Jewish Law and the U.S. Air Force

One of my personal pet peeves, as though who have heard me vent about it have come to know, is the use of the term Judeo-Christian. It's thoroughly meaningless, and an attempt to communicate a solidarity between conservative Jewish and Christian groups that does not express a shared theological or ethical heritage. For those who are genuinely interested in the beginnings of Judaism, I strongly recommend Shaye Cohen's book on the history of early Judaism. Hopefully that will illuminate why that attempt at a sense of historical solidarity seems so empty to me.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time studying anti-semitism, there's an emotional element there, too, which makes the claim particularly unpleasant.

It was interesting to see Chris Rodda post on the use of the Ten Commandments and Christian theology in the Air Force Ethics training. A few of my friends are going into the Air Force (some are enlisting; some are going in after ROTC training) and I have a great deal of respect for their military service, regardless of my opposition to the use of particular training methods. I don't care so much about the quoting of Werner Von Braun (I understand why people do; but even as a young Jewish man, it just doesn't get me that riled up). Frankly, I don't consider his moral authority any more interesting than anyone else's; the appeal to authority is equally broken, regardless of how twisted and psychotic and stupid the figure appealed to may be.

What struck me was the quote that Rodda grabbed from J.D. the Christian Fighter Pilot:

“As most 5-year-olds used to be able to tell you, the Ten Commandments are part of the Jewish law. They are found in the Jewish Torah, not just the Christian Bible, though it is politically expedient for critics to ignore that distinction in this context.”

Of course, that's true. It is a simple fact that the Ten Commandments are a part of Torah. Its right there in Exodus 20.

The problem is that the various (and there are many) contemporary Christian understandings of these passages are so radically different from contemporary Jewish understandings of these passages that its kind of hard to say that they below to a shared tradition. Really, the Christian tradition sees something totally different when they look (as they occasionally do) at the Ten Commandments.

Some (many of the very liberal Christians I grew up studying with in Berkeley) see the invocation against killing and stealing as a transcendent moral law against acts of violence against a neighbor as the most significant. Some will note that, but focus the weight on having no other gods, and having no false idols, and on coveting.

I will not claim to speak for Judaism; that would be audacious and stupid. But those familiar with the history of Jewish textual interpretation (people smarter than me; James Kugel and Robert Maldonado) are happy to point out that the generations of interpretation acknowledge the vagueness of many of the commandments, and particularly the first ten.

I don't want to glorify the tradition of textual interpretation. Legalistic obsession, to the extent that it becomes a religious ritual, is interesting to me. However, it is also worth pointing out that the acknowledgement of ambiguity and vagueness is not something that typifies these Christian readings. The willingness to argue through the use of semantics is one of those things about the Jewish tradition that I find truly engaging (as a philosophy student, but mostly as a person who finds intellectual nuance something worth embracing) and to the extent that it exists in Christianity, I am happy to see that, too.

I reject the proposition that there is a God who is interested in human affairs for a number of reasons; however, the study of text, for the purposes of history and the advancement of humanistic causes, is worth considering. If that were happening in the Air Force training, rather than the regurgitation of arcane verses for the purpose of adding a religious imperative to the use of military use, then it would be moral permissable.

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  • 8/15/2011 12:29 PM peter wrote:
    "Frankly, I don't consider his moral authority any more interesting than anyone else's"

    You should - Wernher von Braun was a Nazi of the first rank, and the stuff he spouted after being caught was just so much self serving bull.
    But he became one of "our bastards" so many other unsavory tyrants supported by the US of A
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