew,” now Latinized/Christianized as “Judeo,” becomes fully a part of Christian America—a point Daniel Boyarin alludes to in his Border Lines and in his book on Paul in a different social milieu. Boyarin writes, “Paul’s universalism seems to conduce to coercive politico-cultural systems that engage in more or less violent projects of absorption of cultural specificities into the dominant one.” And why do Jews buy in? Here Cohen see this “myth” as a product of disaster and not triumph. It is the disaster of faith now lost and the triumphal substitute of secular religiosity. Here Cohen comes close to Herberg:
Such secular religiosity is dangerous; it is the common quicksand of Jews and Christians. And it is here that we can identify the myth. Jews and Christians have conspired together to promote a tradition of common experience and common belief, whereas in fact they have joined together to reinforce themselves in the face of a common disaster…. The myth is a projection of the will to endure of both Jews and Christians, an identification of common enemies, an abandonment of millennia antagonism in the face of threats which do not discriminate between Judaism and Christianity.
Speaking culturally, and politically, the “myth” in Cohen’s mind serves the failure of each against the other and then, I would suggest, both against a common enemy (the non-“Judeo-Christian”): “The Christian comes to depend on the Jew for an explanation of unredeemedness. The Jew, on the other hand, must look to Christianity to ransom for him his faith in the Messiah, to renew for him his expectation of the nameless Christ.”
On Cohen’s reading, if Jews and Christians should find their footing inside “tradition” each would dismiss the “myth” as unnecessary and could (happily) return to seeing the irreconcilability of one to the other (a return again to Weiss-Rosmarin). That is, if each has their tradition, there would no longer be a need for a Judeo-Christian tradition. If they do not, and the myth persists as “masking the abyss” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it will be the catalyst for the disappearance of both, which means, I think, that only Christianity remains, albeit as an imperialistic shell of itself. Cohen, of course, cares for the Jews here above all—can the Jews survive in a tolerant society, even one that wants to embrace them through a Judeo-Christian tradition? His answer is that only if it resists the embrace because the embrace is self-serving of a Christianity that “can no longer deal with actual history.” The Jew then becomes the consolation of history.
But perhaps what this is really about, for the Jew and for the Christian, is the reiteration of the exceptionalism of both through the prism of the other. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once said that sex is two people using one another. Perhaps that is apt here as well. That which both were historically prohibited from doing with the other emerges now in the phallic hyphen that brings them together, not as lovers but actors of sexual egoism.
Cohen’s essay was written decades before the rise of Islamism and Islamophobia, before the American invasion of Iraq that George W. Bush early on coined “a new crusade,” and before the Israel/Palestine crisis reached epic proportions (it was written two years after the Six-Day War). What can Cohen say to us about the Jew today, construed, or reinvented, as “Judeo” at this time when American exceptionalism has become a political tool as well as a religious mandate in a theopolitical register through the rise of evangelical political piety, when shows like Transparent make the neurotic Jew a reflection of the American self rather than a derisive stereotype of abnormality and disease?
Cohen argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition, which he defines as a “myth,” is really a tool of domination, even exceptionalism, in regards to Judaism and Jews. By subsuming the “Judeo” in the Christian, Christianity owns its “Judeo” roots and thus takes from the “Jew” that which it always used as the firewall between it and its perceived theological foe. In this case, tolerance is the mask of domination.
This notion comes through in a stark way in a 2014 symposium at the Vatican where Steve Bannon laid out his world-view. In his expansive remarks, Bannon consistently referred to the “Judeo-Christian West” but whenever he defined it, he always reverted to exclusively Christian language, i.e. “the church militant,” “the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity,” a time when “Christian faith was predominant throughout [a] Europe of practicing Christians.” The only place where he mentions Judaism is in reference to capitalists who, he says, “were either active members of the Jewish faith, [or] active members of the Christian faith, … and they took their beliefs in the work they did.” This is, of course, largely false at least in regards to Jews and capitalism. As Jerry Muller shows in his Jews and Capitalism, most of the Jews involved in the early stages of capitalism were secular, sometimes strongly so, and thus would be on the enemy side of Bannon’s ledger. Bannon says, “I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.” Indeed. Where Bannon shows what he means by the “Judeo-Christian West” comes out twice in his remarks. First, defining it against “a barbaric empire of the Far East,” and second, “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam.” If by “Far East” Bannon means China, Jews never had a beef with the Chinese. More to the point, Jews never had a “struggle against Islam,” at least not until the advent of Zionism. In fact, Jews generally lived better under Muslim rule than they did in Christendom, which persecuted, tortured, and murdered them for centuries. Not very “Judeo-Christian.” Bannon here proves my claim that Judeo-Christian is really Christian, a position that can perhaps include present-day Israel because it, too, struggles against Islam. In his 2007 book A Match Made in Heaven, Zev Chafetz aptly calls this situation a “Judeo-Evangelical Alliance.” But in reality there is no “Judeo-Christian West”; there is the Christian West and the myth of a Judeo-Christian tradition.
Cohen was afraid for the American Jew. He viewed the American Judeo-Christian tradition as a guise for the erasure of Judaism at the price of the survival of the Jew. But I think today the exceptionalist implications are more global. Each (Jew and Christian) is using the other for its own exceptionalist purposes: the Jew by saying that finally Christians have understood that without Jews and Judaism Christianity cannot survive theologically, and Christianity by saying that it can subsume the Jew through assimilation with the mere inclusion of the word “Judeo.” And both Jew (here Zionists and Israel) and Christian (here imperialist America) can use the Judeo-Christian myth to justify the claim to exclusive right (and perhaps even divine right) in pursuing political goals, even as the Judeo-Christian arguably makes those goals impossible to achieve.
To return to Baker: in her final chapters she discusses an inner Jewish struggle on this question in regards to the Diaspora “Jew,” the Israeli Jew (“New Jew”), and the Genomic Jew essentialized through DNA testing (which usually renders the Jew far less monolithic). Alternatively, you have the mystical Jewish soul as expressed in contemporary Jewish thinkers such as Adin Steinsaltz in his We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? Or the figural Jew in Sarah Hammerschlag’s book by that title. Now that Jews have a nation-state on one side of the ocean, and a fully integrated and a post-ethnic assimilated (yet still “Jewish”) society on the other side of the ocean (70% of non-Orthodox Jews in America marry non-Jews), the future of the term “Jew” extends beyond the fear of erasure into the Judeo-Christian. Jews have created their own society in Israel, and recent polls show Jews are the most well-liked religious minority in America, even despite a rise in anti-Semitic incidents since the election of Donald Trump. “Jews” in America, if we define that term as those who are members of Jewish communities, or identify with them, are no longer exclusively Jews traditionally defined. Can the term “Jew” survive in any cohesive way in a robust Diaspora of post-ethnic Jews and a robust Israel where ethnicities are an inner-Jewish phenomenon (Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, etc.)? Is it the Jews, and not the Christians as Weiss-Rosmarin and Cohen feared, who may finally render the term “Jew” meaningless? Only their God knows.
This is the sixth essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Chair of Jewish Studies in Modern Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at the Indiana University Bloomington, as well as a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.