In a recent article in the Guardian, Nick Cohen defends “the freedom to argue for your own ideas without being forced to comply by authoritarians,” but goes on to argue (incorrectly) that this freedom owes everything to Enlightenment skeptics, and nothing to Judaism and Christianity. For him, ISIS and the Judaeo-Christian tradition are morally equivalent:
Cultural conservatives do not want to be reminded that there is no Islamist crime so great the Judaeo-Christian tradition did not once authorise it. The Iranian judiciary murders gays and Islamic State throws them from tall buildings to delight the faithful. The Book of Leviticus would approve. It says that men who have sex with each other “shall surely be put to death”.
Assad, Iran and Hezbollah engage in the mass murder of Sunnis. Isis returns the compliment and takes Yazidi, Shia and Christian women as their sex slaves. But then Moses commanded the Israelites to fall upon their enemies and kill everyone except “women that have not known a man by lying with him”. Those they could keep for themselves.
It may be objected that the New Testament is less gory that the Old. But Christ no more forbad slavery, rape, torture and genocide than did the Ten Commandments. Christians in power engaged in orgies of persecution of one another, of non-believers, of witches and of Jews. Indeed, the true Judaeo-Christian tradition was the 1,600-year tradition of Christians murdering Jews. What civilisation Judaism and Christianity possess came from the outside. They did not reform themselves, which is why calls for a Muslim reformation so spectacularly miss the point. Civilisation came from the battering that religion took from the Enlightenment, from sceptics, scientists, mockers and philosophers, who destroyed their myths and exposed the immorality of their taboos.
Nick Cohen is betraying his ignorance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He equates Jewish law with the Torah, ignoring the mitigating influence of the Jewish Oral Law, and he credits the Enlightenment with civilizing society, through reforms that predate it by centuries and that originated with Jews and Christians.
Homosexuality and Judaism
Let’s begin with Cohen’s claim that the Old Testament’s laws on homosexuality are no better than those of ISIS. The Wikipedia article on Homosexuality and Judaism reveals some interesting facts that Cohen omitted to mention:
Like many similar commandments, the stated punishment for willful violation is the death penalty. However, even in Biblical times, it was very difficult to get a conviction that would lead to this prescribed punishment. The Jewish Oral Law states that capital punishment would only be applicable if two men were caught in the act of anal sex, if there were two witnesses to the act, if the two witnesses warned the men involved that they committed a capital offense, and the two men — or the willing party, in case of rape — subsequently acknowledged the warning but continued to engage in the prohibited act anyway. In fact, there is no account of capital punishment, in regards to this law, in Jewish history.
Rabbinic tradition understands the Torah’s system of capital punishment to not be in effect for the past approximately 2,000 years, in the absence of a Sanhedrin and Temple.
So there we have it. Nick Cohen equates the Old Testament with ISIS, but the facts show that there are no recorded instances of the death penalty being imposed for homosexuality, under Jewish law.
In his article, Capital Punishment in Jewish Law and its Application to the American Legal System: A Conceptual Overview (St. Mary’s Law Journal 29: 1037–1051), Dr. Samuel Levine, who is an Assistant Legal Writing Professor and Lecturer in Jewish Law at St. John’s University, points out that the imposition of the death penalty by Jewish courts for any criminal offense was quite rare:
Perhaps the most dramatic and famous expression of the reluctance of ancient Jewish legal authorities to implement the death penalty is found in a Talmudic dialogue between several Rabbis that transpired shortly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem [in 70 A.D. – VJT], a time when courts no longer had the authority to adjudicate capital cases.
Without attributing the statement to any particular individual, the Talmud first asserts that a court which implements the death penalty once in seven years is a violent court. The Talmudic discussion continues with the opinions of authorities who found that even rare use of capital punishment to be far too frequent. One such authority is Rabbi Eleazer ben Azaria, who insists that a court that imposes the death penalty even one time in seventy years is a violent court. The Talmud further documents the view of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva, who declare that, had they been members of a court with the authority to adjudicate capital cases, there never would have been an execution. Neither Rabbi Tarfon nor Rabbi Akiva explains the precise reason for his opposition to the death penalty, however, the approach appears to be abolitionist in spirit. The discussion concludes with a retort by Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel that a total abolition of the death penalty would increase the number of murderers.
For some readers, the very idea of there being any legal penalty attached to homosexual acts in the Old Testament may seem morally repellent. May I remind them that throughout most of antiquity, in ancient Greece and Rome, homosexual relationships were between a free (and hence much more powerful) adult man and an adolescent boy (see also here). In other words, pederasty. In other words, rape. I might add that the earliest extended and serious defense of homosexuality in English, written by Thomas Cannon, was titled, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d (1749). The title says it all. May I also remind readers that 3,000 years ago, physicians had no way of treating sexually transmitted diseases, and that children were often scarred for life by these diseases. I’d say that adds up to a pretty good case for legal prohibition. Wouldn’t you?
