American Orthodoxy

The “Judeo-Christian” Tradition at Yeshiva

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The notion of Torah u-Madda—that Torah and secular studies can enrich each other—has been a byword in the Modern Orthodox community for decades. Yet some have claimed it is in decline. Lehrhaus is proud to present a symposium grappling with Torah u-Madda: how we got here, the challenges that have arisen, and how its meaning continues to evolve over time.

Symposium Contributions: Editors’ Introduction, Elana Stein Hain, Stuart Halpern, Yisroel Ben-Porat, Sarah Rindner, Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Leah Sarna, Tzvi Sinensky, Yaakov Bieler, Moshe Kurtz, Elinatan Kupferberg, Olivia Friedman, Margueya Poupko, Noah Marlowe; Letters to the Editor: 1 | 2

Author’s note: I would like to begin this essay by acknowledging what an honor and privilege it is to participate in this symposium—both as an editor and a writer—with so many diverse and distinguished voices. I am not an expert in Jewish theology, but the following reflection stems from living and intensely studying the Jewish tradition, as well as my disciplinary background of early American history. It is both scholarly and deeply personal, and it is thus tentative. My hope is that these words will resonate with people who seek to advance the next generation of Torah u-Madda.

In the early twentieth century, a curious phrase emerged, one that has recently drawn considerable favor from the right-wing Jewish community: “Judeo-Christian.” In The Right Side of History (2019), conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro lauds Judeo-Christian values as founding principles of America and Western civilization. Similarly, books and projects sponsored by YU’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought—some of which include my own contributions—cast the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament as a shared tradition of Judaism and Christianity.[1] These efforts seek to highlight the commonalities between the two faiths to promote religious ideals in the public sphere. In this essay, I consider how such notions might fit into a Torah u-Madda framework. I argue that this trend reflects a significant departure from previous applications of the term and carries serious halakhic implications for Orthodox Jews. Nevertheless, I see value in carefully pursuing these avenues, and I propose a path forward that I consider faithful to the Jewish tradition.

On its face, the term is perplexing: what exactly is “Judeo-Christian”? The term, although it correctly alludes to overlapping goals of Jews and Christians, belies deep differences between the two religious traditions: Judaism has a straightforwardly monotheistic and incorporeal divinity, believes in an Oral Law beyond the Written Law, and from a halakhic perspective, generally views Christianity as idolatry. Christianity, on the other hand, believes in a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; follows a New Testament that supersedes the Old; and rejects the rabbinic Oral Law. Thus, Christians do not believe in the Hebrew Bible but rather the Old Testament; even when the King James translation at times does not differ substantially from ArtScroll, the overarching lens and framework of interpretations remain alien to Judaism.

Nevertheless, the line between Jews and Christians was blurry in antiquity,[2] and various people throughout history have implausibly bridged these two faiths through conversion or syncretism. Scholars such as Mark Silk and K. Healan Gaston point out that the earliest usages of the term “Judeo-Christian” referred to such hybrid models of identity, or simply as an adjective to describe relations between practitioners of the two faiths. The meaning of a discrete Judeo-Christian “Western” tradition or shared value system emerged in the late nineteenth century, but it often conveyed a supersessionist agenda in which Christianity bested Judaism. In the 1920s, Jews and Catholics used the term to ally with Protestants against nativism. By World War II, as separation of church and state began to spread in the United States, the term reflected the perceived threat of secularism. During the Cold War, “Judeo-Christian” promoted the notion of exceptionalist American democracy versus the totalitarian and godless USSR. The contemporary iteration of the term with its focus on promoting shared religious values in the public sphere stems from the conservative revolution of the 80s. Thus, “Judeo-Christian” not only effaces substantive theological differences, but it is a relic of olden-day polemics.[3]

Issues of terminology aside, it is worth grappling with the larger implications of the Judeo-Christian project. Traditionally, madda (lit. “knowledge”) referred to the natural sciences, such as biology, physics, and astronomy, which many rishonim (medieval Jewish authorities) valued. The Torah U-Madda Journal, however, implicitly reflected a broader understanding of the term that includes the humanities: literature, philosophy, history, and other disciplines of the liberal arts. More recently, as others explore in this symposium, pop culture has increasingly emerged as part of this framework as well. The institutional ethos of the Straus Center, and by extension YU, seems to now acknowledge yet another dimension to madda. Under this framework, a broader appreciation for Christianity as a source of Scriptural interpretation and a general repository of religious values adds intellectual breadth to the ideal Yeshiva student.

