The Old City in Jerusalem with Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives.
By Shmuel Spiegelman, CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia

In the second of a series of annual lectures called The Holy Land Dialogues earlier this year, Jewish public intellectual Eric Cohen exhorted all people of faith to work together to reassert the moral high ground of Judeo Christian civilization.

The Holy Land Dialogues are an open forum for discussion of the cultural  aspects of modern social challenges and are sponsored by the Social Trends Institute and the Saxum Foundation.

The following is an excerpted summary of Eric Cohen’s address on the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of Jerusalem. It is introduced by the moderator of the dialogue and is republished from the STI website with permission.


Daniel Johnson: The hideous fact of anti-Semitism has often blighted the Judeo-Christian relationship, obscuring a parallel tradition of philo-Semitism that is only now being rediscovered on both sides.

Though Judaism and Christianity are no longer at odds, the Jewish predicament remains. Here in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, we cannot ignore this. Israel, let us never forget, is a free country—a democracy—where the rule of law applies, where discussions such as this can be held without fear. In this Jewish state, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are cardinal principles.

So for an insight into this Jewish experience of Jerusalem, this evening we have Eric Cohen to address us.

Eric Cohen: If I have any point I’d like to make here tonight, it’s that normal life has a different meaning in Jerusalem, and that perhaps in Jerusalem’s light alone can we see what normalcy really means, everywhere and always. In Jerusalem, God puts before us the truest mirror of the human condition. He shows us on this sacred soil what the human story is all about.

For the Jews of Jerusalem, the miracle of normalcy is not normal. In Jerusalem, normalcy is a sanctified normalcy, a resurrection that reminds us of God’s hand in the world. And in Jerusalem, normalcy is a haunted normalcy. The preservation of normal life in Jerusalem and everywhere, for Jews and for Christians, requires a more than normal spirit. It demands a more than normal courage. It calls for a more than normal faith.

In 2000, John Paul II delivered a speech at the Holocaust memorial, declaring:

“I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half a century has passed, but the memories remain. We wish to remember, and we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazis. How could man have such utter contempt for man? Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.”

Jerusalem declares to eternity that God’s creation is good, and yet what threatens our God-revering, life-affirming, biblical way of life is the normalization of paganism and the normalization of terrorism. And while such threats have always been with us, our age seems to be entering a new realm, where both paganism and terrorism are aided and abetted by the uncontrollable fruits of man’s rationalism.

Compassion is the dominant ethos of our age, and the new secularist prophets declare that true compassion demands accepting every way of life as equally good. Only moral relativism is truly compassionate, Secularists assert that human survival itself demands getting beyond religion, because religious belief leads to radical conflict. Where the old secularists defended religious freedom, the new secularists seek an end to religious freedom.

Our age needs moral toughness, not amoral niceness. As Jews and Christians, we need to regain and reassert the moral high ground of Judeo-Christian civilization. And when the prophets of the false new compassion tar and feather us, we should look around at the culture, at the barrenness and despair of anti-biblical civilization, with its time-bound pleasures and low birthrates, its family breakdowns and betrayals of the young. And we should point out that the alternatives to biblical morality lead to low ground indeed.

In the end, the Jews cannot bear the weight of Judeo-Christian civilization. However grand the vision, we are too few. However great our theological significance, we must exist in the great civilizational struggles of our age as a reminder to others to play their roles within history, roles that we cannot play. Jews and Christians have a sacred responsibility, to organize, to mobilize, to never be afraid, and to fight for our own vision of good.