As an advocate for respectful co-existence of the world's peoples and traditions, my first inclination would have been to give a short "yes" answer to this question. As I really began to think carefully about it, the question requires a far more nuanced approach.
Contexts to Consider
While Judaism has general principles, each is highly nuanced in application. Our tradition functions in regard to questions based on a principle called l'faneinu, the person or situation that is in front of us, i.e., on a case-by-case basis.
1. Might you enter the site of another religion as a tourist or scholar in order to better appreciate its historical, cultural or architectural significance?
2. Would you enter such a site to attend meetings of non-sectarian support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), cultural (e.g. traveling string quartet), or civic events (e.g., voting booths are sometimes placed by civic authorities into sanctuary lobbies and the program rooms of religious institutions)?
3. Or to engage in interfaith dialogue, for a multi-faith Thanksgiving? Or for a multi-faith memorial service after a major societal tragedy (e.g. 9-11, or Veterans memorial?)
4. Would you enter a given site, or allow your child to enter the site as part of a multi-faith or cultural awareness series? (e.g., when scouts visit each other's religious sites and services?)
5. Would you enter the site if rented or co-owned by your havurah, minyan, synagogue or other Jewish non-profit? For services? For a one-time Israel Independence Day concert? For youth group, religious school, or other Jewish social meetings? For a Jewish Day School or summer camp? Conversely would you vote for your board to rent your Jewish community site(s) to groups from other religious traditions? Never? Some? All?
6. Would you enter for a non-Jewish friend or colleague's rite of passage? (e.g., Wedding? Baptism? Conversion? Funeral service? Ordination?)
7. For a friend's interfaith rite-of-passage?
8. For a family member's interfaith rite-of-passage?
9. For the rite-of-passage of a family member being completely conducted under a jurisdiction other than Judaism?
10. Regularly attend services of another religion with a life-partner who is of that religion?
11. Would you regularly attend services of another religion, when you live somewhere that offers no Jewish community, or none in which you participate? Well, this is the easiest one, experience shows either you, or almost certainly your children, will be lost to Judaism if you do so.
Principles and Considerations
The decision of whether to enter the site of another faith depends upon the circumstances involved. A number of principles apply:
1. The majority of Jewish people appreciate the importance of cultivating sufficient mutual understanding to ensure civil legislation that gives all citizens the freedom to practice their own religion. Acting to advance understanding and avert the demonization of other groups and dangerous misunderstandings that lead to hate crimes is vital social justice work, tikkun olam. Some authorities encourage visiting each other's sites as part of creating understanding.
2. Others cite traditional sources that prohibit entering churches and temples, where what the rabbis considered idol worship is practiced. Those coming from this vantage point cite sources such as: Talmud Avodah Zara 17a as well as Maimonides, the Rashba, the Ritba, Rosh, and Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Ovadia Yosef and Eliezer Waldenberg. Instead, they encourage that interfaith dialogue and contact be held on neutral ground, and suggest this has the advantage of not trivializing the religious power of other tradition's religious sites, nor our own.
3. Jewish law and custom appreciate that sometimes situations arise where entry to sites of other religions is necessitated to avert causing offense that might lead to malevolence towards Jews. (The Holocaust, pogroms, Spanish Inquisition and Crusades have made us a discerning people when it comes to safety and self-preservation.) The code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch allows Jews being asked to represent their communities to the ruling government to do so, even if the gathering is in a religious site that offers idol worship and the required dress would not usually be acceptable under Jewish norms.
Chief Rabbis of England have attended events in Westminster Abbey when invited by the King or Queen. The Chief Rabbi of Haifa attended the funeral for Pope John Paul II, including a full Mass. Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein accepted a presidential invitation to a National Prayer Service held in an Episcopalian cathedral the day after President Barack Obama's inauguration.
In the well-known book, The Jew and the Lotus, author Roger Kamenetz described how Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Joy Levitt and several others accepted the Dalai Lama's invitation to travel to Dharamsala for dialogue and exploration of each other's religious traditions and survival skills. The prayer composed for the occasion by Reb Zalman was: "Blessed art Thou, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, Who has imparted of Thy compassionate awareness unto those who honor and respect Thy Names."
Historically, the major considerations regarding this question have been:
1. Avoidance of being proselytized, or stepping into a coercive context.
2. There is a clear Biblical injunction against creating or encountering, embodied images of a god or gods with a human face, aka, forms considered foundational to avoda zara, "idol worship."
Islam: Maimonides, Yosef Karo, Moses Isserles and many other sages are among those who underscore that Islam is an unquestionably monotheistic religion. This rendered Islamic homes and sites as posing no problem for Jews since images are disallowed in Islamic tradition entirely, and Moslems do not worship any prophet, only Allah, which is their name for God.