It appears that Nick Cohen has never asked himself why Judaism outlawed homosexual acts in the first place. Conservative commentator Dennis Prager provides some useful historical background in his article, Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality:
To a world which divided human sexuality between penetrator and penetrated, Judaism said, “You are wrong — sexuality is to be divided between male and female.” To a world which saw women as baby producers unworthy of romantic and sexual attention, Judaism said “You are wrong — women must be the sole focus of men’s erotic love.” To a world which said that sensual feelings and physical beauty were life’s supreme goods, Judaism said, “You are wrong — ethics and holiness are the supreme goods.” A thousand years before Roman emperors kept naked boys, Jewish kings were commanded to write and keep a sefer torah, a book of the Torah.
In all my research on this subject, nothing moved me more than the Talmudic law that Jews were forbidden to sell slaves or sheep to non-Jews, lest the non-Jews engage in homosexuality and bestiality. That was the world in which rabbis wrote the Talmud, and in which, earlier, the Bible was written.
…[T]he major reason for anyone concerned with women’s equality to be concerned with homosexuality is the direct correlation between the prevalence of male homosexuality and the relegation of women to a low social role. The improvement of the condition of women has only occurred in Western civilization, the civilization least tolerant of homosexuality.
In societies where men sought out men for love and sex, women were relegated to society’s periphery.
Dr. Prager illustrates his case with examples from ancient Greece, medieval France (which was heavily influenced by the Cathars), Arab society and nineteenth-century China.
The Biblical prohibition of homosexual acts had profound moral consequences. One of the great moral achievements of orthodox Judaism was that it made such behavior literally unthinkable. Citing rabbinic sources, Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel demonstrates in his article, Homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism, that homosexual behavior was virtually unknown within the Jewish community, during the post-Talmudic era (i.e. after about 500 A.D.) – a point acknowledged by Steven Pinker in his recent work, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
In our own times, African Christians are often ridiculed by “enlightened” Westerners for their “antiquated” views on homosexuality. I wonder how many of these Westerners have heard of the Christian martyrs of Uganda, who were willing to face death rather than yield to their king’s homosexual advances. Most of them were burned to death under the orders of the king, on June 3, 1886, which is now a national holiday in Uganda. Twenty-two of these martyrs – half of whom were Catholic, and half of whom were Anglican – were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Does the Old Testament condone violence against women?
Another myth propagated by Nick Cohen in his article in the Guardian is that the Old Testament condones violence against women and children.
Sam Shamoun dispels the popular myth that the Old Testament commands women to marry their rapist in his article, The Old Testament and Rape. He argues that the passage in question (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) actually refers to a case where a man talks a young woman into sleeping with him, so it should read as follows: “28 Suppose a woman isn’t engaged to be married, and a man talks her into sleeping with him. If they are caught, 29 they will be forced to get married. He must give her father fifty pieces of silver as a bride-price and can never divorce her” (Contemporary English Version). Shamoun explains that in order to protect the woman from being publicly rejected as unmarriageable (as would have surely happened in a patriarchal society), the Old Testament commands the man to marry her (assuming her father is willing) and forbids him to ever divorce her. At a time when unmarried women often had no choice but to sell themselves into slavery or prostitution, simply in order to survive, such a command can be seen as merciful.
Nick Cohen claims that the Old Testament sanctions the rape of women captured in battle – e.g. the unmarried Midianite women captured by the Israelites (Numbers 31:17). He omits to mention that Deuteronomy 21:10-14 clearly prohibits this, in its regulations for how female war captives were to be treated. First, they were to be provided with housing. Second, they were to be allowed one month to mourn the loss of their parents. Only then was marriage permitted (not mandated) between a woman and her captor – and if they subsequently decided to divorce, the woman was specially protected against mistreatment: she could not be sold as a slave, but had to be allowed to go free.
But, it will be asked, what about the Biblical atrocities committed against the Amalekites and Midianites?
Before I continue, I’d like to point out the blatant hypocrisy of skeptics who use these verses to attack Judaism. Most of these skeptics don’t believe that an historical individual named Moses ever existed, or that the Exodus ever occurred (see here for a different perspective). By that logic, there is no reason to believe that the Israelites ever committed any atrocities committed against the Amalekites and Midianites.
But let us suppose that the bloody incidents described in the Bible actually happened. Does it follow that Judaism condones religious violence? No, because there is a constant and unanimous Jewish tradition that these massacres were one-off incidents, never to be repeated. Even the Old Testament command to eliminate the Amalekites and their descendants was abrogated by the time of Jesus, on the grounds that these people could no longer be clearly identified, in the general population.
