UPDATE: Jewish Israel receives response from the Office of the Chief Rabbinate (June 28th). The letter is a detailed response from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.
Among Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s other official titles and positions, he is the founder and dean of Ohr Torah Stone educational institutions. The currently featured question addressed to Rabbi Riskin on the Ohr Torah Stone homepage is, "Are Jews allowed to enter churches?"
The full text of the question and answer can be seen here. Rabbi Riskin responded as follows:
"Evangelical churches do not have icons or statues and it is certainly permissible to enter Evangelical churches. Catholic and most Protestant churches do have icons as well as paintings and sculptures. If you enter the church in order to appreciate the art with an eye towards understanding Christianity and the differences between Judaism and Christianity so that you can hold your own in discussions with Christians, then it is permissible. Participating in a church religious service is forbidden unless it is for learning purposes or unless it would be a desecration of God's name if you don't attend, as in the case of Chief Rabbi Sack's attendance at Prince William's wedding."
Rabbi Riskin's answer, especially the absolute sanction of evangelical churches, left Jewish Israel with a lot of questions. Are icons the only issue here, and does this psak from the Chief Rabbi of Efrat constitute yet another break with tradition?
In a blog post by Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, Rabbi Brill noted that Rabbi Riskin gave:
"…blanket acceptance of Evangelicals and the permission to participate in a Church service if it is for educational purposes."
We took a quick look online and saw that in August 2008, the Jewish Chronicle posed the same question, “Is it forbidden for Jews to enter a church?", to both an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi.
In that article, Orthodox Rabbi Naftali Brower upheld the prohibition of entering churches based on halachicsources and expressed concern about the impression a church experience would leave on a Jew:
"One cannot simply enter a church without some aspect of the church entering you. To put it another way: by entering a church, one enters into a Christian religious experience."
In addition, Rabbi Brower touches upon the need to respect boundaries in interfaith encounters.
Not unlike Rabbi Riskin’s position, Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain drew the distinction between worshiping and other reasons for entering a church, such as to admire the architecture, to attend the funeral of a non-Jewish friend, or to learn about Christianity for the sake of interfaith dialogue.
In order to get some specific clarification on the icons issue, Jewish Israel asked Rabbi Jonathan Blass if Jews are permitted to enter a church, even in a case where a church does not contain statues or other icons. Rabbi Blass serves as Rabbi of Neve Tzuf and is the Rosh Kollel of "Ratzon Yehuda. We asked this of Rabbi Blass after reading his response,posted at Yeshiva.org.il, regarding entering a church which does contain icons. This is the answer we receivedfrom Rabbi Blass on June 15, 2011:
On the basis of the halachic definition of idol worship, the poskim expressly forbade entering a church even if the building does not house statues or other icons (Pri HaSadeh II 4; Shut Tzitz Eliezer XIV 91 ;Shu"t Iggrot Moshe Yoreh Deah III 129; Shu"t Yabia Omer VII, Yoreh Deah 12).
Maimonides teaches that the very acceptance of the divinity of any foreign god is in itself idolatry. This definition holds true even without any additional worship of the entity whose divinity was acknowledged (Hilchot Avoda Zara III,4) and even if the acknowledgment was made not in the presence of that entity or of one of its representations (Shu"t Binyan Zion 63).
It is for this reason that Christianity, whose central tenet is the divinity of a man, is idolatrous by definition - whether or not a particular branch of Christianity includes the worship of statues, of the cross or of any other Christian iconic symbols. Although the Rema (Orach Chayyim 156,1) quotes the opinion that non-Jews who worship other gods together with their worship of the G-d of Israel do not transgress the Noachide prohibition against idol worship, this does not alter the definition of this joint worship as a form of idolatry (Tvuot Shor Yoreh Deah 4; Shu"t Binyan Zion 63). It is permitted to non-Jews according to this opinion only because it would be unreasonable to demand that they adhere to a higher standard (Sh'aylat Yaavetz I 41).
The acceptance by man of the divinity of a created being or even of a limited ideal, most often based on the belief that man cannot achieve a direct connection with the Creator and must seek the intervention of a lesser intermediary (see Hilchot Avoda Zara chapters I and II), humiliates man and denigrates the value of his actions. Because of this, throughout Jewish history churches evoked in Jews – in rabbis and laymen alike - a justified sense of moral and almost physical repulsion.
We showed Rabbi Riskin's psak to Julius Ciss, Executive Director of Jews for Judaism in Canada. In the past, Mr. Ciss was a "messianic Jewish believer" and attended many evangelical services during that period and since then as well. The following is his reaction to Rabbi Riskin's position.
“I question Rabbi Riskin's Psak that "it is permissible to enter Evangelical Churches." The matter is not so "Black and White". What Rabbi Riskin fails to grasp is that the danger isn't the risk of observing any statues in such a church, it's the living, breathing, kind, loving, passionate evangelical Christians that pose a serious threat. In my opinion, every Evangelical Christian is a missionary. So to share a worship venue with them, regardless of the reason, is foolish because it his highly likely you will be proselytized. Even if one doesn't speak directly to a churchgoer, the risk of being exposed to a highly uplifting, energetic, emotional, motivational, missionizing, inspirational, spiritual, and musically entertaining service... poses the risk of spiritual suicide for today's average Jew.”
While certain Orthodox rabbinic leaders and scholars may allow themselves to place themselves at Vatican ceremonies, attend church events and wrestle with theology at divinity schools, it may be remiss to assume that every Jew has the spiritual tools necessary to engage evangelizing Christians in a religious experience and environment without being influenced.
Jewish Israelhas repeatedly demonstrated via numerous reports how both religious and secular members of the Israeli public and private sectors, both leaders and laypeople, have failed to hold and draw lines as Jews on the interfaith front.
Rabbi Riskin serves as a Chief Rabbi of a large Israeli community. Does his position, as outlined in this recent psak, reflect that of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate or does each rabbinic authority establish policy as they deem fit? Jewish Israel has written to Mr. Oded Winer, General Director of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for some clarification. (Update: response received June 28. The letter is a detailed response from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.)
These are times where Jewish faith, commitment and education are sorely lacking among large sectors of Jewish society, while at the same time there is increasing evidence of interfaith integration. It does not bode well for Jewish spiritual continuity that there is not a clear consensus among our rabbis on fundamental Jewish issues, with which to guide the Jewish people at this time.
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