Christianity: The 13th century Catalonian Rabbi Menachem haMeiri argued against prevailing views that Christianity is a form of idolatry, and many still abide by his view. Others consider those branches of Christianity that consider Jesus as a separate God needing specific veneration (in addition to "God the Father"), as making those religious sites out of bounds.
Other religions: Other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and many others are either bulk-listed under avoda zara, or are intelligently and individually reviewed and discussed depending upon the sources one studies.
3. Many contemporary Jews make a point of learning about the world's cultures and religions with the attitude advocated in Pirkei Avot 1:6 "Judge the whole of a person to the side of merit –dan l'chaf z'chut" - and are inclined to regard all religions as having good intentions in their general design, regardless of whether they do or do not have a god-concept (Buddhism), utilize images and iconography (such as Hinduism, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and others), or worship more than one God (Mormons, some Native American, African and other indigenous religions).
4. There are seven laws which Maimonides most famously considered essential criteria for ethical human societies and religions to whom we can relate. There are called the Noachide laws; they derived from the Torah and are listed by the Talmud and Tosefta as: Prohibition of idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, eating flesh taken from an animal while it is alive, and the requirement there be the establishment of courts of law.
5. Contemporary Jewish leaders and organizations vary greatly in opinion on the topic of entry into sites of other religions when worship services take place at all, and those that do sometimes add the condition that worship services not be in session. If you affiliate, you might consult accordingly.
6. It can be inappropriate and/or disrespectful to engage in practices of other religions, for example, one does not take communion unless one is a Catholic deemed in good standing by the priest. A long-standing Jewish practice is not to bow or kneel in obeisance to monarchs or other heads of nations, nor in religious contexts of others. Participation without commitment can be viewed as trivializing the traditions of others. One's quiet presence at a religious ceremony is often well received, in our tradition and others.
Rabbi Raachel Nathan Jurovics article in Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction, discusses the concept of "deep ecumenism," pioneered by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. She shows us how to be possibly present to religious rituals of others that might otherwise cause some of us to cringe and adds; "Authentic spiritual direction cultivates a sympathetic ear for other traditions…Having this ear, however, does not require us to disregard our own spiritual understandings or compromise our personal religious practices. If deep ecumenism has a boundary, it is in the realm of practice, at the point where we sense something damaging to the spiritual immune system, which I understand as something that calls into question for us the integrity and beauty of Jewish teachings."
7. There is also the principle in Judaism called maarit ayin or maris ayin, which advises care not to give others wrong impressions about you, nor to act in a way that might cast doubt on the core practices or faith of the Jewish people.
8. Another consideration is the mitzvah of bal tashchit, caring for the environment. This speaks to the importance of repurposing available space in buildings to avert depletion of the planet's resources during construction.
9. Pikuakh nefesh, the mitzvah of saving lives, trumps, if one is entering to work at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, respond to a medical emergency or fire, or seek sanctuary from persecution (some of our people survived the Holocaust in this way).
I hope you will discuss the situations and concepts offered for your consideration with friends, family and in your Jewish community's study settings. I am sure Judaism has additional principles that can be applied, and your own values and family configurations are also important considerations. Will you enter religious sites of other traditions or not? If so, when? When not? These are answers we each must find and review at various points in our lives.
The one thing I most want to offer in the way of direct guidance is that before deliberately entering the religious sites of traditions other than Judaism, please attain a solid appreciation of the relevance and meaning of Judaism. Deeply meaningful experiences in Judaism that arise from our commitment to mitzvah-centered living afford us the appreciation for what healthy approaches to religion have to offer. This knowledge and experience in Judaism is an essential part of developing the capacity for dialogue, understanding and coexistence with those who follow other religious paths. As an author I have chosen to explain the meaning and relevance of Judaism's core ethos of mitzvah-centered living in my books, lectures, workshops and retreats, to learn more please visit ReclaimingJudaism.org.
Traditional halakhah (Jewish law) prohibits a Jew from entering a shrine devoted to avodah zarah, a term that literally means “alien worship” but that our tradition generally reserves for “paganism” or “idolatry.” The ancient sources, the Bible and the Talmudic literature, regarded the worship of idols as the root of all evil, and the authors warned the Israelites and the Jews to stay far away from it and – to the greatest extent possible – from its practitioners.
Does this prohibition apply to contemporary churches, mosques, and other non-Jewish houses of worship? Many rabbinical authorities say “yes,” because they define Christianity and Islam, among other religions, as avodah zarah.
Reform Judaism categorically rejects this position. We follow the view of Rabbi Menachem Hame’iri, a, eminent Talmudic scholar who lived in Provence during the 13th and 14th centuries. It was Hame’iri who described the non-Jews of his day as “peoples characterized by religious culture.” By this, he meant that Christians and Muslims partake of faith traditions that teach moral behavior and devotion to a conception of God that is anything but “pagan.” Those religions are to be distinguished from the avodah zarah that the Bible and Talmud condemn so vociferously. Thus, said Hame’iri, the restrictive and punitive laws that those sources apply specifically to the pagans of ancient times do not apply to Christians and Muslims.