Othodox Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, in an online article titled, Torah and Genocide FAQ: On the mitzvah to kill innocent Amalekite and Canaanite civilians and children, candidly acknowledges that “the war of retribution on the Midianites … sends chills down my spine,” and after reluctantly concluding that the massacres were commanded by God for reasons we cannot fathom today, adds that he would “rather have a Torah that does not include these commands and episodes.” After discussing the Biblical command to eliminate the nation of Amalek (which was never completely fulfilled), he addresses the issue of whether Jews today are commanded to engage in religious violence:
Q: Does G‑d command or condone similar acts today?
A: Thank G‑d, no. Aside from the elimination of Amalek, this was a command only for a certain period of time. As the Talmud makes clear, in the ancient Age of Empires, these tribes melded together and disappeared as distinct entities.
The elimination of Amalek remains a command until the times of Moshiach [the Messiah – VJT], but as we can no longer identify any specific group as Amalekites, it is no longer directed against a particular tribe, but rather against incorrigible evil in general.
Now here is something very tell-tale about the Jewish People: We do have one day a year on which we are to commemorate the elimination of Amalek. It is Purim. The arch-villain of Purim is Haman, who was an Amalekite. How do we commemorate this command? By rioting, threatening, and spitting on our enemies? No. By stomping on the floor and making noise when Haman’s name is mentioned. And then we go out and deliver gifts to the poor and to friends, and make people happy. That is how we eliminate incorrigible evil.
Guardian journalist Nick Cohen also overlooks an important distinction between Old Testament violence and violence in the Qur’an: the latter is encoded in Muslim religious law, whereas the former never codified into Jewish law. Middle East and Islam specialist Raymond Ibrahim highlights this point in his article, Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam? (Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, pp. 3-12):
… [A]ll the historic violence committed by the Hebrews and recorded in the Old Testament is just that — history. It happened; God commanded it. But it revolved around a specific time and place and was directed against a specific people. At no time did such violence go on to become standardized or codified into Jewish law. In short, biblical accounts of violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.
This is where Islamic violence is unique. Though similar to the violence of the Old Testament — commanded by God and manifested in history — certain aspects of Islamic violence and intolerance have become standardized in Islamic law and apply at all times.
There is one final aspect that is often overlooked — either from ignorance or disingenuousness — by those who insist that violence and intolerance is equivalent across the board for all religions. Aside from the divine words of the Qur’an, Muhammad’s pattern of behavior — his sunna or “example”—is an extremely important source of legislation in Islam…
…[B]ased on both the Qur’an and Muhammad’s sunna, pillaging and plundering infidels, enslaving their children, and placing their women in concubinage is well founded. (For example, Qur. 4:24, 4:92, 8:69, 24:33, 33:50.)
Nick Cohen writes in his Guardian article that “Christ no more forbad slavery, rape, torture and genocide than did the Ten Commandments.” He fails to cite any Old Testament verse authorizing torture, and I have already disposed of his argument that it sanctions rape.
It is often alleged that the Bible endorses and even mandates slavery. But as Christian apologist Matt Flanagan demonstrates in an essay titled, Slavery, John Locke and the Bible, John Locke refuted this idea 300 years ago, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke’s argument was that if a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.” However, the institution commonly referred to in Scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.” Hence it was not slavery. Christian apologist Glenn Miller argues in Part One and Part Two of his essay, “Does God condone slavery in the Bible?”, that the “slaves” in the Old Testament – even the foreign slaves – were not chattel slaves. So Nick Cohen’s claim that Jesus did nit forbid slavery is bogus. It is also odd that he does not see fit to mention St. Paul’s epistle to Philemon, in which he exhorts Philemon to free his runaway slave Onesimus, whom he is returning to him, and to treat him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
It is incredible that Cohen believes Christ sanctioned genocide: he forgets that by the first century, Rabbinic opinion no longer countenanced religious violence, let alone the eradication of entire peoples – not even the Amalekites. Cohen also seems to have forgotten Christ’s striking teaching against violence in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5): “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Amazingly, Cohen never even mentions the story of the women taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), in which Jesus says to the woman: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” These are not the words of a religious fanatic.
What about the Crusades, then? As Raymond Ibrahim points out in his article, Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam? (Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, pp. 3-12), it is inaccurate to view them as offensive wars, and he continues:
However one interprets these wars — as offensive or defensive, just or unjust — it is evident that they were not based on the example of Jesus, who exhorted his followers to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Indeed, it took centuries of theological debate, from Augustine to Aquinas, to rationalize defensive war — articulated as “just war.” Thus, it would seem that if anyone, it is the Crusaders — not the jihadists — who have been less than faithful to their scriptures (from a literal standpoint); or put conversely, it is the jihadists—not the Crusaders—who have faithfully fulfilled their scriptures (also from a literal stand point).
