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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Torah from our Beit Midrash

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 2, 2011)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Non-Jews & Other Religions

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While a little postponed, I would like to finish up the discussion from two weeks ago on the topic of attitudes towards Christianity, which arose in the daf yomi at the beginning of Bekhorot.  The Talmud (Bekhorot 2b) had stated that a person could not enter into a partnership with a non-Jew, lest the non-Jew have to take an oath, and he would then do so in the name of his god.  The taking of an oath in the name of another god is something that not only a Jew cannot do, but also cannot be the cause of having been done, even by a non-Jew.  The obvious question for the Tosafists then became, how could Jews enter into partnerships with Christians.  Tosafot first notes the possibility that we do not rule according to the statement in the Gemara that partnerships per se are forbidden, as there are cases in other Gemarot which accept Jewish-non-Jewish partnerships.  Nevertheless, Tosafot finds himself pressed to articulate a better answer, since in his day Jews actually would not only enter into partnerships, but would actually demand and accept oaths from non-Jews, which – when done in the name of another god – is unquestionably forbidden.  How, then, was this practice accepted?  Here is Tosafot’s answer:
Rabbeinu Tam further explains that nowadays they (Christians) all take oaths in the name of their saints and they don’t attribute to them any divinity.  And although they mention the name of God and their intention is to something else (i.e., Jesus), this is not considered the name of a foreign god because their intention is for the Creator of Heaven and Earth.   The And although they “join” (mishtatef) the heavenly name with another thing, there is no prohibition of “before the blind do not place a stumbling block,” because Noahides are not prohibited on this issue, and for us (Jews), we have not found that there is a prohibition to bring about such “joining.”
(Tosafot, Bekhorot 2b, s.v. Shema).
Let us a dissect this statement.  First, Tosafot points out that Christian oaths which are taken in the name of a saint, are not oaths in the name of another god, as saints are not treated as gods.  But these oaths are not only in the name of saints, but also in the name of God.  (Remember Henry V (Act 3, scene 1):  Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’).   Now, here is the interesting question – when Christians say “God”, not Jesus, is this the “name of other gods”?  Tosafot says that it is not, for both (a) they use the same name that we do and (b) it refers to the same Being – the Creator of Heaven and Earth.  Both the symbol (the word “God”) and the referent (the Being referred to) are the same.  The exact meaning here – that the referent is not “another god” –  is open to interpretation.  I believe that Tosafot is saying that when Christians say God, rather than Jesus, they are referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, which is totally consistent with the Jewish concept of God.  
Some may argue – although I do not believe this was the intention – that Tosafot is saying that even if they are referring to the Trinity as a whole, or to any part of it, since this concept includes the idea of God who is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, it is not considered the name of another god.  This reading would seem to come very close to saying that Christianity is not avoda zara – if it is the same God, how could it be avoda zara?  However, Tosafot consistently and unambiguously asserts that Christianity is avoda zara.   What, then, about the above statement?  There are two possible explanations.  Either that Christianity is avoda zara not because their concept of God is different (which it is, but, according to this approach, not sufficiently so) but rather because their worship uses images.  If this were the case, then strands of Christianity that developed after Tosafot, in particular Protestantism, which does not use images, would not be avoda zara!  An alternative explanation is that while their concept of God is, indeed,  “another god” (because of the belief in incarnation and the Trinity), nevertheless, taking an oath in the name “God” while referring to  any part of the Trinity, is not “swearing in the name of another God” since the symbol is the same and the referent is close enough.  Thus they symbol, the word “God” cannot be said to be the name of another god, although that is, in fact, what the Trinity is.
As previously stated, if Tosafot is specifically referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, then the theological implications of the statement are much narrower.  Nevertheless, this first statement in significant in that – in the middle of the Tosafists halakhic world in which Christianity was defined as avoda zara –  there is an assertion to the overlap of the Christian idea of God and the Jewish idea of God.  However, what has not been stated is that Christianity is not considered avoda zara.  For this we must turn to the last statement of Tosafot – what it means and how it has been interpreted.
Tosafot, after addressing the concern with the “name of other gods”, turns to the problem ofmishtatef, of joining God with something else.   What is this problem to which he refers?   Here Tosafot is referring to the statement in Sanhedrin (83a) about the worship of the Golden Calf:
There are those who say, that were it not for the vav (which pluralizes) in ‘[these are your gods, Israel, who have brought thee up’, the people of Israel would have deserved extermination [for the worship of the Calf.  But the vav indicated that they were worshipping the Calf together with God].  Thereupon R. Shimon ben Yochai remarked; But whoever  combines (mishtatef) the Heavenly Name with anything else is utterly destroyed [lit., ‘eradicated from the world’], for it is written, He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto the Lord alone, he shall be utterly destroyed (Shemot 22:19).
Here the issue is worshipping another being together with God, which, according to Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai’s statement, does not stop the act from being avoda zara.   However, there is another context of this statement, which is not about worship, but about verbal praise:
[When the people, on Hoshana Rabbah, departed from their procession around the altar, they would say, according to R. Eliezer, “To God and to you, oh Altar, (we praise).] But does not one thereby associate (mishtatef) the name of God with something else?  And it has been taught, Whosoever associates the name of God with something else is uprooted from the world, as it is said, Save unto the Lord alone? -Rather, what they said was: To God we give thanks, and to you, the Altar, we praise”.  [Thus praising them separately]
(Sukkah 45b).
Here the concern is much broader – God cannot be joined with any other thing or being, even in an act of praise.  Rambam (Laws of Oaths 11:2) thus uses this extended concept to prohibit taking an oath in the name of God combined with any other thing or being, “for there is no being to whom it is appropriate to show the respect of taking an oath in its name, save for the One, blessed be He.”   The midrash, in fact, uses this application to explain a verse in this week’s parsha:
“And Yaakov took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father, Yitzchak” (Breishit 30:53) – so as not to mention any part of what Lavan said (for Lavan had mentioned the name of Avraham’s God, which was holy and the name of Nachor’s god, which was profane).  This was so he would not combine, lishatef, the profane with the holy.
(Psikta Rabbati, 31)
The issue, then, of Tosafot’s understanding and use of the scope of the prohibition against “joining”,mishtatef, God with other beings, is critical.  Read narrowly, it seems that Tosafot is only raising the question of the local problem of taking an oath.   Although – Tosafot is saying – we have demonstrated that the oath that Christians take is in the name of God and in the name of saints, neither of which are other gods, is there not a problem that a Jew is causing a Christian to take an oath by combining the name of God with the name of a saint?  Isn’t this prohibited?  To this, Tosafot answers, that this problem of combining, shituf, God and another being in an oath, is only a problem for Jews, not for non-Jews.  And there is no prohibition for a Jew to cause a non-Jew to take such an oath.  Read this way, Tosafot has only solved the problem of oaths, but has not made a statement with larger implications for the halakhic understanding of Christianity.
However, we have seen that the problem of shituf also extends to worshipping God with other beings.  If this is Tosafot’s meaning, then his answer – that non-Jews are not prohibited against shituf, has profound implications for the halakhic status of Christianity.  While it seems quite clear, from the context and the wording, that Tosafot’s meaning was the narrower oath context, his statement was read to refer to the broader, worship context.    Next week we will continue to explore this issue, and see how this latter (historically incorrect) reading of Tosafot changed the way that halakha dealt – and deals! – with Christianity.