My formal education was as an historian, and so I tend to try to see things through historical perspective. I realized the other week that I need to overrule my instinctive desire to defend my own people, because the data points, quite strongly, in a different direction.
By the time of the reign of Herod in Jerusalem, Judaism had essentially failed in the mission dictated by the Torah: to provide a light unto the nations, and to convince other peoples to aspire to goodness and holiness. Indeed, it could be quite reasonably argued that the Judaism of the age had been far more corrupted by Hellenism and Rome than Rome and Hellenism had adopted compassion and human rights from the Jews. Indeed, these were some of the criticisms of the Pharisees leveled in the New Testament, and I think that there is some substance to those criticisms.
A Judaism that was increasingly unmoored from the core lessons of the Torah, had lost its way. It could not market itself to outsiders effectively not least because it has also struggled, in the main, to sell itself even to an internal audience (there is a reason the number of Jews in history, despite an enthusiastic pro-child outlook among the observant, has been essentially flat – 8 million in the first century CE was only exceeded in the 20th century; apparently today’s Ashkenazic Jewish lineage sources to a mere 350 individuals from 1350CE). Jews are not great at marketing Judaism even to our own children.
History makes it very clear that Christianity, however unlinked it might be from much of the Torah, has been a far more effective marketing force to the world. The Christian message, from the perspective of this Torah Jew, has been incredibly powerful and effective. Unlike Judaism, Christian missionaries managed to spread the influence of core ideas to the four corners of the world. Ideas like the belief that within each person – friend or foe – lies a soul that is due respect if for no other reason than it was gifted by G-d. Ideas that stem from this; love, compassion, the notion that the “Other” is not subhuman. Key among these, especially for indigenous natives the world over, is that worshipping natural forces is wrong, and eating people is most impolite.
By spreading these ideas, Christianity has done a great service to the world and to G-d, bringing humanity away from the base paganism that attracts men in a state of nature.
This is not to suggest that Christianity has not engaged in evil as well. I have plenty of ancestors who suffered at the hands of Christians, and there are countless Jews who no longer exist thanks to being burned alive in auto-da-fés or in synagogues enthusiastically lit afire by crusaders. Expulsions from European countries were brutal and evil. If my mother were still alive, I can picture precisely how she would react to this piece; her mother barely survived a pogrom that others she loved did not.
Nor is this to suggest that Christianity has itself not been corrupted by other peoples: it has. Deep and loving interaction with native peoples has led to compromises that have diluted or confused Christian principles. Like Jewish adaptations of Greek and Roman ways of thinking, Christianity is also a product of the ages and cultures it has lived through and within. Some of that is, of course, good. I would not care to live in a Jewish ghetto during much of European history, locked in and constrained by Christian overlords. So at least some of those more-modern corrupting influences have been very good, indeed. I am grateful that Christianity, led by the example set by the Founding Fathers, is tolerant of other faiths, and allows me to live as an observant Jew in this nation that I love and in whose principles I see G-d’s fervent hopes.
Alas, there are dark storms overhead. Just as Hellenism corrupted both faiths in the ancient world, today we face a more existential enemy, the oldest of them all. Paganism is back, disguised in the garb of environmentalism, and preaching unbridled self expression in service of our natural desires. Supported by anti-religious scientists, this paganism is in full attack mode on every principle and moral good that we hold dear. Today, both Judaism and Christianity are losing to an enemy that many of us refuse to even acknowledge is at war with us. In our desire to be considerate and tolerant, we keep finding compromises with the pagan ideals, compromises that, over time, make our faiths entirely disconnected from our founding principles. (I have been in synagogues where Shabbos can be casually ignored, while throwing a soda can in the garbage triggers a nuclear response.) This neo-paganism will, if it gets its way, suck all meaning and goodness from the faiths that derive from the Torah.
The Torah is a profoundly anti-pagan text. Countlessly it drives the message that we are supposed to improve the natural world, teach people that our natural urges must be focused toward good and away from narcissistic and hedonistic practices that, in every indigenous people we have records of, invariably lead to human sacrifice and cannibalism. This is no slippery slope fallacy: we have no shortage of data that tells us exactly what happens to peoples who do not acknowledge the value of every human life. In China, in the year 2022, they remove vital organs from still-living prisoners and think nothing of it.
As much as I work towards Judaism focusing more on the Torah and what it means for the world, I must also acknowledge that Christianity has a two-millennia track record demonstrating greater success in the war against darkness. That is, if Christianity is still able to distinguish the enemy and has within its numbers courageous leaders and practitioners who are willing to battle for what is good.