What do we have to thank the Enlightenment for, anyway?
In his article, Cohen waxes lyrical about the glories of the Enlightenment, which, he claims, civilized Judaism and Christianity. One has to ask: what were the civilizing reforms that the Enlightenment introduced? Certainly not the abolition of female infanticide: Judaism was the first religion to accomplish that (a fact acknowledged by Tacitus, who recorded in Book V of his Histories that “It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant” – see also Leviticus 18:21, Leviticus 20:1-5 and Deuteronomy 18:10 and also here). In Europe, the Catholic Chur continued Judaism’s civilizing work in the Roman Empire, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century A.D. and he and his successors introduced laws prohibiting infanticide – an event which saved hundreds of millions of girls’ lives, as I have argued here.
Nor could it have been women’s rights: as far back as the sixth century, the Byzantine Christian Empress Theodora (c. 500-548) and her husband passed laws establishing homes for prostitutes, prohibiting forced prostitution, granting women more rights in divorce cases, allowing women to own and inherit property (including land), and enacting the death penalty for rape.
Nor could it have been mass literacy: as Botticini and Eckstein have shown, the Pharisaic rabbis of the Talmud were largely responsible for the creation of near-universal literacy among Jewish males, between 70 and 650 A.D. In modern times, Sweden was the first country to enact a church law making education compulsory for children of both sexes in 1686. The purpose of this law was to ensure every parishioners knowledge in the bible and Luther’s Small Catechism. Gradually, over the next two centuries, other countries in Europe began to follow Sweden’s example.
Nor were individualism and secular liberalism Enlightenment inventions: as scholar Larry Siedentop has documented in his recent book, Inventing the Individual, these ideas began with a moral revolution in the first centuries A.D., when St. Paul first put forward his notions about equality and human agency, and they were further encouraged by the works of St. Augustine, reaching their modern expression in the writings of the philosophers and canon lawyers of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
Nor do we have the Enlightenment to thank for the ideas of religious toleration and free speech: it was sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers, writing from religious, theological, and philosophical perspectives, who did more than anyone else to advance these ideas, enabling science to flourish in the process, as Perez Zagorin’s book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, convincingly demonstrates.
Nor was democracy a product of the Enlightenment: in reality, our modern idea of democracy was heavily influenced by the political thinking of John Calvin and owes much of its success to Calvinism (see also here, here, here and here); at its inception in the United States of America, democracy was heavily influenced by Presbyterianism (see also here).
Nor do we have the Enlightenment to thank for the abolition of racism: in fact, scientific racism was largely a creation of the Enlightenment, and students of history are well aware that the seventeenth century was far less racist than the nineteenth, while the Middle Ages were largely devoid of racism. (And for anyone who might wish to cite the Biblical “curse of Ham,” I might point out that there is no such curse: in the Bible, it is Ham’s son, Canaan, who is cursed by Noah, and while Canaan is said to have been the ancestor of various Middle Eastern peoples, none of his descendants were African.)
Nor was the Enlightenment responsible for the abolition of slavery: we have the born-again Evangelican Anglican William Wilberforce to thank for that (see here), and before him, the Quakers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (See also here for a discussion of how Christianity helped to gradually end slavery within the Roman empire, and eventually across the length and breadth of Europe, by the eleventh century.)
Nor was the animal welfare movement a product of the Enlightenment: Jewish law explicitly prohibits cruelty to animals, and Jews also believe that non-Jews are also obliged to be kind to animals, which is why the Noachide Code prohibits cruelty to animals. In Europe, the animal welfare movement was a creation of Christians, and especially Anglicans (see here, here and here); the utilitarians were Johnny-come-latelies, who had little influence on the animal rights movement during the first 50 years after its inception.
What, then, do we have the Enlightenment for? As far as I can tell, only a few social reforms: the abolition of torture and the abolition of capital punishment (which used to be imposed for dozens of offenses) in Europe and many other parts of the world – both of which were largely the work of Enlightenment thinker Cesare Beccaria; women’s suffrage (an idea which the Enlightenment thinker Mary Wollstonecraft set in motion), and the decriminalization of homosexual acts (which was advocated in 1785 by the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham, whose views on bestiality and pedophilia, I have to say, were appallingly lax).
In short: the reforms that can be credited to the Enlightenment are pretty thin and insubstantial, in comparison with the much more fundamental reforms implemented by Judaism and Christianity during the last 2,000 to 3,000 years of human history.
I conclude that Nick Cohen’s knowledge of Judaism and Christianity is superficial at best, and that his belief that the Enlightenment civilized these religions is nothing more than Whig history, aided and abetted by wishful thinking. It would be nice if the critics of the Judeo-Christian tradition took the time to get their facts straight, for once. But I’m not holding my breath.
What do readers think?