Entry into a Church For the Sake of Saving Jewish Lives (Hatzalat Yisrael) Revisited
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel of Toco Hills and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America. He was a grateful and happy student in the Yeshiva University Yadin-Yadin kollel for many years of which Rabbi Bleich is the Rosh Kollel. He received yadin-yadin from YU in 1991.
You asked me a very good question, and I take pen in hand to write you a reply. You asked whether my article from a few years ago, in which I noted that I thought that a communal leader may enter a church for the sake of hatzalat yisrael (the long term saving of Jewish lives, even when no specific life in in danger now) , is consistent with the views recently expressed by our mutual teacher Rabbi Bleich שליט”אin his excellent and thoughtful analysis in Tradition regarding the entering of churches more generally (“Entering a Non-Jewish House of Worship” Tradition 44:2 73-103, 2011). Indeed, a number of people have asked me if my analysis is consistent with what Rabbi Bleich put forward, and that is a tribute to his greatness as a teacher and as a scholar. Inconsistencies between my views and Rabbi Bleich’s should always be resolved in his favor, as the poskim clearly state, that disputes between a student and a teacher are always resolved in favor of the teacher; see Sanhedrin 110a.
Such a rule, thank God, is unnecessary in this case. I believe that my analysis is fully consistent with Rabbi Bleich’s, although it is possible that we may not agree on some of the political “facts.” But, in truth, my article was meant to be theoretical in nature, and I stated rather clearly that “I am agnostic on the factual issues raised… I write halachic theory and leave it to other people of good will and expertise to determine the facts.” So, to the extent that Rabbi Bleich is asserting political facts, I am certainly not arguing with him.
Rabbi Bleich agrees (pp. 90-91) that one may enter a church to save a life and seems to adopt the view that this life saving activity is governed by the general framework of any lifesaving activity, neither stricter nor more lenient, which is the view of Rav Ovadia Yosef, and that entry into a church is a Torah prohibition, a view found in a number of poskim. Furthermore, Rabbi Bleich agrees that such situations did arise in the past and that there could be such situations in the future. However, Rabbi Bleich does seems to deny that any situation can arise in our modern times that would give rise to a situation in which entry into a church under the rubric of a lifesaving activity (hatzalat yisrael) could factually happen. Rabbi Bleich eruditely writes:
Any perspicacious individual involved in public affairs becomes aware that ceremonial attendance at mass assemblies seldom leads to significant positive benefit. That is not to say that there may not have been an occasion in which failure to participate in such an event could have resulted in actual danger to the Jewish community nor that, Heaven forefend, such a situation might not arise in the future. Although non-participation might, on occasion, generate ill will, in our age, there is no cogent danger that the life of any Jew would be imperiled. Any possible negative feelings can readily be dispelled by means of a cordial, but unequivocal and authoritative explanation that absence from such a venue is not an affront but is dictated solely by sincere belief and religious discipline. In an age in which intolerance is, to say the least, politically incorrect, such an explanation would be graciously accepted by any government official, consul, sovereign, or head of state. Quite to the contrary, a thoughtful and reasoned explanation declining such an invitation is likely to have the positive effect of evoking respect for Jewish clergy as principled, consistent, and devoid of personal vanity as well as an awareness among occupants of high office that the Jewish community takes pride in its traditions and does not violate religious principles in order to flatter, curry favor, or to pursue fleeting advantage.
(Page 93, emphasis and italics added and footnotes deleted).
Although I am merely a student to Rabbi Bleich’ status as an expert, it seems clear from this paragraph that were there to be a situation in which non-attendance by Orthodox rabbis or politicians or individuals to governmental events in a Church were to pose a risk to the lives of Jews living in those or other countries, then a competent Jewish law authority (moreh hora’ah) in consultation with experts in political science and related fields might very well permit entry into a church under the rubric of life saving activity.
I would like to use one example discussed by Rabbi Bleich as such a case, albeit from the past. It is clear that British Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler went into Westminster’s Abby for the coronation of the king. Here is Rabbi Bleich’s recounting of the event.
