I gave a talk to the sixth form and staff at London’s JFS school, under the title “What have the Jews ever done for us? The contribution of Judaism to western civilisation and modernity”. You can watch the talk here, and you can read an edited version below.
What have the Jews ever done for us? The contribution of Judaism to western civilisation
It’s an article of faith that religion and modernity are mutually exclusive.
In one box, labelled modernity, are all the good things that we value: reason and intelligence, progress, science, justice, compassion, freedom. In the other box, labelled religion, are only bad things: irrationality and obscurantism, superstition, repression.
The famed biologist, Professor Richard Dawkins, blamed the God of the Old Testament for everything bad in the world. In his book The God Delusion he wrote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”.
Over the last few years, there’s been a tremendous onslaught on religion on the basis that it stands in the way of the betterment of the world and the happy and healthy development of the individual. Religion is deemed to just get in the way of the good life. Some years ago, the Humanists launched their “Atheist bus campaign” which featured a bus bearing the message: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.
I particularly liked the “probably”; even the atheists, it seemed, weren’t absolutely sure that there was no God. Which you might say means they weren’t really atheists. But anyway, the point they were making was that religion gets in the way of enjoying your life. Why should that be? Because religion has all those tiresome rules which prevent individuals from doing just what they want, whenever they want, regardless of anyone else.
The moral codes of the Bible fettered individuals’ proclaimed right to live exactly as they want with no-one to tell them they are wrong. Over the past five or six decades, there has been a determined attempt to lock up those Biblical principles in the box marked smelly old religion and throw away the key.
In their place have come a range of ideologies, man-made ideas such as individualism, the belief that there’s nothing higher than individual rights; moral and cultural relativism, the belief that there’s no such thing as objective truth and that no-one’s values are better or worse than anyone else’s; trans-nationalism, the belief that the very idea of a nation state is wrong; materialism, the belief that there’s nothing in the world, the universe and beyond that doesn’t have a material reality. And so on.
Secular people claim that secularism invented all the things that are good about the world. Or else that they were invented by the Greeks. Or else that we’re all somehow born with innate noble instincts and that religion destroys them.
I want to argue the very opposite, that the source of our core values in the west – respect for human life, justice, compassion, freedom, rationality and the development of science – originated in the Hebrew Bible.
Without the Hebrew Bible, civilised values wouldn’t exist. Which is why every terrible regime in history has either ignored its precepts or actively sought their overthrow.
My argument is that Judaism isn’t a marginal outlier or a hindrance to western civilisation. It is the very basis of it.
The west’s core principles come from Judaism, from the precepts and laws laid down in the Hebrew Bible which were then interpreted and codified by several centuries of rabbinic opinion. Those core principles were mediated into the public sphere by Christianity, the religion that underpins western civilisation and which itself rests upon Jewish ethical principles. Jesus, after all, was a Jew.
The ancient Greeks thought that people were merely the playthings of the gods. People weren’t equal. There were strict hierarchies of human value. Punishments meted out to offenders were often not just cruel but barbaric. There was an almost total absence of empathy, of sympathy with other human beings just because they were human beings, and instead a tendency towards dehumanisation.
By contrast, the Hebrew Bible gave us the revolutionary idea that every individual was worthy of equal respect. This derived from its statement that humanity had been fashioned in the image of God.
The Bible introduced the idea that human beings were superior to the animal kingdom in that people had moral responsibility. The Mosaic laws were a set of rules and precepts designed to create a community by putting the welfare of others before yourself.
Imposing a duty towards others and consequently placing chains on your own wants and desires certainly constrained the individual. But only through such constraints could real freedom be created. In the absence of such laws there would only be moral anarchy, an endless struggle for power between individuals and groups, in which the weak would be victimised by the strong and in what Thomas Hobbes was to call a war of all against all.
The Mosaic laws were not enforced by despotic authority but voluntarily adopted through individual self-discipline. This was again revolutionary, and gave the world the concept of individual accountability. All were equal before God’s law. Justice therefore embodied fairness for all and gave rise to an understanding of and reverence for justice.
So Judaism is at the heart of the west’s signature principles of humane, orderly and civilised behaviour. But I want to argue that it made an even more fundamental contribution.
If the west has one overriding and defining characteristic, it’s surely reason and rationality. This is inextricably connected to other things associated with the west – science, progress and modernity.
Well, Judaism invented western reason. Without Judaism there would have been no western science, progress or modernity.
I’m sure many of you will be very shocked by this. How can this possibly be? Everyone knows, don’t they, that religion is just a load of superstitious, backward mumbo-jumbo and the only people who believe any of it are a bit stupid. And how can science be said to have developed from the Bible? After all, other cultures have had science too.
Of course that’s true. But in those other cultures, science hit a dead end because their core assumptions were entirely different.
There’s a widespread belief that the roots of science lay in ancient Greece. For sure, Greek thinking played a significant role in the development of Western civilisation, and important medieval Christian and Jewish thinkers sought to reconcile it with their own religious precepts.
The ancient Greeks venerated reason. Yet in certain key respects, their culture was also inimical to how the west understands a rational view of the universe.
The Greeks — whose universe was an endless cycle of progress and decay, which transformed heavenly bodies into actual gods — explained the natural world by abstract general principles. Socrates thought empirical observation, looking at what was actually observable, was a waste of time; and Plato advised his students to “leave the starry heavens alone”.
The Hungarian Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki has shown that in seven great cultures — the Chinese, Hindu, Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Arabic — the development of science was truncated. All made discoveries that carried human understanding forward — India produced decimal notation, ancient Greece astronomy and geometry, for example — but none was able to keep its scientific discoveries going.
