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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Is Christianity Avoda Zara to Christians?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 16, 2011)
Topics: Bechorot, Halakha & Modernity, Kodshim, Non-Jews & Other Religions, Talmud

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As both Chanukkah and Christmas draw near, it is appropriate to discuss of the evolution of halakha’s approach to Christianity. Tosafot in Bekhorot, 2b, had said that one does not transgress by having a Christian take an oath in the name of God and a saint. For although this is an act of shituf, of “combining”, such an act is not prohibited to non-Jews. Now, the simple meaning of that statement is that non-Jews are not prohibited in taking an oath in the name of both God and something else, for example, the Christian saints. However, the concept of shituf is applied in one Gemara to the prohibition of avoda zara, of worshipping other beings together with God. So, it is possible to read Tosafot’s assertion as a broader claim – that Christians are not prohibited in worshipping other beings, as long as this is conjoined to the worship of the Supreme God. It could be argued that this logically derives from the similar assertion regarding oaths. Since the problem of conjoining God with other beings in an oath is that it implicitly equates these other beings with God, and since this is not prohibited to non-Jews, it thus stands to reason (perhaps) that it is also not prohibited to worship other beings together with God.

So does this mean that Christianity would not be avoda zara, at least for Christians? This is certainly the way that many, many poskim understand Tosafot. Let us consider, however, why Christianity was considered to be avoda zara. Although this is not spelled out explicitly by the Rishonim, there are a number of obvious reasons for this definition. It is important at the outset to dispel a common misconception. One will find many contemporary authors who assume that this categorization was due to the understanding that the Trinity was a form of polytheism. This is then often followed by the assertion that Christians firmly maintain that they believe in and worship only one God, and thus – such authors continue – we must conclude that it is not really polytheism and we should no longer deem it to be avoda zara.

Many will disagree with this conclusion, and start by pointing out that the belief in the Trinity is a belief not in three aspects of God, but in three which are one, which is clearly not a pure monotheism. But even putting this aside, the argument is faulty in its very premise. Halakha does not define avoda zara as polytheism. Avoda Zara is either (a) the worship of a god other than the one, true God or (b) the worship of God through the use of images. One does not need to define the Trinity as a type of polytheism to assert that the concept of God that it represents is a “different God” than the one that Jews believe in. Even framing this as “a non-pure monotheism” somewhat misses that point, as the issue is not the number per se, but the nature of the God that is believed in and worshipped. The problem with the Trinity is that it – in its concept of God who is three-that-is-one – is a radically “different God” from the one in which we believe.

Which brings us to the second problem. Not number, but physicality. For the Christian God is also an incarnate God. Belief in such a God can be considered avoda zara from both perspectives – it is the worship of God through images, in the extreme form (the merging of God with the physical) and, in conceiving of God in this fashion, it becomes the worship of a “different God.” Added to all this is the practice of worshipping through images, statues and icons – practiced by all Christians until the Reformation, and by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox today. This worship is avoda zara not because of the type of God who is worshipped, but because the form of worship is prohibited. The problem here is no that the God is foreign, but that the worship is.

So now we return to Tosafot’s statement about shituf. Let us assume that this means that non-Jews are not prohibited in worshipping other beings alongside God. Which problems does this address? From the perspective of the worship of a “different God” this approach would state – minimally – that if the belief in the Supreme God is pure, than a concomitant worship of other gods is not forbidden. But that doesn’t get to the root of the problem here, which is that the Christian concept of God is fundamentally different from ours. The logic to apply it to that case would seem to run as follows. The belief in another god is not prohibited. But certainly the belief in another god compromises the concept of the one, Supreme God. Apparently, then, even when this concept is compromised through the introduction of other gods, it – for non-Jews – is still considered to be a belief in the true God. Thus, if other gods can be believed in, then a non-Jew can also believe in the Trinity, or even the incarnate nature of God. The belief in the Christian God is not, for non-Jews, the belief in a different God. It is close enough to our concept that it remains, for them, the belief in the true God.

