I am Orthodox, and an artist. From time to time I go into Churches, not during services, to admire the art and architecture. I have no desire for any other religion, but know the Talmud in Avodah Zarah 17b says a Jew should not even go past the doors of a pagan temple. What is the leeway halachically and from a values point of view?
I very much appreciate your asking the question in terms of both law and values, rather than merely seeking a technical permission. It is often difficult to be Orthodox and an artist, and your commitment to be both with integrity does you credit, and moreover I think it likely that the art produced by that dual commitment is a genuine contribution to Judaism and human culture.
Legally, your issue is actually twofold, and I presume you intended both. The first question is whether it is permitted to enter churches when services are not taking place, and the second is whether it is permitted to admire art and architecture that was created for Christian purposes and still serves those purposes.
My own position is that trinitarianism is not halakhically per se avodah zarah (for the basis of my position please see http://www.torahleadership.org/archive.php?x=0&y=0&q=Christianity), but that bowing to crucifixes and participating in a ritual that treats G-d as corporeal is avodah zarah. Not all churches are therefore alike.
Let us assume that we are dealing with churches whose ritual involves such practices.
This is a version of a very commonly asked halakhic question, “the Sistine Chapel sh’eilah”. My tradition is that my teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein refused to enter during a tour of the Vatican, whereas my teacher Dr. Haym Soloveitchik permitted entrance if one made clear that one was visiting as a tourist, e.g. by prominently wearing multiple cameras. In other words, Dr. Soloveitchik treated the issue as one of mar’it ayin, of appearances
My default position is that of R. Lichtenstein, and if you were to ask me for a formal decision, that is what I would tell you. However, I cannot say that one is not entitled to rely on Dr. Soloveitchik, although I would be unhappy if one relied on his position for trivial purposes. Regardless, I think that one can rely on Dr. Soloveitchik’s logic to enter parts of a church other than the sanctuary, and I have permitted this publicly for issues such as blood drives, when there are prominent signs posted indicating a secular purpose for entering.
Turning to the values aspect of your question - if there were nothing important to gain by seeing art, this would be an easy question. But at least some authoritative voices in Jewish tradition recognize that there is value in beauty and truth in art (whether or not one sees beauty as a necessary aspect of great art), and so the issue is one of balancing values. The Summer Beit Midrash of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which I have the honor to lead, spent its 2011 session addressing questions such as this. You can find the daily shiur of that session at http://www.torahleadership.org/archive.php?x=0&y=0&q=%2C2011, and more popular materials at http://www.torahleadership.org/archive.php?x=0&y=0&q=art.
Perhaps the deeper issue is whether it is proper to deeply study explicitly and intentionally Christian art. Here one can introduce the prohibition of “al tifnu el ho’elilim” – not paying conscious attention to avodah zarah works (see Shabbat 149a) – and certainly much Christian art focuses on and draws its power from the most halakhically problematic of Christian rituals and narratives. I am very influenced by a pianist friend who happily played classical masses and the like – until she heard them played in a cathedral and genuinely understood them, at which point she could no longer play them.
Overall, then - the technical prohibitions can often be overcome or evaded, but that they should be overcome or evaded only for a purpose of great value, and only by someone who honestly acknowledges the genuine power of great Christian art and that its messages are often not compatible with Judaism. There is at least some leeway, but you should utilize that leeway only with great self-knowledge as to what might be gained or lost.
I have addressed this question without putting it in the broader context of Jewish-Christian relations today. But I recognize that refusal to enter church sanctuaries, especially at a time when the Pope and other Christian leaders are respectfully praying in synagogues, can be morally troubling, and seem – not unfairly – as reflecting a lack of respect for the deepest convictions of human beings who otherwise command our admiration and on whom we make moral claims. This is a challenge on a different axis, and beyond the scope of your question, and I will not address it here, but I did not feel comfortable replying without at least referring to that challenge.
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 17b that you refer to does not deal directly with the prohibition of entering churches, per se - as it deals more explicitly with the problem of entering places of ill-repute. Nevertheless, Maimonides in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (chapter 7, law 2) and Hilkhot Melakhim (chapter 11, law 4) and elsewhere (Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:8; Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 9:1) make it eminently clear that Christianity is viewed by the tradition as idolatry and taht we are forbidden as Jews to derive benefit from it.
While I am a Conservative Rabbi, I see no real prohibition of just entering a church on a non-Sunday or at least three days before/after one of the major festivals on the Christian calendar (especially in the land of Israel) to view the art work contained therein and gaining an esthethic appreciation of the forms used there, whithout any desire on your part to "worship" these objects. it is fascinating, in fact, that Rabbinic tradition saw no problem about entering a bath house created by non-Jews - even if it contained idolatry within it - as it was done purely for "beauty" (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah - chapter 7, law 18). Clearly, you are not going there for purposes of worship or apostasy.
Maimonides would certainly favor helping non-Jews (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, chapter 10, law 5) who are in dire need because of the overriding desire we have to develop peaceful relationships with the majority cultures that surround us. I, for one, support all attempts to continue to develop the "new spirit" that arose in Christianity towards Judaism starting in the 1960's with the proclamation of "Nostra Aetate" by Pope (recently canonized as a "saint") John XXIII claiming that Jews are no longer guilty of the crime of deicide and that we should work with all good Christians to re-educate them about Judaism to help promote peace in the world. I recently participated in an interfaith pre-Passover Model Seder with our Catholic neighbors and see nothing wrong with this.
In response to this query, certain facts – how rare that circumstance – are clear and indisputable. First, Jewish tradition is unequivocal about the prohibitions associated with Avodah Zara (pagan, idol or, more literally, strange worship). Second, the overwhelming majority of traditional decisors, including and especially Maimonides, classify Christianity as idolatry, not only or merely because of the possible presence of icons in a church, but also because of the doctrine of incarnation. Third, I am unsure how a non-Orthodox rabbi may add to the discussion, as the inquirer self-identifies as Orthodox.
If that be the case, then, the first and most important response, no matter how many opinions be solicited, is listen to your Rabbi.
That said, the heart of the challenge may reside in whether Christianity falls within the rubric of Avodah Zara, and if so, are there any circumstances in which one who accepts halachic discipline may ever enter a church building.
As to the former, the Meiri (a late 13th early 14th century scholar) provide support for those in our community who consider Christianity an authentic expression of monotheism, which would remove some aspect of prohibition. By the way, for Christianity itself, the “mystery of the Trinity” is a way for it to explain God’s unity. That I find no necessity for that doctrine, and may view it differently or dismissively is equivalent to one of the least positive aspects of judgments about others. We know our experience as insiders and do not/cannot understand the other’s with the same intimacy or clarity. Our conclusion may be sound for us, but it bears no relevance to the other’s experience. To wit, Christianity’s self understanding is one that embraces God’s unity, and as our people have been victims of lots of harsh stereotypes by outsiders claiming to know more about our tradition’s teachings than we, I am confident and comfortable with their assertion.
Additionally, and even though my own position is more permissive, there are some contemporary traditional colleagues who permit Jews access to churches as long as the encounter is not part of a worship experience. Examples include for educational purposes and voting, or, as in this instance, to view art.
Had I voice or vote, I’d say go for it, but I’d also say, even more clearly, you must discuss with your Rabbi first.
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