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Judaism and Christianity in Western Thought

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Why is it important to understand how Judaism and Christianity have shaped Western thought?

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The Judaic Factor in Western Culture
By Jacob Neusner
The Judaic contribution to the west cannot be defined, let alone assessed, without close consideration of the role of the Jewish people and their long and coherent history ... Israel after the flesh, the bearer of salvation in the ancient dispensation, has yet a role to play in the coming salvation. "
FOR most people, "Judaism" is equivalent to the "Old Testament." Presumably, therefore, if we describe the many and important ways in which the Hebrew Scriptures (which Jews know as Tanakh) have shaped the life of the west, then we will be defining the Judaic factor in western culture.
This widely-held conception is false, for two reasons. First, it ignores the fact that the values of Tanakh are mediated to the west not through Judaism but through Christianity and Christian culture. This is implied, for example, by the very name by which Tanakh is called, that is, the "Old Testament." The "Old" is old in relationship to the "New" Testament, and the latter is understood, by Christians, to complete the message of the former, and, indeed, to impart upon the "Old" its true and authoritative meaning. Furthermore, so far as Tanakh is known in the west, it is known in the way in which it is read through Christian eyes. Accordingly, we cannot claim that the Judaic contribution to western civilization takes the distinctive and particular form of the Hebrew Bible, because the Tanakh is not distinctive to Judaism alone, and it is not mediated by Judaism at all.
Second, the conception that the Judaic contribution is principally the Tanakh ignores the development of Judaism over the past two thousand years. That conception treats the continued presence of the Jewish people in the west as of no account. It takes the position that the only thing of importance about that people is its connection to ancient Israel. This negative assessment of Judaism, of course, is part
Jacob Neusner is University Professor and Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Neusner is a prominent scholar of the influence of the classic Jewish tradition. It often happens, unfortunately, that Christian and humanist scholars discuss western culture as if the Judaic factor didn't exist. Even worse, is the pretension that western culture can accommodate Judaism as a mere "preface" to Christian civilization, designating the Hebrew Scriptures, Tanakh, as the "Old" Testament.

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of the earliest Christian conception that the true Israel continues through the people which was no people, the people of God, the New Israel, the Church of Christ. It, of course, bears within itself an interesting contradiction, since it concedes what it also denies, which is that the Jews do bear some relationship, if not a quite legitimate one, to the religion of ancient Israel portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Accordingly, all that the Jews have contributed is the "Old Testament," but they cannot truly claim to carry forward even that document as they do not constitute its continuators.
If, as I have implied, Judaism and the religion of the ancient Israelites represented by the Tanakh are not one and the same thing, it follows that Tanakh stands behind two great religions of the west, Judaism and Christianity. Neither can claim wholly and completely to exhaust the potential meaning of Tanakh, for the other bears contrary testimony and gives witness to the notion that there are other meanings, legitimately lived out, in alternative communities of faith. Judaism carries the imperatives of Sinai forward through its second Torah, the one claimed to have been revealed alongside the written Torah. This second Torah, alleged also to have been revealed at Sinai, is called the oral Torah, and ultimately finds expression in the Mishnah, a second century document, and in the literature of exegesis and augmentation of Mishnah generated by Mishnah, for example, the Palestinian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, and the great legal and theological enterprise built upon the foundations of both. It would lead us far afield to discuss how these modes of Torah complement and complete the written one everyone in the west knows.
Central to my argument is the conception that the Judaic contribution to the west cannot be defined, let alone assessed, without close consideration of the role of the Jewish people and its long and coherent history, inclusive of how Judaism, for its part, also took over and transmitted Tanakh.
How, then, shall we define the Judaic component of western civilization, specifically, that component which both is affective in the formation of the world-view of the west and distinctive to Judaism in particular? To answer this question, we must establish two paramount criteria.
First, we want to stress the aspect of distinctiveness. What has Judaism in particular contributed? Second, we emphasize the aspect of the common culture of the west, so we ask what Judaism has contributed to the west? The second question places limits upon the potential answer, but not less than the first. The west has not received its vast code of morality from Judaism in particular. The west does not look to Judaism for its theological-philosophical conception of God, though that conception is shared by Judaism and Christianity in its philosophical formulations, as monotheism is common to the great religious traditions of the west. The radical social perspectives of the

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prophets reach the west through the thought of Christian ...

Solution Summary

This solution explains why it is important to understand how Judaism and Christianity have shaped Western thought. Supplemented with an article describing Judaic influences in Western thought.