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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Mesechet Berachot: Speaking of Christianity

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 18, 2011)
Topics: Berakhot, Halakha & Modernity, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Non-Jews & Other Religions, Non-Jews & Other Religions, Talmud, Zeraim

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On the very first page (2b) of Mesechet Berachot, the Gemara discusses, on a bit of a tangent, the statement of the father of Shmuel that it is forbidden to go into partnership with a  non-Jew, lest non-Jew will be required to take an oath to verify his claim in a dispute, and this oath will be taken in the name of a foreign god.  Were that to happen, the Jew will have transgressed the prohibition of “the name of other gods you shall not mention, it shall not be heard on your lips” (Shemot 23:13), which is interpreted to mean that a Jew cannot even be the cause of another person taking an oath in the name of a foreign god.

This statement gives rise to important discussions in the Rishonim and poskim, in particular in reference to halakhic attitudes towards Christianity.   It is well known that, with the exception of the Meiri, all of the Rishonim considered Christianity to be a form of avoda zara, properly defined not as “idolatry” but as “foreign worship” which refers both to a faith that uses images in its worship and representation of God, and to a faith that worships a being which is other than the true God.  Would, then, within this categorization, the above prohibitions apply to Christians or not?

Let’s first take the prohibition of not uttering the name of another god.   Does this refer to any mention of the name of a god, or only to its use in an oath?  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b) states that the second half of the verse: “shall not be heard on your lips” prohibits using the name of a foreign god in an oath or vow or affirmation  while the first half of the verse: “you shall not mention” prohibits even referring to it in a mundane context.  To wit, one may not even say, “wait for me by the idol of Zeus.”   Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 147:1) rules accordingly: “One who takes a vow in the name of a foreign god receives lashes, and one cannot even mention it by name, with or without a reason.”

That being said, this prohibition cannot be as sweeping as it sounds.  First of all, the Torah mentions the names of foreign gods: Ba’al, Kimosh, and so on.  This is stated by the Gemara as a defined exception, and so ruled by Shulkhan Arukh: “One can say the names of gods which appear in the Torah.” (Yoreh Deah 147:4).   But in the Talmud we find the names of other gods mentioned: Aphrodite, Markolus, and so on.   How are these allowed?  One explanation is that there is an exception when the names are used to understand and teach Torah and halakha, an exception we find in other areas of halakha (see, for example, Sanhedrin 68a).   Another, more general exception is given by the Haghot Maymoniyot (13th Century, Ashkenaz), in the name of the Yiraim (R. Eliezer of Metz, 12th Century, Germany).  He states that:


“There is no prohibition except when the name is given as a divine name, that it suggests divinity, but if it is a secular name, like the normal names of non-Jews, then even if this being is treated as a god, since the name does not suggest lordship or divinity, and it also was not given in that context, then it is permitted.  For the Torah says, “the name of other gods you shall not mention” – the verse is only concerned with divine names.  And so the mishna states: “These are the holy days of non-Jews: Kalenda, Saturnalia, Kratesis, etc.” (Avoda Zara 8a) – and these, [although holy days named after gods,] are all secular names.  And in a number of places in the Talmud it refers to Jesus and his disciples [by name].
(Haghot Maymoniyot, on Rambam Avoda Zara, ch. 5, no. 3).

This opinion is paraphrased by Shulkhan Arukh (147:3), although with narrower scope, but quoted in full by the GR”A.  While exactly what constitutes a “divine name” is unclear, but certainly to say “Jesus” would not be a problem, as this was his given name, and – as the above quote states – he is referred to by name in the Talmud.  To this point, there is a famous story about how a student in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur was saying “Yeshu… you know, oto ha’ish…” and then Rav Soloveitchik interrupted, “What do you mean? Jesus?”   The more important question is to use the second half of that name, a name which – while literally translating as “anointed” or “messiah”, is a name which was given to denote his divine status.   This would seem clearly prohibited, and I will not say this name.  I have no problem saying “Christmas” or “Christians” however, as this does not refer to the being identified as a  part of the Godhead.

In this regard, it is worth noting a responsum of Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (Yoreh Deah 180) where the questioner, a Rav Shimon Tzvi Deutsch, had allowed a teacher in his school to refer to Jesus – with the second part of the name – explicitly, as long as it only happened rarely, noting that to refrain from doing such was only an act of piety (middat chasidut) and not required by law.   However, because of the pushback he received on this ruling, he turned to Rav Hildesheimer for a ruling.  Rav Deutsch had noted that while the Talmud only used the name “Jesus”, he argued that the second part of the name should not be considered a divine name, as it only referred to an elevated and important status, and was not an actual appellation of divinity.  Rav Hildesheimer strongly disagreed with this ruling, stating that the use of these names in the Gemara could be attributed to the exception for the sake of understanding and teaching Torah.  He continued, that even if we grant the position of Haghot Maymoniyot, this would certainly not extend to the second part of the name, which definitely suggests his divine status.  He ends by saying that even if the issue were only an act of piety [and here he is perhaps referring to even the name “Jesus” alone], it is nevertheless a piety that is universal Jewish practice and sensibility, and this sensibility must be respected.

What sensibility is Rav Hildesheimer referring to?  It is possible that it is a sensibility that reviles all things, or certainly all religions, that are not Jewish.   But I do not believe it has to be understood that way.  I believe that he can be talking about a sensibility that is of particular importance for those of us who are tolerant and respectful of other religions.   We live in and, in many ways, embrace the values of a tolerant and pluralistic society.  We believe that we should be respectful of other religions and faiths and their adherents.  But in so doing, we run the risk of sliding from tolerance to pluralism to relativism.  If differences are minimized, if there is no absolute truth, if everything is just a choice or preference, then our own convictions, our own faith, our emunah, is made void and meaningless.  With all of our acceptance, we must maintain a sense of taboo about beliefs and theologies that are at odds with our own.   The fact that so many observant Jews have no problem using the name “Jesus” with or without the second part of the name, as an imprecation or for emphasis is a very sad comment on how profoundly we have lost any sense of boundaries in this regard.  It is particularly in an open society such as ours that we must work to sustain a sense of taboo in using language that implicitly assigns a divine status to a human being.

Of course, if we cannot say a name, then the taboo can shift from being a setting of boundaries to a giving of power to that name, to that being.    “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter series exerts power over the minds and hearts of others specifically because they cannot bring themselves to say his name.  It is only Harry, who has no hesitation in calling him “Voldemort” that can free himself from the hold that Voldemort holds over others.  And let us not forget that when it comes to God’s name, there is the name that we cannot utter, and even the name that can be said, must not be said for naught.  To never say a name is to give it power.  Thus, I believe that we should not hesitate to say the name “Jesus.”  When Rav Soloveitchik said, “What do you mean? Jesus?” he robbed this name of its power.  But to say the last name is to give acknowledgement, or at least to remove the taboo, the sense of boundaries, that affirm the depth of our faith commitment.    This is exactly why such names “shall not be heard on your lips.”