At first glance, the value of Christianity seems to hold a somewhat dubious place in the Jewish tradition. Maimonides prohibited reading idolatrous literature and explicitly deemed Christianity as idolatry.[4] Modern Orthodox Jews, however, tend to find solace in the more liberal views that have appeared throughout Jewish intellectual history. Menachem Meiri (a thirteenth-century talmudist) famously insisted that the Talmudic laws regarding interactions with idolaters do not apply to Christians.[5] Similarly, R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) expressed surprisingly positive sentiments toward Christianity.[6] Nevertheless, these examples seem to remain outlying minority perspectives; a cursory study of the rishonim on the opening discussion in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (lit. “foreign worship”) yields a normative view of Christianity as legally equivalent to paganism. At most, Jewish tradition seems to sanction such study solely for polemical purposes, along the lines of le-havin u-le-horot (understanding in order to determine the law) and da mah she-tashiv le-apikoros (knowing how to respond to a heretic).[7] These sources might explain why Maimonides seems to have familiarized himself with idolatrous literature despite prohibiting others from reading such works.

The early volumes of the Torah U-Madda Journal contain a spirited debate regarding the scope of Maimonides’s prohibition, which applies to our question at hand. R. Yehuda Parnes argued that Torah u-Madda “can only be viable if it imposes strict limits on freedom of inquiry in areas that may undermine [Maimonides’s thirteen ikarei emunah (principles of faith)].” This claim prompted a response by Drs. Lawrence Kaplan and David Berger, who argued that Maimonides did not prohibit freedom of inquiry in theological matters for students who have undergone sufficient religious and intellectual preparation. However, they qualify that “what constitutes such preparation is, without doubt, a difficult and complex practical and educational problem.” Similarly, my mentor R. Shalom Carmy related that R. Soloveitchik “had no inhibitions about recommending broad intellectual exposure” for undergraduate students and resisted suggestions to implement strict guidelines for navigating a liberal arts curriculum. In his closing response, R. Parnes retreated to his reading of Maimonides, insisting that regardless of R. Soloveitchik’s position, the scope of the prohibition on inquiry at odds with the ikarei emunah remains a fundamentally halakhic question and must be adjudicated accordingly.[8]

Yeshiva University, my alma mater, seems to implicitly follow the approach of R. Parnes’s respondents. I first encountered the New Testament, oddly enough, at Yeshiva, in a course on medieval Jewish history. The professor assigned a reading from Matthew to help us understand the source of Christians’ historical hatred toward Jews for their deicide. I dutifully asked and received permission from my posek (decisor) to read it. He justified doing so for educational purposes, to better understand Jewish history. That view resonates with me: as an aspiring academic, I strongly support the pursuit of knowledge and the unbridled encounter with diverse texts and sources, even when they may disturb or challenge us. Nevertheless, the permitting rationale remained limited in scope; would Halakhah sanction (read: does God want me) studying Christianity for the broader goal of understanding Western thought, or contributing to the academic field of church history? My brain says yes, but my heart also sympathizes with R. Parnes’s instincts; the weight of Jewish tradition continues to make reading the New Testament a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me.

When applying to graduate school, I consciously avoided academic Jewish studies for fear of mixing the personal and the professional. To my mind at the time, it would have been extremely difficult to reconcile the irreverent approach of the academy with the faithful traditionalism of the yeshiva. Yet my background in Jewish studies drew me to the Puritans, who sought to create a biblical society in Old and New England. These research interests have consistently led me back into Jewish studies in various meaningful ways. It is telling that my dissertation focuses on Puritan political uses of the Old Testament, rather than the whole Christian Bible—partially because scholarship has neglected this phenomenon, but also because I could not stomach devoting years of my life to something that my ancestors deemed idolatrous. That same posek also advised that each time I read the New Testament for my research, I should say a kapitl Tehillim (chapter of Psalms) to counteract the tum’ah (impurity) of Christianity. The Jewish guilt, of course, never goes away.

