In a series of chapters in Va-Yoel Moshe, Ma’amar Gimmel Shevu’os (90-98), the Satmar Rav, R. Yoel Teitelbaum, argues that anyone who is part of the Israeli government is guilty of idolatry because the government has failed to destroy the Christian churches in the Holy Land. In a sarcastic remark, he notes with surprise that the Haredi political party Agudah complained that the Israeli government failed to put the ministry of religion in its hands. How, the Satmar Rav asks, could they want to be responsible for the maintenance of religions other than Judaism in the land of Israel? However, he concludes, since they are part of the Israeli government, they are already idolators anyway.
Let us review this issue and point out other opinions.
I. The Status of Christianity
Categorizing Christianity within the Jewish framework has always been complex. Depending on how one understands the concept of the trinity, one can arrive at different conclusions over whether Christianity is monotheism or polytheism. Additionally, Christians differ over how to treat saints, icons and transubstantiation.
For almost a thousand years, at least according to some understandings of the relevant medieval texts, Jews have disagreed over whether to classify Christianity as unquestionable polytheism/idolatry (note that this view of Maimonides would also classify some streams of contemporary Orthodox Judaism as idolatry as well), unquestionable monotheism or somewhere in between.
Surprisingly, the Satmar Rav takes the in-between position, considering Christianity to be a worship of the one true God plus additional deities, a practice that this view considers forbidden to Jews but permitted within God’s general covenant with humanity. Therefore, Christians are not doing anything wrong by worshipping God through Christianity. However, to Jews this violates God’s special covenant with the Jewish people and is considered polytheism and idolatry.
Therefore, since Christianity is considered idolatry to Jews, Numbers 33:52 obligates us to destroy all churches in the land of Israel. This logical step, declaring that since Jews are not allowed to worship Christianity therefore the Torah requires us to destroy Christian churches as idolatrous temples, is questionable. One could easily argue the exact opposite, that since Christians are permitted by the Torah to practice their religion then there is no obligation at all. But, as we shall see, in an unredeemed world this is all academic.
II. Inaction is Equivalent to Action
The Satmar Rav goes further. He attempts to demonstrate that refraining from destroying churches, as the Israeli government has done, is not only ignoring the supposed biblical obligation but tantamount to idolatry itself. Anyone who in any way participates in this government that commits idolatry through inaction is guilty of idolatry.
R. Menahem Kasher, in chapter 13 of his Ha-Tekufah Ha-Gedolah, a responsum to a soldier who liberated the old city of Jerusalem from its illegal Jordanian occupation, argued that this soldier — who refrained from destroying churches in Jerusalem — is not guilty of idolatry, as the Satmar Rav would have it.
First, he points out that the proofs that the Satmar Rav brings for extending inaction regarding idolatry to action are few and not particularly substantial. The strongest proof, from Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 33:51, is understood by other commentators (e.g. Ramban) and by Rashi’s super-commentators (e.g. Gur Aryeh) as not dealing with idolatry at all. Therefore, R. Kasher argues, there is no basis to state that refraining from destroying idolatry is equivalent to idolatry itself.
III. Idolatry in an Unredeemed World
R. Kasher further points to the wording of the obligation to root idolatry out of the land of Israel in the Sefer Ha-Hinukh (436). The Hinukh repeats three times that this obligation only applies when the Jewish people have the strength and the ability to do so. Otherwise, there is no obligation at all. In today’s interconnected world, destroying churches would not only put the existence of the state of Israel in jeopardy, it would endanger the lives of Jews throughout the world.
Furthermore, I would suggest that this caveat applies to any religion trying to stamp out another. As we can see from inter-religious battles throughout the contemporary world, today’s society makes these fights unceasing and disastrous. There was once a time when conquered nations would adopt the religion of their conqueror. That time is long past. In an unredeemed world as it exists today, religious colonialism only begets human suffering on all sides. Until the messiah comes to initiate a world-wide religious revival, it is impossible to stamp out idolatry and other religious ideas by force and, therefore, I suggest that no obligation exists to try to do so.