Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedCourtesy

The Law of Idolatry B’Shituf for Non-Jews

Q: I have heard that there are halachic authorities who hold that according to Jewish law, adherents of Eastern religions and Christians, as long as they believe in a Supreme God, are not considered in violation of the prohibition of idolatry that applies to the descendants of Noah. This is because even though their worship involves idolatry, since they believe in a Supreme God who is above all other gods, and they are upright people who observe the other six of the Seven Noahide Laws, they are considered righteous gentiles. However, on the other hand, I have heard it said that one cannot rely on this opinion, as it is the view of the minority of poskim.

A: Although our attitude towards adherents of these religions depends on several issues that I cannot address here, indeed, the main issue relates to the law of avodah zarah b’shituf (the combination of belief in G-d with other idolatrous and alien beliefs), which, according to most halakhic authorities, is not considered idolatry for non-Jews. In other words, included in the Seven Noahide Laws is a prohibition against worshipping idolatry, but when the non-Jew believes in the Lord God of gods, even if he incorporates belief in idols, he is still not considered a guilty of idolatry. I will try to summarize the issue from its foundations in Jewish law.

Idolatry B’shituf

First, let us define: One who worships idolatry b’shituf is one who believes that above all is a Supreme God, the God of gods and the source of all powers, with the ability to influence them. At the same time, he believes that God created various forces that govern the world, and they have independent power to influence what happens in the world to do good or bad – they benefit those who worship them, and harm those who do not. In order to receive the benefit, one bows down to their idols and performs rituals before them, thereby incorporating belief in the Supreme God, with belief in idols.

For Jews, idolatry b’shituf is prohibited like absolute idolatry, as it is stated: “One who sacrifices to the gods, except to the Lord alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 22:19).

The View of the Stringent Poskim

According to the stringent opinions, idolatry b’shituf is prohibited for non-Jews, just as it is for Jews, for if non-Jews are permitted to worship idolatry b’shituf, the prohibition of idolatry would be nullified for them, since all idolaters believe in some way in an ancient Creator who is above all. As it is stated: “For from the rising of the sun until its setting, My name is great among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name, for My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 1:11). Our Sages explained that the intention is that in all places, even the idolaters call God the “God of gods” (Menachot 110a), and nevertheless, they are still called idolaters (Ma’il Tzedakah 22).

The stringent opinions also derived this from the words of our Sages, who prohibited conducting business with Christians on Sunday and the three preceding days, like the law of idolaters (Avodah Zarah 6a), and this, despite the fact that it is known that Christians incorporate the Name of Heaven. And although the Rishonim (Medieval Halakhic authorities) permitted conducting business with Christians in practice, the stringent opinions maintain that they were lenient because the Christians of their time were not devout, and the business was due to enmity and financial need, and not because they do not have the status of idolaters. Therefore, the stringent opinions ruled that idolatry b’shituf is prohibited for non-Jews, so that Christians, and all the more so, adherents of Eastern religions, are considered idolaters.

This is the opinion of Rabbi Shmuel Landa, son of the Nodah Biyehudah (Nodah Biyehudah Tinyana Y.D. 148); Rabbi Ephraim Cohen (Sha’ar Ephraim 24); Rabbi Yonah of Lednsdorf (Ma’il Tzedakah 22); Rabbi Raphael HaKohen (VaShav HaKohen 38); Rabbi Yosef Ta’omim (Pri Megadim Sh.P.T. Y.D. 65:11); Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu”t Chiddushei Rabbi Akiva Eiger 4, Y.D. 43); Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (Emunah Yesharah 2:7); Rabbi Yosef Babad (Minchath Chinuch 86:2); and others.

The Rationale of the Lenient Opinions

However, according to most halakhic authorities and commentators, although it is preferable for non-Jews to believe in monotheism, only the nation of Israel is obligated to do so, but non-Jews are not prohibited from worshipping idolatry b’shituf. And one cannot argue that every idolater incorporates the Name of Heaven in his worship, because as long as he believes that the Creator does not influence the world, and therefore, does not turn to Him in worship, he is considered an absolute idolater. Only when he believes that the God of gods also influences the world, and also turns to Him in prayer, is he considered one who worships idolatry b’shituf.

The Sources Supporting the Lenient View

The Torah warned Israel to destroy all idolatrous images and not to derive benefit from them, but the descendants of Noah were not warned about this (Avodah Zarah 64a). It is possible to learn from this in accordance with the lenient view, that as long as they believe in a Supreme God, their statues are not considered idolatry, and consequently, there is no reason to destroy them.

Similarly, in the Temple, a sacrifice was not accepted from an Israelite who worshipped idolatry, but a sacrifice was accepted from a non-Jew who worshipped idolatry (Chullin 5a), since by coming to offer a sacrifice to God, he incorporates belief in God, and consequently, does not have the status of an idolater.

