The (Culture) War of the Word
A number of years ago I discovered a root cause of America’s culture war. It came to me as I debated professor Alan Dershowitz about issues of Jewish concern before a 1,000 Jews at the 92nd Street “Y” in New York City. With the exception of support for Israel, Dershowitz, a Harvard liberal, and I agreed on nothing, political or religious. Toward the end of the evening I came to understand why.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I announced, “the major difference between Alan Dershowitz and me is this: When professor Dershowitz differs with the Torah, he assumes that he is right and the Torah is wrong. When I differ with the Torah, I assume that I am wrong and the Torah is right.” Dershowitz responded that for the first time that evening he agreed with me.
That realization was an epiphany for me. I have come to realize that the great divide in values is not between those who believe in God and those who do not but between those who believe in a divine text and those who do not.
This explains in large measure the great culture war in the United States. Americans, of course, are divided not so much by religion as between right and left. Jews and Christians on the left agree with each other on just about every political and social question, and Jews and Christians on the right do the same.
So what distinguishes leftist Jews from rightist Jews and leftist Christians from rightist Christians? It essentially comes down to their belief in the Bible, not their belief in God.
Jews who believe that the Torah is from God agree on almost every important issue of life with Christians who believe that the Torah -- and the rest of the Old Testament -- is divine. Jews who believe that men (and perhaps women) wrote the Torah agree on virtually every important issue with Christians who also regard the Torah (and the rest of the Bible) as man-made.
For example, as a religious (though non-Orthodox) Jew, I have many differences with Christians’ theology. We differ on the Trinity; the divinity of Jesus; the identity of the messiah; the role of Torah, not to mention rabbinic law, on who is and who is not saved; and on such matters as faith versus works. Yet these theological differences cause almost no difference in our social and moral values, which are almost identical. Why?
Because conservative Jews and Christians share the belief that God revealed a text (a text, moreover, that we share). At the same time, liberal Jews and liberal Christians share the belief that this text is man-made.
Jews and Christians who believe that God revealed the Torah, for example, are far more likely to believe that marriage must remain defined as only between a man and woman, and cannot be redefined to include members of the same sex. They believe that people are not basically good, that human life, not animal life, is sacred (because humans, not animals, are created in God’s image), and that murderers should be liable to the death penalty (the only law that is in all five books of the Torah is to put murderers to death).
On the other hand, Jews and Christians who believe that people wrote the Torah are far more likely to support a redefinition of marriage, to view human nature as basically good (and therefore more likely to ascribe human evil to outside influences), to be more receptive to seeing human beings as essentially another animal, and to oppose capital punishment for murderers.
After all, what people, not God, wrote thousands of years ago should hardly serve as a guide to life today -- especially when one’s heart argues against it. The heart feels compassion for gays, for animals and even for murderers facing execution. And the heart wants to believe that human beings are basically good.
But Jews and Christians who believe in a divinely revealed Bible do not trust the heart as a guide to doing the right thing (indeed, that Bible repeatedly warns us not to). That difference -- do I listen to my heart or to what I believe is God’s word? -- explains most of the differences between right and left. Much more than whether one believes in God.