Faith & Reason: Putting noble ideals into ancient religions

Christians have been persecuting Jews for 2,000 years, which makes Dr Jonathan Sacks's recent praise for a `Judaeo-Christian tradition' all the more puzzling. What exactly is it? asks Andrew Brown.
The art of propaganda lies in nouns, not verbs. Once you have said that your opponent is a heretic, a bigot, or a happy-clappy, it is irrelevant what they do. Their character is indelibly stamped. And the same principle applies to praise: there are certain standards which function both as benchmarks for good behaviour and as rallying flags in a struggle with the forces of darkness; and one of the most pernicious of these is the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

It made its most recent appearance in Dr Jonathan Sacks's articles plugging a forthcoming book earlier this week in what the Daily Telegraph used to call "another newspaper". He finished with a ringing endorsement of "the Judaeo-Christian tradition, predicated on the sanctity of life, the priority of right over might, and the imperatives of justice and compassion for the vulnerable and disenfranchised, [which] has survived for almost 4,000 years, while the great empires which persecuted its adherents have crumbled and vanished".

Seldom can so much nonsense have been summoned in support of a noble ideal. What exactly is this Judaeo-Christian tradition? There is undoubtedly an Abrahamic tradition: a line of descent in three of the world's great religions from the Old Testament. Islam, Christianity and Judaism all acknowledge a common descent from the myths of Abraham, and all pay allegiance to the Ten Commandments. This has not prevented any of these religions from persecuting the others when they had the chance. On the contrary, the common descent of Judaism and Christianity is integral to the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

As far as I know, the idea of a specifically "Judaeo-Christian" branch is an import from America, where it has only really become popular in the last 50 years. It would have made very little sense to speak of this tradition before the Holocaust, and little political sense to speak of it before the establishment of the state of Israel. In the context of American politics, where there is a powerful fundamentalist lobby that manages to combine theoretical anti-Semitism with practical pro-Zionism in the interests of hastening Armageddon, this idea makes perfect sense. But it is a strange thing to set up as a moral authority.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all function as moral traditions; and all of them are religions which have learnt, developed, and preserved a great deal about the purposes of human life. But almost all of this has been in progress away from their common roots in the Bronze Age proscriptions of a jealous God. Dr Sacks describes the tradition as "predicated on the sanctity of human life": I do not see how anyone could come fresh to the Bible and see any regard for human life at all in the early parts. From the extermination of every living thing outside the ark to the ethnic cleansing of the promised land, the story is one of utter disregard for human life except when it suits God's purposes.

The religious imagination is an extraordinarily fertile and creative faculty which can bring love and justice out of the most unpromising soil. But there is no use pretending that the Pentateuch is terribly promising soil. In a sense this makes the moral achievement of the Jews so much greater; it does not license anyone to preach on the excellence of the Ten Commandments as a sort of constitution document for modern society.

The second part of Dr Sacks's trope also invites examination: the tradition, he says "has survived for almost 4,000 years, while the great empires which persecuted its adherents have crumbled and vanished." At first sight this has a wonderful resonance, especially from the Jewish point of view. The Jews have inspiringly survived 4,000 years. The trouble is that for nearly half of that period their main persecutors have been Christians: what price the "Judaeo-Christian" heritage there?

Talking about a "Judaeo-Christian" tradition is wrong and misleading, above all because it ignores what traditions actually are: they are not prescriptions which can be read off and applied. They must be lived to be understood. It is a familiar argument against religion that people can act vilely from the most beautiful ideals. But the opposite difficulty is just as great: that people will act virtuously as a consequence of horrendous theories. I have no doubt that Dr Sacks is an excellent man, and his family an engine of virtue. But if we wish to remoralise society, we should do as he does, and not as he says.

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