The first to do so was Rabbi Hermann Adler, who is listed among the persons “present” at or “invited” to the coronation of Edward VII in Westminster Abbey. Rabbi Adler’s presence at the ceremony is confirmed in a history of the Western Synagogue published in conjunction with that institution’s bicentennial celebration. The coronation took place on Shabbat, August 9, 1902. Rabbi Adler spent Shabbat in the vicinity of the Western Synagogue. In order to make it possible for the Chief Rabbi to attend the coronation, an early service was arranged at which he preached a coronation sermon. Attired in his clerical robes, Rabbi Adler walked from the synagogue to Westminster Abbey accompanied by a police escort.
I would like to give Rabbi Adler the benefit of doubt and argue that he considered entry into a church for the coronation of the king, to which he was summoned to and had to attend as a matter of law, to be a matter of grave danger to the Jewish people, such that non-attendance raised the distinct and real possibility of anti-Semitism: what the rabbinic tradition calls eivah. The facts seem clear: The year was 1902, and England was abounding with anti-Semitism. The new king was not a friend of the Jews and his son, the future abdicated king, was to be an ally of Hitler some three decades later. Furthermore, Rabbi Adler was traditional and loyal to halacha and he made it his policy not to enter churches as a general matter of halacha. Thus, I would posit that Rabbi Adler, who was the son of the Chief Rabbi as well as the Chief Rabbi himself and who was extremely well attuned to the details of British political life and the status of its Jews—whose wellbeing he was charged with protecting—determined that entry into Westminster’s Abbey for the coronation of the new king was permitted under the rubric of saving Jewish lives—hatzalat yisrael. It is beyond my competence to consider whether that judgment is correct or not, but it does not strike me as obviously unreasonable (although I am hardly an expert in British anti-Semitism in the early 1900’s).
Let me observe a more general principle at play here. Participation in government is a form of communal life-saving activity (hatzalat yisrael) and is thus a subcategory, in my view, of long term eivah; it recognizes that the political process is both very complex and cannot be joined at the last minute—but yet the stakes are very high. Just like permitting violations of Jewish law based on eivah do not require an imminent and present risk, but rather recognize the general idea that certain conduct gives rise to long term and very dangerous anti-Semitic trends, the same is true here; and even when our conduct is logical and ought to be accepted as reasonable, when we know it will not be, we must act to avoid baseless hatred of Jews.
Let me add another factor to consider. The Mishnah Berurah indicates (306:57) and the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 306:25) rules that one may certainly violate Shabbat to avoid having Jews voluntarily apostatize to another faith. I would speculate that creating a social, economic and religious environment in which Jews are not subject to enormous and continuous pressure to abandon their faith and convert to Christianity is very important, and that permits activity permitted under the rubric of hatzalat yisrael. Although far away from our current reality in America, in Western Europe apostatizing out of Judaism due to the social stigma of being Jewish was a significant concern to Jews at the beginning of the last century and onward; perhaps having the Chief Rabbi come to the Coronation at the invitation of the king, with a police escort, was a source of significant esteem and served as a barrier to assimilation and apostasy. This matter requires more analysis but is an important factor to consider.
So, I stand by my basic view that in situations where the Orthodox rabbinic leadership of a community determined that the Jewish community here or elsewhere might be in danger of confronting significant anti-Semitism and that attendance at a church service by the leadership of the community would diminish the likelihood of that event, attendance at such an event is not only permitted as a matter of halacha, but close to mandatory.
Of course, I recognize that a chief rabbi is not a mere Jew, or even a very important Jew—he is a symbolic Jew, and so to me it falls under the rubric of special cases, which as I explained in my initial article is not generally applicable to the average religious Jew involved in politics.
Others, with more practical political skills than mine, are needed to discern the reality.
 Rabbi Kenneth Auman wrote a thoughtful reply, and our exchange went a few rounds. This exchange was first published in Hirhurim here and then was edited, expanded, and annotated for republication in Hakirah here (PDF).
 Which can be found here.
 For more on British anti-Semitism, see the work Julius Anthony, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of British Anti-Semitism (Oxford Press, USA edition, 2010).
 See for example, Ritvah to Avodah Zarah 26a sv yachla lemeimar.
 As to when such situations might arise, reasonable people might disagree, just as reasonable doctors might disagree about whether one must eat on Yom Kippur, and in such a situation, halacha prescribes a set of rules as to how to resolve disputes between experts on matters of life threatening nature which can be found in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 618 and the commentaries ad locum. Although this is not the place to analyze those rules in detail, the halacha is clear that if the matter is in reasonable doubt, one must act to save a life.