A person is a patient at Holy Cross Hospital and there is a crucifix on the wall of each room. Can she make brakhot and daven there? A family wishes to have a bar mitzvah in the large, all-purpose hall of Catholic university, where there is a small cross affixed at the top of the east-facing wall, 20 feet off the ground. Can they have their bar mitzvah in that room?
The answer starts with a curious verse. Usually, when Moshe leaves Pharaoh to pray on his behalf, the Torah states, as it does in this week’s parasha, that “he went out from Pharaoh, and entreated the Lord” (Ex. 10:18). But at the end of last week’s parasha, during the plague of hail, Moshe tells Pharaoh that: “As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread abroad my hands unto the Lord.” (9:29). Why does he need to wait until he exited the city? A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 12:5), quoted by Rashi, explains:
From this verse we see that Moshe did not wish to pray in Egpyt (i.e., in the city), because it was filthy with gilulim vi’shikutzim.
The term gilulim, which literally means dung, is a standard Rabbinic dysphemism (a disparaging term chosen instead of a neutral one) for idols. The word sheketz, a detestable creature, functions similarly.
This midrash, then, could be seen as a basis for forbidding a person to pray in the presence of the religious symbols and objects of worship of other faiths. The use of the terms gilulim and sheketz also reflects the reason why this should be prohibited: just as a person may not pray in the presence of dung (SA OH 76-79), something physically repulsive, it would similarly be wrong to pray in the presence of something that is theologically repulsive.
But is this conclusion correct? First, while actual idols might be properly seen as theologically repulsive (although religious pluralists would contest this point), it seems hard to apply this designation to religious symbols of other faiths. Second, this midrash does not make any halakhic claims; to the contrary, it just states that Moshe “did not wish” to pray in such a place. Finally, to apply this to praying in the presence of a cross is to assume that we treat Christianity as avodah zarah, but is this the case?
Let’s explore these various issues. We start with the last point: Is Christianity seen as a form of avodah zarah? This is a question that halakhah has dealt with over hundreds of years, not for sake of judging others and their faith, but to determine how we, as Jews, must act.
As we noted, almost all Rishonim considered Christianity to be avodah zarah, a term that means not “idolatry,” but “foreign worship.” It is a faith whose beliefs about God – the Trinity, Incarnation – are foreign to the Jewish understanding of God, and a faith which uses images and icons in its worship.
This designation of Christianity was almost universally accepted by the Rishonim, but halakhah’s approach to Christianity evolved over time. It was not ideological factors that led to a more tolerant approach, but rather economic and societal ones. Jews in the Middle Ages did business with Christians on Sunday, the major market day, in seeming violation of the mishnah’s ruling that a Jew cannot do business with a non-Jew on his religious holiday. A number of ways were offered to reconcile the common practice with the halakhah on the books, many relevant only to the particular circumstances in question. One resolution, however, led to a reformulation of halakhah’s approach to Christians in general. Tosafot argued that while Christianity was avodah zarah, Christians were not ovdei avodah zarah, were not worshippers of this forbidden faith. This hair-splitting was accomplished by asserting that Christians did not observe their religion out of piety and true religious feeling, but rather because of their culture and upbringing: minhag avoteihem bi’yadeihem, they continue in the practice of their forefathers.
Now, some would characterize Tosafot’s assertion about Christians’ lack of piety as both offensive and factually incorrect – Christians in the Middle Ages were known to be quite pious. But even if it was not factually correct, it became a legal fiction that allowed later poskim to do two things at the same time: they could lower the halakhic walls that separated Jews from their Christian neighbors, and at the same maintain the wall that separated Judaism from Christianity. Christianity as a faith, with its theological assertions, was taboo. Christians were people we could do business with.
The next development came when poskim, starting with Rema, argued that because Christianity believes in a transcendent, creator God, it was not to be deemed as avodah zarah for non-Jews. For Jews, however, such a faith was avodah zarah and totally off-limits. This ruling, on the ideological plane, allowed Jews to see Christianity in a more positive light, to be respectful of the faith of Christians and even to see it as a good thing (for them). On the practical plane, it permitted Jews to engage in activities that aided Christians in their worship, such as the sale of religious items to Christian priests and monks. And, like the earlier distinction between Christians and Christianity, it still kept Christianity as taboo and off-limits for Jews. Stating that we can support Christians in their worship in church is not saying that we, as Jews, are permitted to enter the church or to be present for services.
All of this brings us back to our original question. Can a Jew pray in a room with a crucifix? Since halakhah maintains the position that Christianity is avodah zarah for Jews, it would seem that it should be forbidden. For a Jew, this is to pray in a room with an item of an avodah zarah faith present. But the answer is not so simple. We must still determine whether the midrash about Moshe actually carries any halakhic weight.
The first to raise the midrash in a halakhic context was Rabbi Israel Isserlen (Austria, 1390-1460). In his work Trumat HaDeshen (no. 6), he takes up the question of whether a Jew who is travelling should pray on the roadside, or wait until he reaches his place of lodging where he can focus more on his prayers, but where religious statues and paintings would abound. Basing himself on the midrash, he rules that it is preferable to pray on the roadside. However, he goes on to say, if the person will be interrupted when attempting to pray on the roadside, he should pray when he reaches his lodging. Rema (OH 94:9) follows this ruling.
Two points emerge from this: (1) there is no halakhic restriction against praying in such a room; the midrash only reflects a preference and not a requirement; and (2) Christian religious statues and paintings are seen as problematic when it comes to the ideal place for prayer.
As far as a cross is concerned, we should note that Rema rules that a cross in most cases is only a religious symbol and not an object of worship (SA YD 141:1). Nevertheless, it would seem that the ideal place for prayer should be free of such objects as well. While we do not need to – indeed, should not – see the religious objects of another faith as “detestable,” we should still strive to ensure that our prayer spaces are neutral or Jewish ones.
Based on all this, many poskim rule that when a person is a patient in a hospital where there is a cross in the room, and it is not reasonable to ask that it be removed, then the patient can nevertheless pray in the room (see, for example, Shut Lev Avraham, 30).
If possible, however, the cross should be removed or covered. I do not think that this would be required for the mere making of brakhot. There is a qualitative difference between an act of worship and between a making of a blessing. Moshe left the city when he said he would “stretch out his arms to God,” that is, do a demonstrable act of worship. The verse does not relate that he leaves the city when he makes a silent, internal supplication to God (see Ramban, 9:29). Perhaps the ideal setting is only needed for acts of worship, and for visible ones at that.
One final issue must be addressed. If a person is praying in a room where a cross is present, she should not pray facing the cross, because it will look like she is praying to the cross (Hakmat Adam 22:10, MB 94:30, based on SA OH 113:8 and YD 150:3). She must pray in a different direction, even if it requires facing away from Jerusalem, or she must find a way to cover the cross.
So what should be done about the bar mitzvah in a room with a cross 20 feet above the floor? The simple choice is that they should pray in a different direction. This is the advice I gave when consulted about this case, but the configuration of the room did not make this a feasible option. In the end, they came up with an ingenious and elegant solution: a helium balloon on a 20 foot string, anchored directly below the cross.
(For further sources on this topic, see SA OH 55:20, with Magen Avraham 15 and Mishneh Brurah 65; Taz OH 151:4, Shut Avnei Nezer, OH 32; Shut Be’er Moshe 3:22, and Torah Shleima, appendix 21.)