The Jewish Origin of Western Values

Judaism and Christianity differ in many ways, but they also share certain values. Some of those values have shaped Western civilization as we know it.
We will focus on three values of Western society that originated in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic writings, and were transmitted through Christian scholars — or through Christianity — to the Western world:

  1. EQUALITY
  2. THE POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE/ PROGRESS
  3. MODERN REPUBLICAN GOVERNMENT

The idea that every human life is valuable, and that one is not more important than another, begins at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, with the creation story. The Rabbinic commentaries on the story emphasize that this is so no one will claim he or she is better than another, that they have more illustrious ancestors, as we are all descendents of Adam and Eve.
Inequality was the norm in ancient societies, even among siblings: primogeniture gave the eldest son superior status.

Yet the Hebrew Bible upends this concept consistently, and the rejection of primogeniture so many times in the Hebrew Bible sends a message of meritocracy. Birth order in the family, or birth to a particular family, was not as important as an individual’s personal qualities.

The Hebrew Bible goes much further in promoting equality when legislating economic behavior. This includes exhortations to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, which appear in the Torah more than any other command.

Privileged groups in ancient Israel, for example the Priests and the King, were limited in ways quite unusual in society until very recent times.
However, the Hebrew Bible goes much farther than that: the freeing of slaves in sabbatical year, debt relief, and (during the Jubilee) the return to original patrimonial lands.

The second area I would like to discuss is the concept of progress and the ability to change.

The Exodus from Egypt and the Book of Jonah are but two examples of how nations or whole cities can be transformed, or change themselves.
But it is not only on a communal level that we see the possibility of change in the Hebrew Bible. We see it most strikingly in the individual characters of the Bible.

The third area I will focus on where Judaism has made a significant contribution to Western values is the area of modern republican government.
In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Prof. Eric Nelson argues that it was primarily not secular thought that created modern political ideas, but rather it was the writings of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic commentaries.

Early modern studies of what they called “The Hebrew Republic” were written by many different authors from many countries in Europe, both Protestant and Catholic.

These works, based on the Hebrew Bible and the works of the Rabbis, formed the basis of the development of modern political thought.
While we may live in a secular age, we nonetheless owe some of our most important values to the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic writings, which were spread either by Christianity itself, or by religious Christian writers.

Dr. David Berstein

S.A in Jewish Culture at OSI and Dean, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and USA/Israel.