Recently, in an episode of the popular American television program Dateline NBC, veteran journalist Dennis Murphy repeated a stale anti-Jewish canard, one that despite its popularity is nonetheless as offensive as it is inappropriate.
“The rhetorical language you used in your email to your ex had a kind of biblical Old Testament ferocity to it,” Murphy said to an interviewee, referring to messages she had allegedly sent which included phrases such as, “I hope to God you are ready for the pain I will show you.” “Burn in the fiery pits of hell tonight as by God’s law,” read another.
Putting aside the fact that the word “hell” does not appear even once in the Hebrew Bible, Murphy’s impolite and ill-informed characterization of the Book of Books is something that should raise the ire of everyone who takes pride in our people’s heritage.
After all, it was the Tanach which bequeathed to the world values such as charity, brotherhood and forgiveness. And it was the Tanach which challenged man to live by the highest standards of morality and ethics, and which continues to inspire countless Jews and others to this very day.
Depicting the Hebrew Bible as “ferocious” or cruel is not only an act of iniquity toward the text itself, but a hurtful affront to those who cherish its teachings and seek to abide by its commands.
And to do so in the context of a prime-time television show watched by millions of viewers is to besmirch the Jewish people’s faith and legacy in a public and humiliating way.
Unfortunately, Murphy is not alone in his prejudice. Examples abound from entertainment to the political arena.
Just last month, an Irish member of the European Parliament named Luke Flanagan criticized Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris for his policy on medical marijuana by asserting that, “Our Minister for Health is like the God of the Old Testament – mean.”
What kind of trash talk is that? How dare Flanagan or Murphy or anyone else for that matter slander the God of Israel in such terms.
Would they speak of other faiths, ranging from Islam to Buddhism, in such a disparaging manner? An even deeper problem is the use of the term “Old Testament,” which suggests that the Hebrew Bible is outdated and archaic, like an old shoe or outmoded car that should be discarded.
Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the obvious contradiction at work here: Western civilization often proudly invokes its “Judeo-Christian heritage,” and yet the very basis of that patrimony – the Hebrew Bible – is implicitly vilified and demeaned as if it were a relic of a bygone era, rather than the living text that it is.
This may sound like little more than an issue of semantics, but labels have power and they affect how people perceive things and the extent to which they value them.
For Jews, what many refer to as the Old Testament is in fact the Only Testament.
It is the basis of Judaism, the foundational document that defines our faith as well as our relationship with God and our fellow man.
As former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out, “One of the most tragic moments in Western civilization came when Christians began distinguishing between what they called ‘the Old Testament God of vengeance’ as opposed to the ‘New Testament God of love.’ This is not a small error. One trembles to think how many Jews lost their lives because of it.”
Obviously, Christians have the right to believe what they wish about the relevance or applicability of what they refer to as the Old Testament.
But using that phrase in public discourse, or even in the course of casual conversation, is something that is hurtful to Jews, our beliefs and our tradition.
There are plenty of other terms, such as Hebrew Bible or Tanach, that can be utilized instead which don’t carry the same derogatory weight, and the use of which could help to improve mutual understanding and respect.
At a time of rising antisemitism across Europe and even North America, it is all the more essential that steps be taken to defend the integrity of Judaism and its sacred texts.
A good place to start would be to encourage the media and public figures to give the God of Israel and His Torah the respect that is their due.