Jaki attributes this failure to two critical features that these cultures had in common: a belief in pantheism and a cyclical concept of time. Science could proceed only on the basis that the universe was rational and coherent and thus nature behaved in accordance with unchanging laws. It was therefore impossible under pantheism, which ascribed natural events to the whims and caprices of the spirit world.
It was only the Hebrew Bible which, in its account of creation, introduced the revolutionary concepts which made rationality and scientific development possible.
Western science grew from the idea that the universe was rational; and that belief was given to us by the book of Genesis, which set out the – once again revolutionary – proposition that the universe had a rational creator. Without such a purposeful, singular intelligence behind it, the universe could not have been rational; and so there would have been no place for reason in the world and no truths or natural laws for reason to uncover.
As the mathematician Professor John Lennox puts it: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly”. This absolutely fundamental insight came not from the Greeks but previously in the Hebrew Bible, with its proposition that the universe was governed by a single God rather than the whims of many gods.
Another crucial factor for science was a linear concept of time. This meant history was progressive; every event was significant, one thing led to another and experience could be built upon. It was only the Hebrew Bible which stopped us from going round and round in circles for ever, and instead gave us the idea of progress – which was made possible by learning more about the laws of the universe.
In the twelfth century, the great Jewish sage Moses Maimonides explained in his Guide for the Perplexed that there was no contradiction between rationalism and the Hebrew Bible. He argued, for example, that the Torah was full of similes that were not to be taken as the literal truth. He held that metaphysical truths, the highest form of religious belief, could only be grasped through the exercise of reason.
All of which is why the earliest scientists in Britain and Europe thought they were discovering God’s laws. And it’s why so many scientists from the earliest times onwards have been Christians and Jews.
It’s why Francis Bacon said that God had provided us with two books, the book of nature and the Bible, and that to be properly educated one must study both. It is why Isaac Newton believed that the Biblical account of creation had to be read and understood; why Descartes justified his search for natural laws on the grounds that they must exist because God was perfect and thus “acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible” except for the rare cases of miracles; why the German astronomer Johannes Kepler believed that the goal of science was to discover within the natural world “the rational order which has been imposed on it by God”; and why Galileo Galilei said that “the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.”
As C.S. Lewis wrote in a later era: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
Atheism, by contrast, holds that the world comes from a random and therefore irrational source, so that reason is an accidental by-product. It is surely atheism which therefore leads us straight into the irrational.
In Britain, early political thinkers grounded their principles in the Hebrew Bible. Oliver Cromwell, who brought the Jews back to England after centuries of exile, subscribed to the Puritans’ reverence for Hebrew scripture. The 17th century political thinker, John Seldon, found in Judaism a moral framework which underpinned this own thinking, arguing that Jewish tradition had so “fixed and defined” universal moral principles that it effectively offered a justification for all laws and traditions that didn’t contradict those principles.
In America, the Hebrew Bible is a conspicuous element of its foundational institutions and laws. The Liberty Bell is engraved with an inscription from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.
Jerusalem was chosen by King David for his capital of ancient Israel as a political symbol to create a nation state. He chose it as a piece of neutral territory between the twelve Israelite tribes, and then employed the physical founding of Jerusalem to unify those tribes politically.
Similarly, the United States’ founders chose as their capital city the neutral territory of Washington D.C. to unify the quarrelling states into one nation. President Ronald Reagan’s final address explicitly conjured up the image of Washington D.C. as Jerusalem has often been romantically depicted, the “shining city on the hill”.
Which is why ancient Israel has long been seen as the paradigm nation-state, as opposed to territory inhabited by collection of tribes, and has been viewed as an inspiration behind the understanding of national identity in both America and Britain.
Of course, there are things in Judaism we may not agree with or disapprove of; and the argument over what in Judaism is relevant to today, and which of its precepts should remain unaltered, be reformed or junked, is never-ending.
Take away Jewish principles, though, and what do we have instead? We can answer that question by looking through history at those other cultures which haven’t had them, and haven’t had open-ended science or progress or modernity. Science is a western thing. Progress is a western thing. Modernity is a western thing. Without Judaism there could have been no western science, no progress and no modernity.
What we’re living through now, though, is an onslaught against the core values of the west. That onslaught has many causes. But what I want to focus on here is what seems to me to be such a striking point about it at this particular juncture.
What unifies all these different ideologies that are seeking in their various ways to overturn aspects of Biblical morality is that they all profess the highest possible ideals. They demand a more compassionate society, a society where there’s equality rather than prejudice or bigotry, a society that is more free and more tolerant and more just.
We should all support all these ideals. Yet I would suggest that we are lurching into their very opposite – into a society where group is set against group, where intolerance is growing and power is being abused, where people are being cancelled, de-platformed or fired simply because others don’t like their views. We are becoming more divided, more hate-fuelled and more irrational.
We’re becoming a society where the freedom to discuss and debate is being extinguished in the universities, the places which are supposed to be the crucible of free expression and the pursuit of knowledge but where instead reason itself is being crushed under the pressure of aggrieved or offended feelings. And this, if it doesn’t stop, augurs the extinction not just of certain key values but of reason and rationality itself.
What all this tells us is that words such as freedom, justice, compassion or conscience depend for their meaning on the Hebrew Bible. Once the Bible is removed from the scene, these words become no more than empty slogans which serve as fig-leaves to mask what is actually happening, which is, in short, an abuse of power.
And the proper use of power, a society founded upon liberty and justice and compassion and reason, are what Judaism alone first gave to the world. That’s what the Jews did for everyone.