In 1964, as the Second Vatican Council was reassessing its most negative view of Jews and Judaism, Rabbi Soloveitchik penned Confrontation, detailing his reasons for eschewing theological dialogue with other faith groups. While the Rav greatly encouraged co-operation with different faiths on the social, economic and moral issues of the day, he drew the line at religious dialogue. With each religion holding differing axiological truths not up for negotiation or compromise, there is no point to dialogue on the fundamentals of faith. 

Perhaps more significant than the actual content of the essay is the fact that he had to write such an essay in the first place. For centuries, the only dialogue Catholics were interested in having was to demonstrate the falseness of Judaism and to convert Jews to Christianity. So fundamental has been the change in attitude towards Jews that we often fail to recognize just how religiously fraught relations were not so long ago. 

There is little doubt that, almost without exception, every medieval rabbinic authority considered Christianity to be a form of idolatry – albeit a step up from paganism. Belief in a trinity and a deity in human form crossed any and every possible threshold from monotheism to idolatry. 

The opening Mishna in Avodah Zara teaching that one may not conduct business with an idolater during the time leading up to his festivals presented a major halachic challenge. With (Ashkenazic) Jews living amongst Christians and having, shall we say, limited career choices, Jews had little choice but to conduct business with their non-Jewish, i.e., idolatrous neighbours, something that seemed a violation of Jewish law.  

With every Sunday a Christian festival, it made compliance with the simple understanding of the Mishna very difficult. And if we accept the view that not only for three days before, but even for three days after one could not do business with idolaters, compliance became impossible. 

It is this challenge that the Tosafists (s.v. assur) struggle with on the first daf in Avodah Zara. The era of Tosafists begins just before the first of the Crusades – an era in which thousands of Jews, including many of the Tosafists, were killed for not embracing Christianity. Yet despite the frequent specter of persecution, expulsion or worse, Jews had little choice but to deal economically with Christians. For the Tosafists, this was no theoretical discussion from some bygone era as it was for, say, the Rambam, who lived his life under the monotheistic Muslims. 

Tosafot begins by rejecting the notion that the Christians are not idol worshippers because they are just following the customs of their parents. They do not explain why they reject this – perhaps it is because they are just going through the motions without really believing in what they are doing. Perhaps they do believe in what they are doing, but because they are just following what they are taught, they cannot be considered idolaters. Whatever the explanation, Tosafot rules that following the traditions of one’s parent does not remove their idolatrous status. 

It is exactly this argument that the Rambam (Mamrim 3:2) uses to explain why we must love the children of Karaites despite their rejection of the Oral Law – a rejection which, according to the Rambam, makes one a heretic with no share in the World to Come. As they are just following what their parents have taught them, they cannot be held responsible for their actions; and we must love them no less than any other Jew[1]

This argument has become extremely well accepted in recent years, and is the basis of much of the kiruv movement. Non-observant Jews today are generally viewed not as sinners, but as those following the non-religious ways of their parents. 

Yet idol worship is idol worship, and we are enjoined to stay as far away as possible from idolatry. “As possible” seems to be the key, as Tosafot suggests the reason that we “today” (i.e., 12th century France) do not observe this law is due to eiva, the enmity this will cause. Refusing to do business with our non-Jewish neighbours during their festival season is a recipe for ill will and the rabbis went to great lengths not only to reduce enmity, eiva[2], but to ensure we have positive, even friendly, relations with others. 

The Tosafists reject this answer also, not because it’s fundamentally wrong, but because they do not think that avoiding business with them will lead to eiva. People do not shop every day, nor do they agree to every business proposition. Thus, we need not worry that avoiding commercial relationships on idolatrous holidays will be construed as being done specifically they are holidays[3]

Tosafot offers an alternate explanation, one that finds great resonance in our time—namely, that the non-Jews are not very religious; they simply do not worship and hence, do not worship idols. We can do business with them even on their holidays, as there is little reason to fear that they will run off and thank their gods for their business success. 