This teaches us the importance of interpreting halakhah and sacred Jewish texts with intelligence, sensitivity, and common sense. Before we blindly condemn the religions of our neighbors as “idolatry,” we ought to examine just what those religions in fact believe, value, and practice. Our neighbors participate in faith traditions that are, indeed, different from ours, and it is vital that we keep the differences in mind. We Jews continue to see ourselves as a distinct religious community, one that resists assimilating into the larger religious cultures that surround us. Still, we should recognize that those religions, like ours, preach the importance of social justice, respect for humanity, and ethical behavior. It therefore makes no sense to us to brand them as avodah zarah and their adherents as “idol worshippers.”
Accordingly, churches, mosques, and the like are not “pagan shrines,” and it is outlandish to ban Jews from entering them.
Thank you for your question. While there are some Jewish legal positions that forbid the entry into another place of worship, I believe that these arise from an outlook and a historical context that is very different from today’s society, at least in most areas of the Western World. The prohibitions are, largely, based upon a premise of a highly divided community, whose faith-based subgroups did not interact socially, communally, or otherwise. In a previous time of great persecutions, such mistrust and segregation into homogenous groups seemed natural.
Nowadays, we live in a society that is much more porous. For the most part, faith communities come together for interfaith and ecumenical discussions and sharing. From the Conservative Jewish perspective, we look at the historical context and the real-life situation of a legal question as data that informs our decisions about the proper way to ask. This sometimes means that the premises and realities that informed an earlier stance may no longer be operative. Indeed, this ability to assess the situation is not only a modern phenomenon; in one instance from which we might learn, it dates back almost two thousand years, to Rabban Gamliel: The mishnah (Avodah Zarah 3:4, dating some 1900 years ago) recounts a tale in which Rabban Gamliel, a great rabbi, was once observed in the bathhouse of Aphrodite. When asked about this, he replied, “Nobody says the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite, but rather, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath” – that is to say, his purpose in entering the building was not to pray to a pagan god!
Rabban Gamliel offers the following general principle, which I believe serves us well in consideration of your question: “Et she-noheg bo mishum eloah – asur. V’et she-eino noheg bo mishum eloah – mutar – If one acts in a manner intended as [worship of] the god [of the place], it is forbidden; but if one does not act in a manner intended for [worship of that] god, it is permitted.” While most modern Jewish interpretations would not consider Christianity or Islam as paganism per se, the message is still true: If one enters such a house of worship but not with the intent to pray to the particular version of that religion’s deity, this would be permitted by the Conservative Jewish outlook. In particular, I would embrace entering another’s house of worship for reasons of coming together as a community in common purpose (a Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, for example); for reasons of historical, scholarly, or aesthetic/cultural interest; or to share in fellowship and celebration of the good that comes from a more porous boundary between communities of faith – an act which often strengthens our conviction and identity in our own Jewish faith.
In Jewish law one is not permitted to visit a place of idolatrous worship, let alone show any deference to it (Rambam/Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah tractate Avodah Zarah chapter 1, also quoted by the Shach in Shulchan Aruch Y”D 149). As a result, the answer actually depends on the status of the faith or belief system in question.
Religions that worship multiple deities generally fall neatly into the Jewish definition of idolatry. According to many commentators (including Maimonides) the same applies to Christianity. The concept of the trinity, along with the worship of a human being as god, is understood as qualifying the Church as a place of idol worship. However there are those such as the Meiri, that disagree. He maintains that while Christianity is not a correct belief and completely forbidden for a Jew, it is not considered idol worship. Similarly, later commentators offer further consideration of the different denominations of Christianity such as those that do not believe in the trinity. Islam is universally recognized as monotheistic and non-idolatrous, and so entry into a mosque is permitted (though a Jew may not pray the prayers of another religion).
It is worth noting that entry into a forbidden house of worship through a side door for purposes that have nothing to do with religious ceremony, such as when a Church is using as a polling station for voting and elections, is permitted. Also, if the faith is no longer in existence, such as the ruins of a religion that is no longer practiced, many permit entry.
In terms of the theory behind the restriction, most point to distancing ourselves from beliefs and practices so antithetical to the fundamental tenets of our religion. The issue of temptation to worship is raised as well. Human beings seem to have a tendency to associate beauty with truth; when we enter into a beautiful cathedral, it is natural to begin connecting with it as a correct idea even if we know on an intellectual plane that we disagree.
Answered by: Rabbi Judah Dardik (Emeritus)
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