The Judeo-Christian Tradition
To the Editor:
When I read “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” by Arthur A. Cohen [November 1969] I was reminded of a talk I once had with Judge Learned Hand. Said he, “I do not like to have John W. Davis come into my courtroom.” When I expressed shocked surprise, he said, “But you don’t know the reason. I am so fascinated by his eloquence and charm that I always fear that I am going to decide in his favor irrespective of the merits of the case.”
I had somewhat the same feeling when I read Mr. Cohen’s essay in which, to my astonishment and chagrin, he described the Judeo-Christian tradition as a myth. Yet despite the expanse of his scholarship and the charm of his style, I must obey Al Smith’s classic injunction, “Let’s look at the record.” The record for me reaches its climax in the Ecumenical Council Decree of 1964. I quote its high spots:
The church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament from the people with whom God in His ineffable mercy concluded the former covenant. Nor can she forget that she feeds upon the root of that cultivated olive tree into which the wild shoots of the gentiles have been grafted.
So much for the origin of the tradition. But the decree continues:
Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is of such magnitude, this sacred synod wants to support and recommend their mutual knowledge and respect. . . .
May, then, all see to it that in their catechetical work or in their preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that could give rise to hatred or contempt of Jews in the hearts of Christians.
May they never present the Jewish people as one rejected, cursed or guilty of deicide.
These words need no commentary. They speak eloquently for themselves and they preach the truth that the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a myth but a great, potent living historical reality. That is why I have in another context described this decree as a Magna Charta of human brotherhood.
Joseph M. Proskauer
New York City
To the Editor:
One can only agree with Arthur Cohen that Christianity has come closer to Judaism . . . out of bad conscience or fear for its own viability, or both. Certainly the Vatican Council—along with the present flood of academic studies of religion, the interfaith dialogues, and all the rest—have come too late. . . . The declaration against deicide would have been of much greater use during the Second World War than it was in 1965. . . . But it must be recognized that Christianity and Judaism, whether they share a tradition or not, are on on the same side “geopolitically,” so to speak, in the world today. It seems to this writer that the world of the New Left would not leave any room for either Christian or Jewish piety, or even existence.
The Church, through the power of momentum, may survive for a century or more, despite the new paganism. By preempting the areas of social action, by serving as a sanctuary for radicals and adopting the line of revolution, the Church may prove itself valuable to the rebels, just as it succeeded in making itself useful to Hitler. In Communist Russia even now, most of the Christian denominations still exist in skeleton form.
But what lies in store for Judaism, and for the Zionist venture? In the Soviet Union, Judaism is dying. On the continent of Europe, the Jewish communities do not have a bright future. In the United States, the Jewish Establishment is suffering both from the general attack on religion, and from the particular apostasy of its sons and daughters to the leftist movements. . . .
The State of Israel makes sense to a world brought up on the Bible, but not to a secular, humanist world. It is true that opposition to Zionism can be found both among the fundamentalists and in the modernist camp of the Church. But Israel also has friends there. However, it has very few friends in the Communist world, among the Old and New Left, or in the Third World. . . .
There is, therefore, a political stake, to put it bluntly, in the retention of the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though, admittedly, it does not stand theological analysis.
Rabbi Jacob Chinitz
Temple Beth Ami
To the Editor:
Arthur A. Cohen, in retelling the Hasidic tale which concludes with the irreducible accounting of one generation to the next through the remembered story, makes the too-easy generalization that perhaps today, “the story itself has become meaningless.” I would hazard to say that “the story” remains true to every generation insofar as each generation sees its own story as true. Martin Buber once wrote, “Miracle is simply what happens; insofar as it meets people who are capable of receiving it, or prepared to receive it, as miracle.”. . .
Yes, “tradition is living,” not only when “the spoken word and the heard word [surpass] the written word,” but in the means to respond to any word, which is partly old, partly new, frequently disengaging.
Though primarily out of the article’s context, I take this opportunity to clarify but one thought: that even the myth, so-called, of the Judeo-Christian tradition is, most certainly, not just a myth in colloquial terms meaning a falsehood (historical or not), but a powerful and expedient religious posture, valid for most people here and now, and bearing witness to a continued symbolic relationship with very real meaningfulnesses.
It is an age-old question. In today’s language, in part, it means, how are we to tell our children about Martin Luther King, or JFK, or “social concern”; indeed, how did our parents tell us about Judaism? With what words did they convey the sparks and heritage they lived through and with in Europe?
Department of Religion
Mr. Cohen writes:
The three correspondents, in different ways, underscore the essential thesis of my essay: they need the myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is perhaps the need for the myth, rather more than its intellectual and theological pretensions, which might have justified close scrutiny, but I am not an assessor of psychological archetypes.
Judge Proskauer regards the position of the Vatican Council as a Magna Charta—presumably for the Jewish feudal barons of today suffering from the exactions of a latter-day John, but like the barons of old, the only thing the Jewish community has gained is a verbal release from a sentence under which it had stood for centuries. The fact that the Church admits its indebtedness to ancient Israel, that it acknowledges its derelictions and calls for a spirit of respect and tolerance is not a reply to my thesis. In fact, in a long essay which concludes my forthcoming book, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, I interpret what Judge Proskauer has forgotten, that the Church in its final declaration on the Jews decided to omit all reference to “deicide,” contenting itself with a much milder formulation which was as innocuous as the original Magna Charta, but no cause for celebration by Jews.
The letter of Rabbi Chinitz is more to the point since it does, in fact, illustrate the employment of ideological myth. Everything he writes indicates that he too thinks the Judeo-Christian tradition is a myth, but a useful one and therefore justifiable. I demur. Untruth is still untruth. When it comes down to it the fearsome New Left, and the other groups Rabbi Chinitz lists, are not going to be put asunder by trotting out the Judeo-Christian tradition. Neither Jews nor Christians will be strengthened, nor the “enemy” affrighted. The first thing for Jews and Christians is to tell the truth to each other as loving strangers. If they can manage this, their posture before the “enemy” will be less crabbed, less uptight, less artificial.
Edward Kaplan’s letter makes no sense to me at all, even after four readings. But the tip-off that I don’t agree is his reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition as “a powerful and expedient religious posture.” Again the useful myth. Down with useful myths. The great myths were not only useful. They enabled man in ancient times to pass through dark and dangerous regions of his life with a sense of timeless, inexorable fatality. In our day the same myths, now interpreted and understood, enable us to live more wisely and self-consciously. But expedient, useful, ideological myths are cheap devices which history fabricates to avoid, rather than to see, the truth of man’s nature.
[Additional correspondence on Mr. Cohen's article will appear in a future issue.—Ed.]