Rabbeinu Tam greatly limits the prohibition, arguing that the prohibition of transacting business before the holidays only applies when dealing in religious items. We may not directly aid and abet idol worship. Commercial transactions, even if they may lead the non-Jew to thank his god, do so only indirectly; hence, they are permissible. This view leads to the rather startling conclusion that if it is not the three days before the holiday[4], one may, in fact, deal in idolatrous religious items. 

Perhaps the most famous view regarding this issue is the position of the Meiri. Living in Provence in the 13th century, the Meiri ruled that any religion that teaches and preaches basic moral values is not to be considered idolatrous – a category that included Christianity. What the Meiri did was to recast idolatry from a theological failing to a moral one. Those who accept the notion of right and wrong, reward and punishment, and the value of human life may not be labeled as idolaters. It is when one does not believe in a Divine creator that one is free to do as one pleases without fear of divine retribution; to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. That is idolatry. The specifics of religious belief matter little (at least, for non-Jews) as long as one manifests a belief in a G-d who demands adherence to a moral code.[5]

While the Meiri’s view may be theologically radical and many leading rabbis have not accepted it[6], this view has great resonance for those engaged in the modern world, and in practice (even if not in theory) is accepted by many. Within the circles in which I travel, people don’t look for a halachic justification to do business with their Christian neighbours. On many an issue, it is specifically the religious Christian whose views are most closely aligned with traditional Jewish views; certainly more so than the secular public. Many Christians are great supporters of Israel, and we do share many common values. It is not at all uncommon for rabbis to be on very good terms with religious leaders of other faiths – and it is because of these warming relations that Rav Soloveitchik wrote Confrontation in the first place.

However one may assess other religions, those with no religious beliefs are certainly in much greater violation of the very first words of the Rambam’s Mishne Torah: “The foundation of foundations and pillar of wisdom is to know there is a First Cause who brought all into existence”. 

I imagine some will disagree, but it bothers me that Christmas has been turned into a marketer’s dream and the most important shopping season of the year. Too few Christians (and, sadly even fewer Jews) attend religious services on a regular basis. As Dennis Prager asks, if you were walking alone at night and saw ten big hulky people approaching, would you feel better knowing they had just come from a church bible class? While in medieval times that may have had deadly consequences, thankfully, much has changed. We no longer have to fear Christian leaders urging the devout to kill Jews. The gods of money, power, honour and radical individualism pose a much greater threat to authentic Judaism. 


[1] Tosafot may very well agree. All they said was idolatry is idolatry, and that fact cannot be changed even if one has understandable reasons for doing so. They do not discuss how that might impact on our attitudes towards idolaters. The Rambam does not state that Karaites are not sinning; rather, he rules that because it’s not their fault they’re sinning, we must continue to love them. But they are still sinning and hence, the Rambam would not allow a Karaite to testify in front of a beit din

[2] For example, the rabbis allowed an am haaretz, an educated boor, to testify in court, and all were believed to say the wine and oil they produced was pure and could be used in the Temple (Chagigah 22a).  

[3] I must say that I am most skeptical about whether such an approach actually works. It is not always easy to pretend one is just not interested in a specific business opportunity, and not actually avoiding him. And while it might work on an individual basis, I find it hard to believe an entire community could pull it off. 

[4] Or perhaps just the holiday itself. As Tosafot notes, the Gemara (7b) limits the prohibition outside of Israel to the day of the idolatrous festival itself.

[5] If one takes the Meiri to itsl logical conclusion, then one could argue that radical Islam would need to be classified as an idolatrous religion. This, despite the fact that throughout history, all have agreed that Islam—with its pure monotheistic belief—is not idolatrous. 

[6] Interestingly, the debate regarding the Meiri revolves around his redefinition of idolatry. I have yet to see a discussion about whether or not in practice, his definition holds true for Christians. This is the same religion that produced the Crusades (before the time of Meiri) and the Inquisition (after his time). Thankfully, much has changed for the better in recent years.