Which Values are the Jewish Ones?

“Wisdom,” by Clive Varley from Flickr.com via Creative Commons 2.0 license

We hear the expression “Jewish Values” at least two or three times a week. This leads to the natural question: Which values are peculiar or unique to the Jewish religion or, more important, to the Jewish people? I, for one, have never been entirely comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christian,” because it suggests that Jews and Christians see eye to eye on most things.

Rabbi Abba Silver once wrote a book called Where Judaism Differs and was persuaded by the publisher to retitle it Where Judaism Differed. Happily, it has been reissued with its original title.

I have my own thoughts on this topic and I’ll share below four areas in which, I suspect, most modern Jews see the world rather differently from the Christian perspective.


Amos and Fania Oz, father and daughter, wrote a wonderful little book called Jews and Words, in which they point out that Jews are far less sentimental about innocence than Christians. We educate our children as early and as hard as we can and we don’t treat ignorance as a virtue. On the contrary, because Torah is the intellectual and emotional spine of Judaism, study is the main pathway to God. (Study of Torah is equal to all the other 612 commandments combined!) Moreover, at least since the time of Maimonides, enlightened Jews have regarded intellect and reason as the capacity humans share with God, the operational definition of God’s “likeness.”

In short, most Jews don’t find anything pure or holy in a child’s ignorance of the world.


I’ve often thought we should add a fifth son (or child) to the Passover Haggadah: The Skeptical One. He or she is the one who asks, “And how do you know any of this stuff actually happened?”

To put it bluntly, even Jewish children believe—though they best not say it aloud—that the nearly 2 billion Christians in the world base their religion on mistaken claims about the messiah. This knowledge is, in a sense, intellectually liberating, because it reinforces the point made my Maimonides, Spinoza, and others that the number of people who believe a claim does not prove or disprove its truth. Some things are the case (as Wittgenstein put it) and other things are not the case. Belief and agreement do not alter which is which.

Skepticism has also been reinforced in the Jewish people by the frequency with which advocates for peace and universal love conspire to murder them. It can take the monstrous form of the Shoah or the more benign form of language like “Judeo-Christian,” implying that Judaism does not retain a distinct existence.

Jewish skepticism accounts, I expect, for the dramatic overrepresentation of Jews in the forefront of science. In scientific research the goal is to eliminate superstitions (known in the lab as Type 1 or False Positive errors.) The scientist proves a claim by trying to disprove it (experimental design) and failing (rejecting the null hypothesis with a specific level of certainty).

Skepticism has also freed the Jews from their own outdated and incorrect religious ideas. Maimonides (12th century) wrote his Guide for the Perplexed for those Jews who, having studied philosophy and science, were having trouble accepting the truth of the Torah. His solution was elegant: for those lacking philosophical ability, the Torah is literally true; for those capable of abstraction, the Torah is figuratively true.


For Jews, there are times to be quiet and accept what they are told without objection. But they are rare. Jews are always welcome to argue about any matter—provided it is a real argument/debate, supported by logic and solid evidence. (Not just disagreeing because they “feel” they are right.)  Although the discipline is stricter in ultra-orthodox schools, no Rabbi would chasten or punish a child who offered a sound, Torah-based objection to what was being taught.

Contentious arguing about the implications of Torah is not only an essential part of religious training but also, for most, an exceedingly pleasurable experience. Jews have arguments “for the sake of heaven,” not just for the sake of arguing. We’re not a nation of priests anymore, but we are close to being a nation of attorneys.

I know of no other religion that encourages disputes in this robust way. Indeed, at one point in the Talmud (Baba Metzia) God declares,” My children have defeated me!” He means that a group of rabbis has outargued him on a point of Jewish law.

Turning the Other Cheek

The Torah teaches us to love our neighbors and to be kind to the strangers. But not to love our enemies. Even when Jews of the 15th century converted to Catholicism under threat of death or exile, they were still tortured and murdered by priests who doubted the sincerity of the conversion.

Much of the credit for the survival of modern Israel depends not on loving their 100s of millions of enemies but on carrying out targeted assassinations against those enemies likely to do them the most harm. At one point in history, for example, the most dangerous job in the world was being a Nazi rocket scientist working for the Egyptian government.

Of course, to be fair, I haven’t really met any Christians who truly love their enemies—even if that’s their official position. Maybe Jews and Christians actually agree on the need to “Rise Early and Kill First”—perhaps a shared Judeo-Christian value.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.