We also learned that Jews must sacrifice their lives for the belief in monotheism and not bow down to an idol, but the descendants of Noah are not obligated to do so (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 3:5). The explanation for this is simple: as long as they also believe in the Supreme God, they are not considered idolaters, and consequently, they are not required to sacrifice their lives.

The Reason for the Difference between Jews and Non-Jews

The difference arises from the fact that God revealed Himself to Israel, and commanded them specifically about the belief in His Oneness, as it is stated: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Likewise, in the Ten Commandments, it is stated: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…You shall not bow down to them nor worship them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:2-5).

Ramban (Nachmanides) explained that this jealousy is specifically directed against Israel, for Israel is His treasured nation whom He separated for Himself from all the nations, as stated: “And I will separate you from the peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26), and “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Therefore, when Jews worship idolatry, God will be jealous against them “like a man who is jealous over his wife when she goes after others, and as one serving a master other than him.”

It can be added that similarly, the Kohanim (priests) have special warning about acts for which they are considered sinners while a Jew who violates them does not bear a sin.

The Torah further states to Israel: “See, I taught you decrees and laws…Only beware for yourself and greatly guard your soul, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart, all the days of your life…the day you stood before the Lord your God at Chorev…And you shall well guard yourselves, for you did not see any image on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Chorev from the midst of the fire…lest you become corrupt and make yourselves a graven image…and lest you raise your eyes to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, the entire host of heaven, and be drawn to prostrate before them and worship that which the Lord your God has assigned to all the peoples under the entire heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:5-20).

The early commentators explained that since God did not reveal Himself to the nations of the world as He did to Israel at the Revelation at Mount Sinai, His conduct in the world is reflected to them through various forces and manifestations, as stated: “That which the Lord your God has assigned to all the peoples under the entire heaven.” And since God bestows abundance upon every nation and land through stars, constellations and angels, they are prone to ascribe independent powers to them, and worship them (Rashbam, Nachmanides, Rashba and others).

The Halakhic Authorities

This is also the view of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema in Darchei Moshe and Shulchan Aruch OC 156:2), Rabbi Shabbetai Cohen (Shach YD 151:7), Rabbi Moshe Rivkash (Be’er HaGolah CM 425:1), Rabbi Yair Bachrach (Chavot Yair 185), Rabbi Alexander Ziskind (Tivuat Shur 4:1). These poskim expounded on this at great length: Rabbi Binyamin Zev Boskowitz (Seder Mishnah on Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 1:7:1-3, Avodah Zarah 3:3), Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Sho’el U’Meishiv 2:1:51, 3:1:55 and many other places in his responsa and Torah commentaries), Rabbi Elazar Fleckles (Teshuva Me’Ahava 1:69), Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz (Chamedet Shlomo OC 36:14), Rabbi Yaakov Ornstein (Yeshu’ot Yaakov OC 156:1), Rabbi Avraham HaKohen of Salonika (Shiyurei Tohorah 100:6), Rabbi Chaim Palagi (Chayim Melech, Melachim 9:2), Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (Binyan Tzion 1:63), Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Teitelbaum (Avnei Tzedek YD 105), Rabbi Rachemin Franco (Shaarei Rachamim 5), Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (Melamed Leho’il YD 55), Rabbi Mordechai Horowitz (Mateh Levi 2:YD:28), Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog (Techukas LeYisrael 1:2:6), Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Kisvei HaGri”a Henkin 2:226), Rabbi Avraham Aharon Preis (Mishnah Avraham 2:1:1-2), Rabbi Shalom Messas (Shemesh U’Magen 3:OC:30-31), and many other poskim.

Many wrote about this principle in a spiritual context, including: Rabbi Moshe Zacuto quoted in Mikdash Melech (Ha’azinu pg. 106) of Rabbi Shalom Buzaglo; Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz the Ba’al HaFla’ah (Penei Yefes, Bereishis 11:1, 31:53 and elsewhere); Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Kedushas Levi, Devarim Va’eschanan 5:7); Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Chayos (Toras HaNevi’im 11); Malbim (Melachim II 17:34 and elsewhere). Likewise, Maran Rabbi Kook wrote: “Shituf is for them (the nations), for now, the ultimate ascent” (Orot, Yisrael VeTchiyato 5); “And the descendants of Noah are not warned against shituf, which is beyond their conceptual and spiritual capacity” (Shemonah Kevatzim 8:44); Rav Hirsch Kalischer (Mai Marom 10:35, 12:32:2).

This was also the view of the Rebbes of Chabad: Rabbi Menachem Mendel the Tzemach Tzedek (Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Achdut 5) who wrote that this was the view of the Rambam (Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:1-2); and the last Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Likkutei Sichot 25:16 note 44).

In summary

For Jews, idolatry b’shituf is prohibited like absolute idolatry, and all the laws of distancing from idolatry also apply to idolatry b’shituf. However, for the nations of the world, according to the majority of poskim, there is no prohibition to worship idolatry b’shituf, and this is the main reason for the leniencies regarding Christianity.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ nnewspaper and was translated from Hebrew.