The following is an excerpt from Jewish And Christian Views On Bodily Pleasure by Robert Cherry. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
The Religious Setting
Increasingly, Republican politicians point to the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to rally the nation to their view of America’s uniqueness. During his 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney credited America’s world stature to “our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.” This association only grew with the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump presidency. Not surprisingly, candidate Ted Cruz claimed his policy proposals were based on Judeo-Christian traditions but so did the more moderate John Kasich. In a 2015 speech to the National Press Club, he said,
US public diplomacy and international broadcasting have lost their focus on the case for Western values and ideals and effectively countering our opponents’ propaganda and disinformation.I will consolidate them in a new agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo Christian Western values and ideals that we and our friends and allies share: the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.
In his July 2017 speech in Poland, President Trump spoke more generally about defending Western values but his then chief political advisor, Steve Bannon, has often explicitly stated that its source are Judeo-Christian values. By tracing the evolution of foundational Christian and Jewish beliefs, this book forceful questions the very notion of a unifying Judeo-Christian tradition.
There are certainly many similarities between the foundational tenets of Judaism and Christianity but the attitude towards bodily pleasures is not one of them. At the end of the fourth century, the Babylonian Talmud completed the religious transformation into rabbinic Judaism. It firmly rejected ascetic behavior, presenting a positive view of festive activities and female sexuality. At the same time, Augustine was finalizing the foundational doctrines of Christianity. He labeled the Jews “carnal Israelites” because Augustine believed that Jews were “of the flesh” rather than “of the spirit;” they satisfied bodily pleasures at the expense of enhancing the spirituality of their souls.
Both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity evolved through their understanding of the history and traditions of biblical Israel. From the Dead Sea through the Sea of Galilee, an Israelite kingdom was carved out a millennium before the Common Era. This backwater fiefdom was of little consequence to the various empire builders that contested for domination in the greater region. As a result, for most of the following centuries, except for the sixty-year Babylonian captivity, Israelites were able to select their own Jewish rulers complemented by religious leaders in charge of their Great Temple in Jerusalem.
The situation changed substantially with the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE, ending Jewish rule. Now an administrator selected by Rome governed. The Jewish populace first looked to the priestly class for leadership. That segment, however, lost favor when Jews witnessed its siding with the wealthy-owning class instead of impoverished farmers and tradesmen. Many looked towards Jewish renewal movements that offered alternatives to the priestly class. The two most significant were Jesus’ ministry and the Pharisees.
This book will trace the evolution of these two movements through the end of the fourth century, particularly their views on bodily pleasures. It will indicate how the eighteenth century Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe and the nineteenth century devotional movement in Ireland reestablished these contrasting bodily pleasures beliefs. The book concludes by exploring how these religious differences help explain why Jewish immigrants rather than Irish Catholics came to dominate early twentieth century popular culture and how they contrasting views bring into question contemporary notions of unifying Judeo-Christian values.
Praise for Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure
“Too few scholars of religion are brave enough to draw connections between the ancient and the modern worlds. Cherry’s exploration of the evolution of Jewish and Christian attitudes towards bodily pleasure demonstrates the true value of such work. Hopefully, others will follow his example.”
—J. Christopher Edwards, St. Francis College, Brooklyn
“The book is fascinating! As noted in the book, the topic of pleasure was central to the rabbis at the time of the beginning of the common era and writing of the Mishna. It was also extremely central to the earliest Christians from Jesus and on. I was deeply impressed by the primary and secondary sources. I loved reading about the contemporary implications and exploring the great contemporary relevance of this topic.”
—Elchanan Poupko, president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network
“Robert Cherry takes us on a thought-provoking journey from Biblical times to the modern era, showing how religious teachings that were set out long ago continue to influence the ways Jews and Christians understand sexual pleasure. In his intriguing account, what happened in the ancient streets of Jerusalem echoes in the movies, songs and dance halls of early twentieth-century New York, where contemporary mass entertainment finds its origins.”
—Paul Moses, author of An Unlikely Union: the Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians
About the Author
Robert Cherry is Brueklundian Professor at Brooklyn College and City University of New York Graduate Center. He has published eight books, primarily on economic discrimination and poverty, and more than 100 articles in professional journals, including a number on religious themes, most recently ”Jesus and the Baal Shem Tov: Similar Roles but Different Outcomes.”