Jewish Views on Christianity

Theological attitudes toward Christianity have changed over time in response to social and political developments.

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In these and similar works the main thrust was to deny that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus (the world gave no evidence that this glorious age had arrived, it was frequently protested) and especially to take issue with the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

As [the Venetian rabbi] Leon da Modena noted, it was not the doctrine of the Trinity in itself that was objectionable (after all, in the kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot there is much talk of three, and more, aspects of [the] Deity) but its elaboration, in which the Trinity is composed of three divine Persons, one of which became incarnate in a human being. The medieval thinkers who held Christianity but not Islam to be an idolatrous faith did so particularly because of the worship of the Cross; to bow before an icon or a crucifix was held to be akin to bowing to idols.

The basic question in practice was whether the older talmudic regulations against social intercourse and business dealings with pagans on the days of their festivals (because they might offer praise to their gods at the successful outcome of the deal) applied to Christians. With Jews living among Christians to apply these regulations would have been catastrophic, if not impossible.

The French scholars [such as Menahem Meiri, discussed below] tended to adopt casuistic arguments in order to circumvent some of the more onerous rules; they argued, for instance, that any money given by Christians to the Church is largely for the benefit of the clergy, and there are certainly no actual sacrifices of animals or birds to idols as there were in talmudic times.

Menahem Meiri [a thirteenth-century talmudist] went much further to argue that the references to pagans in the talmudic literature could not apply to what he called "people whose lives are governed by religion." Eventually, a distinction was made, unknown in the talmudic sources, according to which Christianity did constitute idolatry for Jews but not "for them" (i.e. Christians). A Christian did not offend against the Noahide laws [the seven principles, including the rejection of idolatry, by which Judaism expects non-Jews to live] since the Torah allows a Gentile, but not a Jew, to worship another being in addition to God.

This concept was known as shittuf ("association," of another together with God) and the oft‑quoted legal maxim, allowing for a more liberal attitude towards Christians, is: "A Noahide is not enjoined to reject shittuf."

Social needs obviously called forth this artificial distinction which was by no means universally accepted. As late as the end of the eighteenth century, Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, ruled that, since it is forbidden to mention the name of an idol, a Jew may refer to Jesus but never use the name Christ.

In the twentieth century, the halakhic authorities debated whether it is permitted to use an abandoned church as a synagogue, or for a Jew to give a donation to a church or even enter a church, or wear a medal in the shape of a cross. In the last instance, permission was given, on the grounds that the medal is a decoration, not an object of worship. Some authorities permitted a Jew to trade in the sale of crosses to Christians, provided these were to be worn not for purposes of worship but simply as decorations.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.