Christians and Christianity in Halachic Literature from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century
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Christians and Christianity in Halachic Literature from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century

In his book Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times, Jacob Katz outlined Ashkenazi rabbinic attitudes and conduct toward Christians from the time of Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or Ha-Golah until and including Moses Mendelssohn.1 In this article, we will try to fill in the gaps that we believe exist in Katz’s treatment of the subject.

As a rule, the Jews in the Middle Ages related to the Christians on the theoretical level as idolaters, while they were forced on the practical level to adopt a more moderate attitude toward the Christians for economic reasons.2 The generalization of viewing Christianity as an idolatrous religion went through a process of qualification within the context of the practical needs of the Jewish community during the Middle Ages, such as the permissibility of transacting business with Christians on their holy days. These qualifications were based on the position of Rav Yochanan that “Gentiles in the Diaspora are not actually idolaters, but merely maintain the practices of their ancestors”, or as alternatively formulated by Rashi and other halachic authorities in the Middle Ages: “Gentiles in our times are not well versed in the nature of idolatry.”3 Another qualification voiced by the Tosafists, and reiterated in the 17th and 18th centuries, indicated that “The sons of Noah are not prohibited regarding ‘shittuf’ (i.e., belief in the Trinity).” In other words, only the Jews are required to believe in absolute monotheism, in contrast to others, such as the Christians, whose belief in the Trinity does not constitute a violation of the prohibition of idolatry.4 These qualifications, which already appeared in rabbinic literature in the Middle Ages, did not flow from a principled approach but were designed to create leniencies in matters of business relationships with idolaters that were forbidden to Jews by Talmudic law, and that were untenable for the conditions within which the Jews lived in the Middle Ages as a minority group within a Christian majority. Thus, already in the Middle Ages, the halachic authorities excluded [End Page 125] Christians and Christianity from the category of idolatry on theological grounds, based on the assumption that the Christians of their time did not worship idols.5 In this regard, Katz directed attention to the unique philosophically based position of Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri that viewed Christianity in a positive light, arguing that contemporary Christians are classified as a group that is “bound by the strictures of a religious system.”6 Nevertheless, Katz pointed out that the Meiri’s position was not very influential since it was not publicized in his time, and that the Meiri himself presumably consented to the exclusionary position toward Christians that was accepted by the halachic authorities of his period.7 Katz also distinguished between the reasoning behind rulings relating to relations between Jews and Christians in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the reasoning behind earlier rulings. While the earlier rulings might be characterized as pragmatic, the later rulings are based on “attributing virtues to Christians in addition to stating that they were not idolaters.”8 Katz cites the seventeenth-century scholar Moshe Rivkes (1595–1671), the author of Be’er Ha-Golah, a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, who claims that Christians in his time are not considered idolaters because they believe in the creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, and other fundamental principles of Judaism. Rivkes concludes, therefore, that it is appropriate to pray for their welfare, and that they are essentially “among the righteous of the nations of the world who have a portion in the world to come.”9 As Katz understands it, the author of Beer Ha-Golah drew far-reaching implications in comparison to those who preceded him by stating that it is as if both religions have the same beliefs regarding “religion and revelation,”10 or in other words, share a common religious tradition. According to Katz, these statements of the author of Beer ha-Golah served as support text for anyone who wanted to claim...


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