Hebrew Contribution to Western Civilization
The interest in contextualizing the role of Jewish legacy in history has been a task of both Jews and non-Jews, and with the resurging anti-Semitic attitude throughout history, this task has taken a political dimension. In 1940, during the height of Jewish persecution in Europe, Cecil Roth published a book entitled “Jewish Contribution to Civilization” and wrote in its preface that the analysis of Jewish role in history was imperative as a rejection of claims by modern anti-Semites that, in its two thousand year existence, the role of the Jews, the “alien excrescence on Western life”, had been nothing but “entirely negative, if not deleterious” (9).
The legacy of the Hebrew culture to the Western world is a peculiarity of history. This small, nomadic tribe in Middle East has made an impact in Western civilization that to this day remains to be felt in different areas of our modern lives. Hebrew culture figures greatly in the shaping of Western civilization that it is accounted to be one of the three influences—along with Renaissance and the Greeks—that fostered the success and world-wide expansion of Western civilization (Stern).
The Jews, considered to be an unimportant small nation in the Near East, has contributed to the foundations of Western religion, morality, politics, literature, and scientific progress.
Eveline Goodman-Thau asserts that although Jewish culture borrowed from foreign influences, considering the itinerant lifestyle of its people, it can be observed that as Jewish thought and practices flowed into Western civilization, it preserved its unique characteristic, making it “an almost singular phenomenon in European intellectual history” (“Particular Universalism—Jewish Origins of European Integration”). This assertion holds true in the realm of religion in which the Jewish concept of monotheism form the core of Christianity, the encompassing religious force of the Western world. The idea of a Triune God creating heaven and earth, forming men in His likeness, and revealing to them through the revelation of a written Word the destiny of life, is unique and unparalleled in any world religion (Goodman-Thau).
Monotheism diverted from many traditions of polytheism such as animal and image worship, human sacrifices and myths of polygamous, capricious gods of the Hellenistic beliefs (Roth). The faith of the Jewish people in one God and Father has a number of ramifications in terms of human relations, or ethics, history and politics. In the Jewish belief, the one God is the source of all morality—thus, the existence of absolute morality—and it is from this divine morality from which human ethics springs (Roth). In short, ethics is central in Judaism and not merely a substitute for it. Human liberty heralded in today’s globalized world takes root in a biblical origin through the Mosaic covenant dispensed after the first liberation of Israel from slavery; this covenant outlines many of the familiar liberties the modern world uphold—“the value of human life, the sanctity of the home, and the dignity of marital relationship,” etc. (Roth).
Another contribution of Jewish thought involves the conception democracy which partly stems from their monotheistic belief. Although the external feature of Jewish monarchial governance is alien to the idea of democracy, it is in “spirit,” according to Roth, which Jewish bequeaths its heritage of democracy (13). The reason for this comes from the idea that the Mosaic covenant which God bestowed upon His people as the law of the land is a tripartite agreement between the people, the ruler and God. Democracy is also a logical extension of monotheism since all of mankind comes from one source and one seed (Roth). This is reflected in the ancient accounts in Old Testament where the Jewish kings were subjected to criticism by the prophets whenever they breach the fundamental law. This democratic ideal of check and balance is evoked in the passage from Deuteronomy 27:20: “that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren.”
The fourth and perhaps the most ubiquitous Jewish heritage is their literary contribution through the Torah, the Old and New Testament and the accounts of Josephus Flavius (Stolyarov). One may contend the inclusion of the New Testament as part of the Hebrew culture since first century Christianity was considered a heretic faith. Nonetheless, the fact that many of the passages and truths indicated in the New Testament draw heavily from the Old Testament, the vestiges of Hebrianic thought remain evident in it. The influence of the Bible extends from politics to the arts. It is the foundation of many monarchial rule and conquests in Europe and is the cornerstone of the American constitution (Roth). Generations of men have heard it preached in their halls and have studied it in their homes. At one point, says Roth, it is the only book, and, in all, it is the “principal book” (17). It has been the standard of English language with the mass distribution of the authorized King James Version in 1611, and innumerable poets and painters have alluded to Biblical imagery and narrative.
However, the Jewish biblical heritage extends from humanities, politics and morality to include the sciences. Roth asserts that monotheism is the source of man’s proclivity for regularity, order and system (6).Further, he adds that the “triumphs of modern science have been made possible only by the ‘superb and unshaken confidence in the rationality of the Universe,’ which is one of the ultimate bequests of the Hebrew prophets (6). In the area of medicine, Jews have contributed to hygienic practices which to them maybe religious, but to the modern world, were actually medical breakthroughs. For instance, the practice of circumcision, which is a Hebrew rite of passage, has been proven to deter infection and cancer. The Jewish practice of quarantine, contagion and prophylaxis of disease , exemplified in Old Testament practice wherein the priests examines and isolates a leper from the city, is considered medical genius considering the fact that even the sophisticated Greeks at the time were oblivious of these practices (Roth). According to the medical historian Karl Sudhoff, “two of the greatest hygienic thoughts of mankind owe their origin to ‘Semitism’ . . . the weekly day of rest and the direct prophylaxis of disease (Roth, 220-221).
The contributions enumerated in this essay are not by any means exhaustive. Two thousand years of nomadic life has brought the Jews to constant interaction with vast cultures extending from India to the Nordic regions of Europe, and this has resulted to both overt and subtle influences in others’ culture. According to their sacred text, it is the destiny of the Jewish people to be scattered abroad, subjected to tyrannical rule and oppressed by the powers of this world. This is evident even in modern history which saw the inhumanities of the Holocaust and the eventual exile and Diapora of the Jews. Nonetheless, it is this destiny which has enabled them to leave a legacy in the foundation of the world as we know it.
Roth, Cecil. “Jewish Contribution to Civilization.” Internet Archive. (1940). 22 January 2009
Stern, David P. “Jews, Greek, the Renaissance and History.” Jewish Heritage. (February 2007).
22 January 2009 <http://www.phy6.org/outreach/Jewish/Culture.htm>
Stolyarov, G. “The Legacy of the Ancient Hebrews: Contributions to Western Civilization.”
Associated Content. (8 June 2007). 22 January 2009.
Thau-Goodman, Evelyn. “Particular Universalism—Jewish Origins of European Integration”
Herbert Quandt Stiftung. (November 2008). 22 January 2009 <http://www.herbert-
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