This article – which originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post – gives a fascinating insight into the Jewish rejection of idolatry which leads to a bar on entering a church but permits Jews to enter a mosque.
In its advocacy for monotheism, the Torah warns of the spiritual perils of idolatry.
The legal question of a Jew entering into a church, mosque or other house of worship remains independent of Jewish respect for the morality of a given religion’s adherents or the common social agenda we may share. This point was exemplified in the 1960s by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who strongly advocated cooperation with the Catholic Church on many social issues of shared value, even as he believed that one could not enter a church for reasons discussed below.
In its advocacy for monotheism, the Torah warns of the spiritual perils of idolatry (avoda zara). As such, it remains unsurprising that beyond the prohibitions of worshiping other gods or making idols, Jewish law mandates many activities to distance ourselves physically and to prevent ourselves from benefiting from prohibited forms of worship.
The Mishna states that a Jew may not enter a town that hosts idolatrous worship unless the pathway also leads to other areas. Some commentators understood this restriction as seeking to prevent false appearances that make people suspect the traveler was entering the town to worship. They cited a similar talmudic passage prohibiting Jews from bending down to drink from a well that happened to have an idol situated behind it. Other commentators, however, restricted these fears to festival seasons when masses came to worship.
Similar concerns of suspicious appearances were raised regarding removing one’s hat or prostrating to a religious or political figure who bore an idolatrous symbol on his clothing; others, however, believed that it remained obvious that one was only honoring the personage. Many commentators further connected this mishna to a different talmudic sentiment that urged Jews to even avoid entering within four ells (biblical measurements) of a prohibited temple.
Based on these passages, scholars prohibited entry into a temple dedicated to idolatry or receiving material benefit from their relics. Some scholars went so far as to claim that a Jew may not flee into such a temple to save his own life; other scholars demurred, contending that this extreme situation does not constitute forbidden entry and benefit.
A central question remains how to define avoda zara and then how to determine which religions fall into that halachic category. A terse definition provided by Prof. David Berger asserts that avoda zara is “the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God.” Many ancient pagan cults and Eastern religions fall into this category, which has particular implications for tourists travelling to the Far East. With its belief in monotheism and its lack of iconolatry, Islam does not fall into this category; therefore, a Jew may enter a mosque.
Jewish scholars, including medieval figures like Rabbi Menahem Hameiri and the Tosafists, have long understood that Christianity is a monotheistic religion distinct from ancient paganism and idolatry. Nonetheless, because of its belief in the divinity of Jesus and his inclusion in their worship, medieval Jewish scholars concluded that Christianity falls into the category of avoda zara. As Berger puts it, Christianity is “non-pagan avoda zara in a monotheistic mode.” Thus, both Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid – in the uncensored versions of their texts – forbid entry into churches, a position that has been affirmed throughout the centuries.
Scholars have debated the parameters of this prohibition. It has been reported, for example, that a few 19th-century Italian figures entered churches to learn choral music for use in synagogue liturgy, while two figures affiliated with pre-World War II Germany, rabbis Joseph Carlebach and Eliezer Berkovits, permitted entry into a church for educational purposes. These dispensations were widely criticized by a strong consensus of decisors, including rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Eliezer Waldenburg.
Medieval sources allowed Jews to cut through the courtyards of non-Jewish temples, even if an idol was located there, since there was no fear of false appearances. This would certainly allow a Jew to use a church parking lot, and according to rabbis David Bleich and Moshe Sternbuch, to enter a church basement for civic purposes like voting or donating blood. Rabbi Feinstein, however, forbade a yeshiva to rent space in church classrooms as he deemed areas used primarily for religious instruction as similar to a sanctuary.
One sensitive situation emerges when state ceremonies, such as coronations or funerals, are held in churches like England’s Westminster Abbey. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef strictly forbade any participation, contending that Jewish law does not permit such attempts to ingratiate local officials. Yet some chief rabbis have attended such ceremonies, including pope John Paul II’s funeral and Prince William’s wedding. This behavior was recently justified by Rabbi Michael Broyde, who cited as precedents medieval scholars that permitted “court Jews” to violate certain prohibitions to ensure Jewish political safety. Others, however, have retorted that such dispensations are thankfully not necessary in a pluralistic era in which Jews can respectfully express their genuine admiration and gratitude to others without compromising their theological commitments.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.