A Partner to God?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Ki Sisa

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: May non-Jews believe in more than one God?

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aharon. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:3-4)

While the plain meaning of the verse suggests that the Golden Calf was intended to replace God, there are interpretations that suggest that it was merely meant to replace Moshe’s role (see Ramban on Ex. 32:1). However, an earlier Talmudic interpretation found in Sanhedrin (63a) believes that this idol was not created as a replacement but as a “partner” with God:

Rabbi Yocḥanan says: Were it not for the vav in: “Which brought you up [he’elucha],” (giving it a plural form), the haters of the Jewish people, (a euphemism used to refer to the Jewish people themselves), would have been sentenced to destruction [for their idol worship]. This is like [one side of the following dispute between] tanna’im: Others say: Were it not for the vav in: “Which brought you up [he’elucha],” the haters of the Jewish people would have been sentenced to destruction. Rabbi Shimon ben Yocḥai to him: But isn’t anyone who links the name of Heaven and something else, (a euphemism for an idol,) uprooted from the world? As it is stated: “[He who sacrifices to the gods,] save to the Lord only, [shall be utterly destroyed]” (Ex. 22:19). Rather, what is the meaning when the verse states: “Which brought you up” [in the plural]? That they desired many gods; (i.e. they were not satisfied with the golden calf alone). 

Rashi (s.v. Ilmalei) explains that according to R. Yochanan (and the anonymous opinion cited in the beraisa) the fact that the Jewish people were only adding a deity (shituf) but not removing God from the equation mitigated the severity of their sin which ultimately spared them from absolute annihilation. However, R. Shimon bar Yochai rejects this mitigating factor; the essence behind their difference of opinion requires further analysis.

Further along the Talmudic discussion (Sanhedrin 63b; see also Bechoros 2b), Shmuel, in the name of his father, rules that “it is prohibited for a person to enter into a partnership with a gentile, lest he will be obligated to take an oath to him, and he will take an oath in [the name of] his [object of] idol worship; and the Torah states: “Neither let it be heard out of your mouth.” However, Tosafos (s.v. Assur), comment from a medieval standpoint, that nowadays (presumably in reference to Christian belief in the Trinity):

Even though they (i.e. gentiles) combine the Name of God with another entity, we do not find that it is forbidden to cause others to combine. And there is no issue of “and before a blind person [you shall not place a stumbling block], for gentiles are not warned on this matter.

The Rema (O.C. 156:1) understands Tosafos to mean that non-Jews are only forbidden to exclusively worship a foreign god, but they are not proscribed against invoking other deities in addition to God – while for Jews, this would unequivocally constitute a violation of the Torah (see also Rabbeinu Yeruchem 17:5). However, such a premise raises at least two difficulties:

(1) R. Akiva Eiger and the Noda B’Yehudah (Y.D. responsum no. 148) cite an explicit Talmudic (Sanhedrin 56b) ruling that “with regard to idol worship, matters for which a Jewish court executes [a Jew who commits one of them], are prohibited to a descendant of Noach. [But with regard to transgressions] for which a Jewish court does not execute [a Jew who commits one of them], a descendant of Noach is not prohibited from doing them.” If this is true, then the same way a Jew may not deify another entity, so too a gentile should be liable for doing so!

(2) The Sefer V’Shav HaKohen (no. 38) cites the Gemara in Yoma (66b) that one who either sacrificed or burned incense to the Golden Calf incurred death by sword. Rashi (s.v. Zibeiach) elucidates that since the Jewish people had not yet received instruction regarding the four death penalties of the Rabbinic court, they defaulted on meting out death by sword since they should still be held no less culpable than had a full gentile engaged in worship of the Golden Calf. Such a line of reasoning presumes that even gentiles would be guilty of merely adding a deity even without removing God from their pantheon.

The aforementioned challenges led to a re-reading of Tosafos in a way that presents a far less radical conclusion: The Tosafists indeed believed that the same way Jews may not combine other deities with God so too non-Jews are held to the same standard. Rather, Tosafos is making a more localized claim about the prohibition of placing a spiritual stumbling block in front of another person – a Jew would not be held responsible for creating the circumstances in which a non-Jew would opt to take an oath both in the name of God and a false deity. However, shituf would still remain forbidden, even for non-Jews.

R. Mordechai Carlebach suggests that what lies at the heart of this discussion is how we fundamentally conceptualize the issue of shituf. (A) According to the reinterpretation of Tosafos, there is simply one category of idolatry that both Jews and gentiles alike are bound by, which includes even a case in which God partners with other deities. (B) According to the Rema’s understanding of Tosafos, there are actually two distinct levels of this sin: The basic form of idol worship and an additional tier for incorporating other gods. The latter category is derived from the verse “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than God alone shall be proscribed” (Ex. 22:19), which was legislated to Jews alone. Indeed, Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvos, even distinguishes between belief in God (no. 1) and the unity of God (no. 2) as two independent categories. (See R. Yehudah Yerucham Fishel Perla’s comments on R. Saadia Gaon, Asin, p. 71b who addresses whether this should fall under the second of the Ten Statements given at Sinai.)

It is possible that this very distinction is the basis of the Talmudic disagreement between R. Yochanan and R. Shimon bar Yochai. (B) The former viewed the act of shituf as a mitigating factor, due to its ancillary nature, (A) while R. Shimon bar Yochai rejected such a notion, as he believed that shituf is not a distinct prohibition but is subsumed under the general category of idolatry.

While it may be challenging to justify why the prohibition of shituf would only apply to Jews on a textual-legal level, we may suggest that it is very compelling from a thematic standpoint. One of the relationships that the Jewish people share with God is that of “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me (Song of Songs 6:3).” While gentiles may very well be banned from combining false deities with God, we can appreciate how it is especially egregious for the Jewish people to bring another partner into their exclusive spousal relationship with God.

There is much ink spilled on the topic of whether Christianity constitutes idolatry, which has many implications such as whether one may enter a church. See Responsa Yabia Omer (Y. D. 2:11 and 7:12), Responsa Tzitz Eliezer (14:91) and sources cited therein. Also see a “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature: Entering a Non-Jewish House of Worship, “ by R. J. David Bleich in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought (Vol. 44, No. 2 Summer 2011, pp. 73-101).

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter