by R. Gil Student
I. Buying a Church
Judaism demands that its adherents separate from other religions, both physically and spiritually. Our study of other religions, and the attention to which we pay them, is highly limited by the verse, “Do not turn to the idols” (Lev. 19:4; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 2:2). In general, we are taught to stay away from their religions for our own spiritual health.
The question has arisen numerous times whether a community may buy a church building to be used as a synagogue. When neighborhood demographics change, this may prove the most financially viable option for all parties. However, there is something denigrating to a religion when it is treated as easily replaced by another. To true believers in their religion, their house of worship would decline in purpose if used for another religion. On the other hand, perhaps repurposing another religion’s house of worship constitutes a minor victory, a sanctification of the impure. In the 1850’s, such a question arose in a political battle over the oldest Eastern European synagogue in New York.
II. The Status of Christianity
One might think that Christianity’s potentially unique status within Jewish thought would allow for additional leniency. While Rambam deemed Christianity a foreign worship of classical status, other important authorities consider it in an intermediate status — not polytheism but not a sufficiently pure monotheism either. According to this latter view, which by my accounting is the slight majority, perhaps there is no problem whatsoever with converting a church into a synagogue. Maybe since a church is good for gentiles, it can easily transform into a synagogue for Jews. Interestingly, the main authorities who discuss the issue of converting a church into a synagogue explicitly adopt (elsewhere) the latter view about Christianity but do not include it in their deliberations on this subject. I deduce from their silence that it is irrelevant. This is not a discussion of the inherent value of Christianity but of its relationship to Jews and Jewish worship.
Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Sho’el U-Meishiv, second rescension, vol. 1 no. 51; third recension, vol. 3 no. 29) argues that the type of religion under which Christianity is classified (shituf) is permissible for gentiles. Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho’il, Orach Chaim 16) rules similarly. Rav Hoffmann’s successor, the great Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan, began annotating Rav Hoffmann’s responsa before their initial, posthumous publication. However, he passed away prematurely before getting far. In his fifth and final footnote (to responsum 20), he points out that the status of Christianity for gentiles is unconnected to the question of Jewish participation in it. Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger (Arukh La-Ner, Sukkah 45b sv. ve-ha) rules sumilarly. The subsequent discussion is based primarily on authorities who believe that Christianity does not constitute classical idolatry. Despite that, it is still a foreign religion for Jews.
III. Lower East Side Dispute
In 1852, the first Eastern European synagogue in New York City, and the first Russian synagogue in America, opened in the Lower East Side. It was called Beth HaMedrash, not to be confused by a later break-away named Beth HaMedrash HaGadol. The next year, Rav Avraham Asch was appointed rabbi. However, one of the congregants, Rav Yehudah Mittleman, was also an ordained rabbi. These two clashed about the appointment of a specific individual as shochet, slaughterer. Rav Mittleman left the synagogue and started his own. In 1856, the Beth HaMedrash bought a Welsh church and converted it into a synagogue, dedicating the new home on Shavuos eve with Rav Avraham Rice of Baltimore in attendance. This was neither the first nor the last time that a synagogue used the premises of a former church but it seems to have generated the most halakhic discussion. Apparently, Rav Mittleman attempted to obtain rabbinic disapproval from Europe for the use of a former church as a synagogue. In response, Rav Asch looked to Europe for rabbinic approval.1
Rav Mittleman inquired of the great rabbinic authority, Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson of Rav Mittleman’s hometown Lvov, whether a congregation may purchase a Protestant church and convert it into a synagogue. In his question, which is repeated in the response, Rav Mittleman describes in detail the nature of worship in what he seems to call a Welsh-Scotch Lutheran church. The detail is surprising to find in rabbinic literature. At one point, he seems to call it a Lutheran Church. At another, he says it is a Methodist church, although maybe I am misunderstanding the use of language. It seems clear from the language that Rav Mittleman was asking for a prohibitive ruling. The responsum was issued in 1858 while the synagogue moved into the converted church in 1856. It is not clear whether the delay was due to limitations in communications or some other reason.
Rav Nathanson (Responsa Sho’el U-Meishiv, first recension, vol. 3 nos. 72-73) quotes the Magen Avraham (154:17) who cites a responsum of Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (1:79) that a house used for idolatry may be used for prayer. Even though items used for idolatry may not be used for prayer because they are disgraceful, a house is different. The Magen Avraham suggests that the difference lies in a house being connected, more or less, to the ground. And the ground can never be forbidden due to idolatry.
Some, such as the Dagul Me-Revavah (ad loc.) and Chasam Sofer (glosses, ad loc.; Responsa, Orach Chaim 42) bring proof from a comment of Tosafos (Megillah 6a sv. tiratra’os) that a house is also forbidden. The Gemara (Megillah 6a) says that the biblical promise that “And he shall be as a chief in Judah, and Ekron as a Jebusite” (Zech. 9:6) means that in the future, the princes of Yehudah will teach Torah in Roman theaters and circuses. Tosafos quote an opinion that this refers to houses of pagan worship which are derogatorily called theaters and circuses. However, Tosafos reject the possibility that Torah will be taught in such disgraceful places. This seems to imply that Torah study, and presumably prayer, should not take place in buildings previously used for foreign religions.
Rav Nathanson rejects this proof because Tosafos do not use the word forbidden. Tosafos say that it is difficult to interpret the Talmud that way, meaning that it is difficult to say that this biblical prophecy refers to pagan houses of worship. It doesn’t seem like the prophet would promise something relatively unseemly as such a good sign. But it is not forbidden. Rav Nathanson then disagrees with Tosafos and suggests that the conversion of a pagan house of worship to a house devoted to the worship of God is actually a great praise of God. Idolatry will be wiped off the face of earth so that even the central places of idolatry will be dedicated to God.
In 1858, Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger of Altona, Germany, sent a responsum on the same issue to Rav Abraham Asch (Binyan Tziyon 1:63). Rav Ettlinger sides with Tosafos against the Magen Avraham. He advances the consideration that gentiles are permitted to embrace Christianity but counters that Jews are not, therefore this does not point to leniency. He concludes that he rules strictly but allows for reliance on the Magen Avraham in a time of great need. Additionally, since the church purchased for Rav Asch’ synagogue was originally built as a private house, this offers another reason for leniency.
IV. Later Authorities
In a responsum dated 1900, Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann (Melamed Le-Ho’il, Orach Chaim 20) addresses the same issue. He accepts Tosafos as forbidding the use of a house of foreign worship for prayer. After pursuing and rejecting a number of possible ways to reconcile Tosafos with the Magen Avraham, Rav Hoffmann concludes that they disagree. However, in the specific case he was considering, he ruled leniently because the building had ceased serving as a church decades earlier.
Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, the author of Mishnah Berurah (154:45), says that common practice follows the Magen Avraham‘s lenient ruling. The famous mid-twentieth century halakhic authority of the Lower East Side, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:49), disagrees with this statement of the Mishnah Berurah and what he says is common practice in the US. He was not willing to forbid prayer in synagogues that were converted churches but he also would not permit the practice of buying a church for synagogue use.
On the basic history, see J.D. Eisenstein, “The History of the First Russian-American Jewish Congregation” in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 9 (Baltimore, 1901), pp. 63-67. Rav Asch left the synagogue and in 1859 founded Beth HaMedrash HaGadol. ↩