Jewish Commentaries on Christianity

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by R. Gil Student

In the past, we have discussed briefly the halakhic debate over how to categorize the religion of Christianity within Jewish law. Does the incorrect belief in a trinity constitute polytheism or the worship of God and other beings (shituf)? Either way, it is forbidden under the Sinaitic covenant but if it is shituf, there are some authorities who believe it is permissible under Noahide code. This question is discussed and debated in halakhic literature. I would like here to explore some classic nineteenth and twentieth century commentaries that assume that Christianity is permissible for gentiles (under the Noahide code) but forbidden as foreign worship (avodah zarah) for Jews. While every commentary is only a possible explanation of the text, it shows the thinking of the author who accepts the idea that shituf is permissible for gentiles but not for Jews.

I. Malbim

1) At the end of Yehoshua’s life, he speaks to the nation and gives a brief history of the Jewish people leading to a warning against idolatry (Joshua 24). He tells the people that they need to choose whether to worship God or idols (v. 15). The people reply that they choose God (vv. 16-18). Yehoshua then tells the people that they cannot worship God because if they deviate to idolatry, God will punish them (vv. 19-20). The people confirm that they will worship God (v. 21). Yehoshua tells the nation to get rid of their idols and listen to God (vv. 22-23), which the people confirm they will do (v. 24). Why all the repetition?

Rav Meir Leibush Weiser (Malbim, 19th cen., Russia; Commentary, ad loc., v. 23) explains that Yehoshua warns the people that while worshiping God and idols together (shituf) is permitted for gentiles under the Noahide code, it is forbidden to Jews under the Sinaitic covenant. Therefore, the Jewish people must affirm not only that they will worship God but also that they will worship God alone. They must destroy any idols and refrain from worshipping idols together with their worship of God. Unlike gentiles, the Jews are not allowed to engage in shituf.

2) 2 Kings 17 tells the story of the aftermath of the exile of the Ten Tribes. The king of Assyria transplanted people from the land of Kusa (i.e. Kusim) and settled them in the cities of Shomron. The gentile Kusim living in Israel continued worshipping their idols, which angered God. God sent lions to kill some of them as punishment for their idolatry. The Assyrian king was advised to send a Jewish priest to teach the Kusim how to worship God and thereby prevent disaster (ibid., vv. 24-27). The Kusim learned from the priest how to worship God and, from that time one, they feared God and worshipped their idols (v. 33). Radak (v. 40) says that this means the Kusim failed to listen to the priests and continued in their wicked ways.

Malbim (ad loc.) explains this as a success story. The idolatrous Kusim gentiles were taught to incorporate God into their worship. Gentiles, who are subject to the Noahide code, are allowed to worship God and other beings. This is in contrast to Jews, who are subject to the Sinaitic covenant and are allowed to worship only the God who took them out of Egypt. The Ten Tribes failed to observe this obligation and therefore remain in exile (vv. 34-40). However, the gentile Kusim, for whom shituf is permissible, are praised for continued worshipping God and other beings for many generations (v. 41). (See also Malbim to Ex. 20:4.)

II. Torah Temimah

1) The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63a) says: “Anyone who combines the name of God and something else (shituf) is uprooted from the world. As it says, ‘He who sacrifices to the gods, except to the Lord only (levado), shall be utterly destroyed’ (Ex. 22:19).” Rav Baruch Ha-Levi Epstein (20th cen., Russia; Torah Temimah, Ex. 23 n. 91) points out the importance of the word “levado, only.” Apparently, if the verse had not said levado, then shituf would have been permitted even though the verse says to sacrifice to God.

Rav Epstein contrasts this to Na’aman’s statement after he was miraculously cured from his leprosy by immersing in the Jordan River, on advice from Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 5). Na’aman was so impressed by this miracle that he formally committed to observe the Noahide law against idolatry (Rashi, Sanhedrin 74a, s.v. le-davar). Na’aman said: “Your servant will henceforth offer neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice to other gods, but unto God” (2 Kings 5:17). Na’aman did not say “only (levado) to God.” Rather, he planned to incorporate God into his worship, which included idols. Since the prophet responded, “Go in peace” (v. 19), we see that shituf is acceptable for gentiles.

2) When the two sons of Elimelech die, their Moabite wives have to decide whether to stay with their mother-in-law, Naomi, or return to their families. Orpah leaves and Rus chooses to stay. The Gemara learns from the dialogue between Naomi and Rus that the latter converted and accepted the commandments (Yevamos 47b):

[Naomi said to Rus:] We are obligated in 613 commandments. [Rus responded:] “Your people are my people” (Ruth 1:16). [Naomi said to her:] Idolatrous worship is forbidden to us. [Rus responded:] “Your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Maharsha asks why Naomi mentions idolatry, since it is forbidden within the Noahide code. By converting to Judaism, Rus was not choosing whether to accept a prohibition against idolatry because it was already forbidden to her. Rav Baruch Ha-Levi Epstein (Torah Temimah, Ruth 1:61) explains that the prohibition against idolatry is different within the Noahide code than within the Sinaitic covenant. Gentiles are allowed to worship idols together with God, i.e. shituf, while Jews are not. Naomi informed Rus that by converting, Rus was accepting a more encompassing prohibition against idolatry that also forbids shituf.

III. Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah

The Torah warns us against lifting our eyes and seeing the sun, moon and stars and worship them. God placed them or allocated them (chalak) in the sky (Deut. 4:29). The wording of “chalak” is unusual and Rashi quotes the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 55a) explains the word as “mislead.” Meaning, God put the sun, moon and stars in the sky in order to mislead the nations of the world into worshipping them. This opens the question of how God could fool people into sinning (which we discussed here).

Rav Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg (19th cen., Germany; Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Deut. 4:19) infers from this Talmudic passage that gentiles are permitted to worship God and idols together (shituf). God does not lead them to sin by placing the sun, moon and stars in the sky because worshipping them along with God is permissible within the Noahide code. Only Jews may not do so because it is forbidden within the Sinaitic covenant. Rav Mecklenburg, who served as the chief rabbi of Koenigsberg, flows this discussion into the responsa literature. He quotes various responsa that dispute this permission of shituf for gentiles and disagrees with them strongly. He identifies this Talmudic passage as the source for permissibility.
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The above commentaries do not end the halakhic debate on this subject. However, they broaden the debate to include classical Bible commentary and Midrash.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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