Christianity: Shituf or Avodah Zarah?
There are diverse beliefs about whether Christianity is a belief system that is monotheistic yet assigns partners to God (Shituf) or if it is a belief system that is idolatry (Avodah Zarah). These diverse beliefs come from many rabbis and sages but the main commentators on this situation are the Tosafists (commentators on the Talmud) and the Rambam (Maimonides). Whichever side the great rabbis and sages chose in this argument, there is one point of agreement. They all agree that Christianity for Jews is absolutely Avodah Zarah (idolatry). Therefore, any notion that Jews can practice any form of Christianity (including so-called “Messianic Judaism”) while remaining part of B’nei Yisrael is completely false. Let’s look at the idea of Christianity being shituf. Shituf is the idea of adding partners to God. While Shituf is a step up from Avodah Zarah it cannot be considered pure monotheism. Most Rishonim and some Acharonim considered Christianity to be Avodah Zarah but the notable exception were the Tosafists. The Tosafists taught that while Christianity is indeed Avodah Zarah for Jews it is considered Shituf for non-Jews. The position of the Tosafists on Christianity is a complex one. It is generally held that the Tosafists considered Christianity to be Shituf – adding partners to God – and that this is permissible for non-Jews. Great rabbinical authorities including Gershom of Mayence, Rashi, the Tosafists, Solomon ben Adret of Barcelona, Isaac ben Sheshet, Joseph Caro, and Moses Isserles declared that Christianity is not Avodah Zarah in spite of their image-worship. They taught that Christianity teaches a belief in the Creator, revelation, retribution, and resurrection. Joseph Yaabez who was a victim of the Spanish persecution wrote “but for these Christian nations we might ourselves have become infirm in our faith during our long dispersion.” Now let’s look at the idea of Christianity being avodah zarah. God spoke all these words, saying: I the Eternal One am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Eternal One your God am an impassioned God … (Exodus 20:1-5) We see in the Book of Esther that Mordechai is called a Jew (a Yehudi). At this time, a Jew referred to anyone who came from the Kingdom of Yehuda, but Mordechai is also called a member of the tribe of Binyamin. So why is Mordechai called a Benjamite and a Jew? According to the Talmud, Mordechai is called a Jew because he refuses to bow down to idols. (In this case, he refused to bow down to Haman for religious reasons.) The word Jew means one who is grateful to, professes, and worships God alone. This is why Mordechai is called both a Benjamite and a Jew. For anyone who repudiates idolatry is called ‘a Jew’… (Megillah 13a) Jews are not permitted to mock anything deemed holy by Judaism but this restriction is not placed upon Jews mocking Avodah Zarah. R. Nahman said: All scoffing is forbidden, except scoffing at idols, which is permitted, as it is written, Bel bows down, Nebo stoops . . . they stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden. And it is also written, They have spoken: The inhabitants of Samaria shall fear because of the calves of Beth Aven: for the people thereof shall mourn over it, and the priests thereof that rejoiced on it for the glory thereof, which is departed from it. Read not Kebodo [its glory], but Kebedo [his weight]. (Sanhedrin 63b) One of the strongest advocates for placing Christianity into the sphere of Avodah Zarah was the Rambam. Rambam explained in his Guide for the Perplexed that the original idea of idolatry was to have idols represent God or other gods. These initial idolaters understood that their idols were only representations of God or other gods. You must know that idolaters when worshiping idols do not believe that there is no God besides them: and no idolater ever did assume that any image made of metal, stone, or wood has created the heavens and the earth, and still governs them. Idolatry is founded on the idea that a particular form represents the agent between God and His creatures. This is plainly said in passages like the following: “Who would not fear you, O king of nations?” (Jer. x. 7); “And in every place incense is offered unto my name” (Mal. i. 11); by “my name” allusion is made to the Being which is called by them [i.e., the idolaters] “the First Cause.” We have already explained this in our larger work (Mishneh Torah, I. On Idolatry, chap. i.), and none of our co-religionists can doubt it. (Guide for the Perplexed 1:36) In three different places, Rambam taught that Christianity is idolatry and is thus forbidden not only to Jews but also to non-Jews. The Canaanites [Christians] are idol worshipers, and Sunday is their festival. Accordingly, in Eretz Yisrael, it is forbidden to conduct transactions with them on Thursday and Friday each and every week, and, needless to say, on Sunday itself, when transactions with them are forbidden everywhere. (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kochavim 9:4) Know that this Christian nation, who advocates the messianic claim in all their various sects, all of them are idolaters. On all their various festivals it is forbidden for us to deal with them. And all Torah restrictions pertaining to idolaters pertain to them. . . . We deal with them as we would deal with any idolaters on their festival. (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 1:3) …With regard to any gentile who does not serve false deities, e.g., the Arabs: It is forbidden to drink his wine, but it is permitted to benefit from it. The Geonim rule in this manner. [Christians, by contrast, are idolaters], it is forbidden to benefit from their ordinary wine. (Mishneh Torah, MaAchalot Assurot 11:7) Avodah Zarah includes the belief and worship of all deities other than God. This includes belief in or worship of all deities on their own or as partners to God. Avodah Zarah is the antithesis of the most basic belief that God is One. Avodah Zarah is the most severe prohibition in the Torah and is one of the three sins that we must permit ourselves to be killed rather than perform. The Rabbinic statement that expresses this idea states ‘Whoever accepts Avodah Zarah denies the entire Torah.’ Avodah Zarah in fact is not only forbidden to Jews but to all non-Jews as well. Jews are commanded to destroy the idolatrous practices in Eretz Yisrael and – at least theoretically – throughout the world. Even if this is not within the power of the Jewish people, they are not to allow the support of those who worship idols or assist them in doing so. Even though much of the halakhah (Jewish law) limiting interactions between Jews and non-Jew remain in place in order to avoid assimilation and intermarriage, other halakhah (such as business practices) are permitted. This ruling is based upon statements made in the Gemara that due to the Diaspora, it is impossible for Jews to avoid such interactions. There are diverse beliefs regarding Christianity and whether it is Shituf or Avodah Zarah. The one known common point of agreement is that Christianity in any form is Avodah Zarah for Jews – including so-called “Messianic Judaism.”