Idolatry: A Dialogue


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Dear Rabbi Ben-Chaim,


I was asked the following questions in a friendly conversation (we have many friendly conversations about religion), which I answered to the best of my ability.  Would you please review my answers for accuracy?  Many thanks! Debby Kobrin



Jamie: (Reform Jew):  I just don’t see how someone can say you aren’t welcome at a [synagogue] to worship God regardless of what that person does in their personal life. Isn’t it up to God to determine these things?


Debby (Me):  According to traditional Judaism, God does indeed require Jews to judge others and - in certain circumstances - even excommunicate them. Yes, it is up to God. The Torah (including both the written and oral) is God’s instruction manual for us. It is the original source and foundation of Jewish law.  People who follow the law are law-abiding citizens.


Jamie: (Reform Jew):  It isn’t the Rabbis’ place to tell someone that they are wrong in what they believe and that they can’t come and worship with us.


Debby:  According to traditional Judaism, it is precisely the Rabbi’s job description to lead his congregation to increasingly uphold the commandments. Is a Jew ever unwelcome within a traditional Jewish congregation because of his belief? Yes, if his belief interferes with Jewish observance. (See below for a legal example.)


Bob: (not a Jew):   [What about] an example of a Christian trying to attend a service at a temple and not being allowed to by the Rabbi?

Debby:  This is simply a legal issue.  Legally, certain prayers can be recited only when Jews pray together as a minyan - a group that meets certain legal qualifications. What could make a group legally INVALID as a minyan? Well, for example, a minyan is legally invalid if it includes an individual who prays to a different (or “strange”) god. Praying to a different god is called, “avodah zarah,” which means “strange worship.” This is usually shortened to the less accurate translation of “idolatry.”


Even a Jew could legally invalidate a minyan and therefore must be excluded. For example, there’s a new phenomenon of some Lubavitch Jews who have deified their late Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. Naturally, their concept of god changed to accommodate the deification of their Rebbe. Therefore, when such a person prays, he’s now praying to a different or “strange” god. It follows that such a person could not be included in a traditional Jewish minyan, because his avodah zarah would legally invalidate the minyan. 


Again, many thanks for your quick review!






Mesora: Fine job Debby, Moshe Ben-Chaim.


Debby: I understand a minyan of ten adult Jewish males is not legally valid if one of the ten deifies the Rebbe. May I please take another step? What if the individual that deifies the Rebbe (let's call this individual Sam) is the eleventh person instead of the tenth? Does Sam's participation impact the legal status of the minyan that's formed by the other ten people (not including Sam)? If yes, what is the legal principle at work? Thanks again, Debby



Mesora: I thought of that question too. I don't know yet, but the ten Kosher Jews will not accept the 11th heretic as part of their union. I don't see why the 11th’s “presence” would affect the Kosher status of the 10, and render them all unfit as a Minyan. But there is precedence; if an uncircumcised man joins in the eating of the Passover Lamb, he renders it unfit. But, in this case too, perhaps his mere presence - w/o eating - may be inconsequential. I have to think about it, and ask other Rabbis, Moshe.



Debby: Here's another thought offered by my son, Gil Kobrin. He explained to me that a Jew couldn’t pray in a place of idol worship - avodah zarah. From this, Gil is extrapolating the possibility that a Christian renders any place in which he is praying as a “place” of idolatry - and therefore Jews may not also pray in any place in which a Christian is praying. What do you think? Would you please keep me posted on your findings from other Rabbis?



Mesora: A Christian or idolater cannot render a “place” idolatrous, as the objective significance of a place overshadows the subjective use of the idolater. Thus, an idolater's worship of the ocean for example, cannot render the ocean prohibited from use, unlike the case with movables. He could render movables (objects) idolatrous. This is because an object's designation is man made, and once a man uses it for idolatry, it is subordinated to this usage, and becomes prohibited. Maimonides discusses this in his Laws of Idolatry (Mishneh Torah) chapter 8.

I will keep you posted o my findings.