Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Is there any objection to the symbol of the cross in artwork? I know of one Jewish school in which a master was advised to cover or remove any crosses which appeared in pictures of an historical nature.
It is forbidden to have any use from a crucifix that has been worshipped, but there is no objection to a decorative cross—though not, needless to say, that such should ever be worn by a Jew. Isserles, in his note to the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 141: 1), states explicitly that if used for purely decorative purposes, it is permitted to have use of crosses, e.g., to sell them.
Can Jews send Christmas greetings to their non-Jewish friends and join in the general celebration of the secular New Year?
According to rabbinic teaching, idolatry is a serious offence not alone for Jews but also for Gentiles. The prohibition of idolatry is one of the “seven laws of the sons of Noah.” It follows that a Jew must not do anything to encourage his Gentile friends to engage in any form of idolatrous worship, which is why the Mishna (Avoda Zara 1:1) rules that there must be no business dealings with Gentiles immediately before a pagan festival since a successful outcome may be the cause of the Gentile thanking his gods.
The debate continued for a long time with regard to the status of Christianity but eventually the majority opinion came to the conclusion that a Gentile is not forbidden to associate another being with God (the technical term for this is shittuf, “association”) and hence a Gentile who is a Christian commits no offence against the laws of the sons of Noah.
Putting this another way, Christianity is not idolatry so far as Gentiles axe concerned but it is so far as Jews are concerned.
In an interesting Responsum, Marcus Horowitz (1844-1910), rabbi of the Orthodox community in Frankfurt, discusses (Matteh Levi, Frankfurt, 1932, Part II, Yoreh Deah, No 28) whether Jews are permitted to contribute towards the building of a church and comes to the conclusion not alone that it is permitted but that it constitutes a sanctification of God’s name.
On the other hand David Hoffmann (1843-1921), rector of the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, dealing with the same question (Melammed Le-hoil, Part II, No 148), replies that even those authorities who see no objection to Christianity so far as Gentiles are concerned agree that for the Jew this faith constitutes idolatry. How, then, Hoffmann argues, can a Jew be in some way responsible for what to him is idolatrous worship?
Hoffmann suggests that the harmonious relationship between Jews and Christians ought not to be disturbed so he advises the Jew to make his contribution but without specifying that it is for the building of the church.
The sending of Christmas greetings to non-Jewish friends implies only seasonal good wishes and is in no way an affirmation of belief in the Christian faith on the part of either the Jew who sends the greetings or the friend who receives them. It certainly cannot be compared to a Jew giving a donation towards the building of a church.
As for the celebration of the New Year, there is, as you imply, no doctrinal significance and it is a purely secular occasion. Yet Jewish participation in the celebrations ought not to include such superstitious practices as the welcoming in at the stroke of twelve of a dark man.
9 August 1968:
As a regular reader of the “Jewish Chronicle” I often get involved with fellow-Gentiles in discussion on Jews and Judaism. Can you please tell me whether a Gentile can become a Jew? If so, what would he be expected to do to become one?
Judaism has not on the whole been a proselytising religion, but proselytes have always been accepted if his (or her) motives were found to be sincerely to accept the Jewish religion and live as Jews. While rabbinic opinion about proselytes has varied it has overwhelmingly been based on the Biblical injunction: “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10, 19). The Bible repeatedly insists on consideration for “the stranger within thy midst,” including both those who adopted Judaism and others. Thus: “A stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him” (Exodus 22, 20); “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger . . .” (23, 9); “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born” (Leviticus 24, 22); “Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger . . .” (Deuteronomy 24, 17).
Proselytes have played a considerable part in Jewish history. Thus, Moses’s wife was the daughter of Jethro the Midianite and King David was descended from the faithful Ruth, after whom a book of the Bible is called. According to the best historical opinion numerous Romans, Greeks and Barbarians adopted Judaism (either in whole or in part) after the fall of Jerusalem and before the conquest of the Roman world by Christianity.
The procedure for the admission of proselytes today varies between the various religious groups withn Judaism and, to some extent, between various countries. Thus, while it is relatively a simple matter to become a Jew for a non-Jew resident in Israel, the Orthodox requirements in this country are far more stringent. What is common to all Orthodox practice is the formal acceptance by the applicant of “the yoke of Torah and the laws,” that the rabbinic authority concerned is satisfied that he sincerely intends to observe the Jewish law, immersion in a Mikva (ritual bath) and―in the case of men―circumcision. Practice among Reform and Liberal varies equally widely between various countries.
A novel phenomenon has recently emerged in the United States where a small group of Reform Jews has set out actively to make proselytes and to set Judaism beside Christianity as a missionary religion.
7 August 1970:
How do teachers of religion justify the existence of a number of religions? Would you say that one is the only true religion?
Some teachers have tried to justify the existence of a number of religions by looking upon religion as something akin o art, literature or music. Just as one can speak of Italian art or music, for example, or of English literature, without denying the value or other forms of aesthetic appreciation, one can speak of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as different manifestations of a universal phenomenon. Oriental music is very different from Occidental but each is proper in its own area and both contribute to life’s variety and richness. By the same token, according to this view, each religion is of the same value and each provides its adherents with totally adequate means of expressing their spiritual longings.
The trouble with this kind of approach is that in religion (or so, at least, most religious people would say) the question of truth is involved. Each religion has its own view of life’s meaning and the religions contradict one another on basic issues, so that they cannot all be true. If the monotheistic religions are true the polytheistic ones must be false. If Judaism is right in affirming that God cannot by His nature assume flesh the Christian doctrine of reincarnation must be wrong. Nor is it much use arguing, as Lessing appears to do in his a famous “Nathan the Wise,” that only one religion is true but we cannot possibly know which one it is. Religious believers hardly ever see their religion in this way.
The only logical attitude is for the adherents of each of the religions to see their religion as the only true one. We are afraid nowadays of adopting such an attitude because it seems to lead to religious intolerance. But there is no reason why it should. One need not adopt a relativistic attitude, and one can declare that in essentials one’s own religion contains more of the truth than others, without denying that the others, too, contain truth. From the Jewish point of view Solomon Ibn Gabirol long ago suggested that of course Judaism is true in its belief in the one God but that, in reality, the urge to worship found in all religions is an urge to worship the one God. The primitive savage who bows before his wooden idol is, according to Gabirol, worshipping God without knowing it.
This idea is possibly found in the verse: “From furthest east to furthest west My name is great among the nations. Everywhere fragrant sacrifice and pure gifts are offered in My name; for My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts” (Maachi 1,11).