Despite all the above, I nevertheless believe that Modern Orthodox Jews stand to benefit from studying Christianity. It is typical to portray the goal of Torah u-Madda as a “synthesis,” an embrace of the contributions of secular knowledge. Yet it is more accurate to characterize Judaism’s encounter with non-Jewish wisdom as an oscillation between “conflict and confluence,” as R. Aharon Lichtenstein put it.[9] Torah u-Madda encompasses both an acceptance and rejection of the outside world.

There are two ways of reaching the truth: a positive search for wisdom, and a negative rejection of falsehood. Kabbalistic sources offer a helpful analogy: just as light cannot exist without darkness, nor can truth exist without falsehood.[10] Encountering external wisdom, whether it is theologically neutral or not, can add to our understanding of Torah either by offering new scenarios or ideas not considered in the classical Jewish literature, or sharpening the Torah’s view by way of contrast. Christian interpretations of Scripture—such as the reception history of the Old Testament in early America—can generate new Jewish perspectives on the biblical text, while Christian theology can create novel insights for Jewish thinkers to ponder. Conversely, an encounter with the Trinity necessitates a clearer understanding of Jewish divinity. More broadly, though, Christianity constitutes part of the broad nexus of Western thought that we encapsulate within the term madda.

Navigating the boundaries of Judaism and Christianity requires great caution. We must be careful to ensure the “dignity of difference” between our faiths. That does not mean that it should entail a wholly dogmatic approach that solely seeks to show students what Christianity has gotten wrong, nor should it involve a selective appropriation of elements of Christianity or early American history to support latter-day polemical agendas. “Judeo” and “Christian” should remain separate, albeit at times intersecting, adjectives. In today’s culture wars, right-wing Jews and Christians now find themselves allies against governments increasingly hostile toward religion.[11] Yet we must be willing to engage with the breadth of available scholarship, even the parts that make us uncomfortable. We must also be willing to learn from the Christian tradition while remaining wholly faithful to our own.

[1] See, e.g., my review of Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land (2019); see also the Bible 365 podcast series by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik and Jennifer Caplan’s review of Esther in America (2020).
[2] For a provocative yet insightful exploration of the contiguity of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, see the editorial apparatuses and essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed., ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[3] Mark Silk, “Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America,” American Quarterly 36, no. 1 (Spring 1984), 65-85 (see also his follow-up piece from 2019 here); K. Healan Gaston, Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); see also recent popular critiques here and here.
[4] Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 2:2, 9:4.
[5] See, e.g., Beit Ha-Behirah, Avodah Zarah 2a, s.v. amar; 20a, s.v. kevar.
[6] See, e.g., Lehem Shamayim, Pirkei Avot 4:11. Another curious example worth noting is R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik (Elias Soloweyczyk, 1805-1881), a Brisker scion who sought to synthesize Judaism with Christianity; see The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels, ed. Shaul Magid, trans. Jordan Gayle Levy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
[7] See, e.g., Sanhedrin 68a and Pirkei Avot 2:14.
[8] R. Carmy also cites R. Kook’s Mussar Avikha (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1985), 58 (par. 10), who maintained that ahavat ha-beri’ot “must extend to all mankind, despite all variations of opinions, religions and faiths, and despite all distinctions of race and climate… It is right to get to the bottom of the views of the different peoples and groups, to learn, as much as possible, their characters and qualities… The narrowness that causes one to see whatever is outside the border of the special nation, even outside the border of Israel, as ugly and defiled (tamei), is a terrible darkness that brings general destruction upon all the building of spiritual good.” For another response to R. Parnes, see Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003).
[9] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Northvale: Aronson, 1997), 217-92.
[10] See, e.g., Zohar 2:184a, 187a, 3:47b; R. Yosef Karo, Maggid Meisharim, Parshat Lekh Lekha.
[11] For recent advances in Jewish-Christian relations, see From Confrontation to Covenantal Partnership, ed. Jehoschua Ahrens, Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Korn (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2021).

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Yisroel Ben-Porat is one of the editors at The Lehrhaus and a PhD candidate in early American history at CUNY Graduate Center. He serves as Graduate Teaching Fellow at The City College of New York, and he teaches twelfth-grade history at Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly in affiliation with the Middle College program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. After studying in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh for a year, he graduated summa cum laude from Yeshiva University in 2018 and received his M.Phil from the Graduate Center in 2021. His dissertation focuses on how Puritans used the Hebrew Bible as a legal and political text in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world.