But what about the use of images in their worship? Is this not also a form of avoda zara? Apparently, for this reading of Tosafot, the answer is no. If a non-Jew’s concept of God does not have to be defined along the narrow parameters of the Jewish concept of God, then the worship as well does not have to be defined in such narrow terms. For what is the problem of the use of images if not that it leads to a misrepresentation of God? But if the concept of God can – for them – allow for the idea of an incarnate God, then why can the object of worship not involve such physicality as well?

Putting all this together, then, we have a very broad definition of what is acceptable belief and worship for non-Jews. Now, it should be noted that this reading of Tosafot is not pshat, and it was vigorously argued against by the son of the Nodah BiYehuda (see Nodah BiYehuda, Tinyana, Yoreh Deah 148). Nevertheless, it is implicitly adopted by no less a figure than Rema, the authority for Ashkenazic Jewry (see Darkhei Moshe, Yoreh Deah 151, and Rema, Yoreh Deah, 151:1). Rema is followed in this by Shach (Yoreh Deah 151, note 7) and by countless later authorities. What then emerges, as almost a taken-for-granted assumption by most poskim, is that Christianity is not avoda zara for non-Jews, although it remains avoda zara for Jews.

Now, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a stance of religious pluralism. The implicit statement is not that we recognize the Christian belief as an alternate legitimate theological position. Rather, the (implicit) claim is that Christians can be a “little off” in their belief and worship, and that’s still okay, at least for them. It is a position that evokes the Biblical verse in Devarim 4:19,

And lest you lift up your eyes to the skies, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of the skies, should you be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your God has allotted to all nations under the whole sky.

Let them have their faulty worship, yours must be of the purer sort.

So while this position is not true pluralism, it certainly goes a major step beyond other accommodating approaches towards Christianity in halakha. For until this approach came on the scene, the way halakha dealt with negotiating some of the avoda zara-related restrictions when it came to Christians was by asserting that while Christianity was avoda zara, Christians were not true believers in their own faith, and thus were not, themselves, worshippers of avoda zara (see Tosafot, Avoda Zara, 2a). This approach had the triple disadvantage of being condescending and patronizing to Christians about the sincerity of their own belief, of being factually incorrect, and also being of limited scope in its usefulness. For were a Jew to do something that would advance the worship of a true believer, say, sell a chalice to be used for mass to a priest, there would be no way to permit. So, this was useful, but problematic and limited. Enter the new approach. Christianity is not avoda zara for Christians. We now do not have to make counter-factual assertions, and we now can allow even more cases. Jews can sell religious items to priests and Churches, since for Christians there is no problem in this worship.

The usefulness of this new approach is apparent. I believe, however, that its widespread adoption and use was based on more than just its usefulness. It is my belief – although I cannot prove this – that this approach, while by no means truly pluralistic, was much more accepting and tolerant in its general thrust than previous approaches. Halakha aside, did we really want to say that Christians were worshippers of avoda zara? (It would be interesting to track the spread of this approach. It is my suspicion that after the advent of the Enlightenment its spread accelerated considerably). And perhaps its coming short of true pluralism was its strength. For a general challenge for anyone who is pluralistic is how does one stop his pluralism from becoming relativism? How does one maintain his sense of truth, of belief in his own religion, while respecting the beliefs of others at the same time. This approached offers a solution. For Christians, their belief is not avoda zara, is totally acceptable. But for Jews, for me, it is off-limits, it is taboo, it is avoda zara.

The benefit here is not only religious and philosophical, but practical as well. For too much pluralism can lead to a blurring of boundaries, to an attitude of “we all basically believe in the same thing.” Not only can it undermine one’s sense of the deep theological importance of the distinctive nature of his beliefs, but it can also lead to an attitude of “well, if it isn’t avoda zara, what would be so bad for me to become a Christian?” At a time when conversion to Christianity – due to duress or the desire for social and economic advancement – was a very real threat, it was critical that Christianity remain – at least for Jews – completely taboo. And hence the wonderful position that it is avoda zara for Jews, but not for non-Jews. We can be totally accepting, totally non-judgmental of the beliefs and worship of non-Jews, while at the same time not compromising one iota on its verboten status for Jews.