In the 19th and early 20th century, German Protestant theologians and scholars of religion tended to elevate the New Testament at the expense of the Hebrew Bible, to deny or downplay the Jewishness of the historical Jesus, and to denigrate Judaism as primitive, materialistic, and unethical. In Judaism and the West: From Hermann Cohen to Joseph Soloveitchik, Robert Erlewine examines how major Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, including Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, defended Judaism against its detractors. He summarizes his interpretations in an interview with Alan Brill:
[A great portion of] modern Jewish philosophy is very much an attempt to [explain] Judaism in ways that make Christianity inferior to or derivative of it, and [simultaneously] to show how Judaism is an essential component of European modernity. . . .
In different ways, the thinkers [on which Erlewine’s book is focused] are engaged in discussions about the role of Judaism in relationship to the West, with most (but not all) arguing that Judaism is absolutely fundamental to European civilization. In a very powerful way, they offer a [corrective] to the work of [Christian] theologians . . . seeking to exclude Judaism [and] to deny it any place in modern Europe. . . .
In the work of these thinkers, Judaism is made central to how we should envision Europe or the West—or at least all that is good and proper in the West. Christianity, in turn, is regularly criticized for retaining idolatrous elements [of pagan religions or] for undermining individual responsibility through its notions of divine forgiveness.
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