"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

Moshe Ben-Chaim


 I am now in regular contact with someone who has brought to my attention her ongoing debate on a Jewish message boards regarding the unity of God. This principle, that God is one, is the truth most vital to our existence, and the truth responsible for all knowledge. For when we err, we thereby suggest that the universe has more than one cause, which in itself is impossible. And with any error, all things we think we have discovered to be true, lose all meaning, for they then cease to reflect the true God, which must be the aim of all areas of life: “And you shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”. “And you shall speak these words when you sit in your home, and when you travel on the road, and when you lie down and rise”. (The Shema Prayer)

Many have already adduced the unity of God, and it is not my objective here to discuss those proofs. I wish to address another issue. This person I have been in contact with informed me that a Jewish teacher had quoted the following from a book entitled “The Jewish Book of Why II”: Jews must know God is one, but there is no violation for gentiles to assume God to be composed of many deities, or parts, such as the Christian “trinity”. This Jewish teacher – citing that book – said the Torah’s sources support polytheism for gentiles. I wish to refute those allegations.

To commence, let us learn from the chief philosopher and halachist, Maimonides:

Maimonides – Laws of Kings 11:10 (Capach Edition)

“[10] Can there be a greater stumbling block than this (Christianity)? That all the prophets spoke that the Messiah will redeem Israel and save them, and gather their dispersed and strengthen their Mitzvot, and this (one, i.e., Jesus) caused the Jews to be destroyed by the sword, and scattered their remnants and humbled them, and exchanged the Torah, and caused the majority of the world to err to serve a god other than the Lord.”

 

Read that last line again, “Jesus caused the majority of the world to err to serve a god other than the Lord.” Maimonides is perfectly clear; not only did Jesus’ Christianity kill Jews, but also, Christianity misleads “the world” (Gentiles included) away from God to serve a false god. Maimonides knew all the Talmudic sources, and yet viewed Christianity as an evil for gentiles. Therefore, any claim that “Christianity is permissible for gentiles” violates reason, according to Maimonides. How can this teacher call that, which is evil, a good for others? Christianity or any other form of polytheism is an absolute violation of the Noachide command against idolatry, defined as a “corrupted view of the ‘One’ Creator”.

Correcting the Distortion

One source the teacher cited from this aforementioned book is a portion of Tosfos (Bechoros 2b), which discusses a gentile taking an oath (an oath includes swearing to God). Tosfos is a commentary on the Talmud, so it behooves us to first view the portion of Talmud on which Tosfos comments. The Talmud states, if we know a gentile to be idolatrous, and we require his oath on a matter, such an oath would violate “Lo yishama al picha”, “False gods’ names shall not be mentioned via your doings (lit. “your words)”. (Exodus 23:13) Demanding an oath, we would cause the gentile to swear, and he would swear to ‘his’ gods, thereby affirming idolatry. Exodus 23:13 prohibited not only “our” mention of alien gods, but also prohibited is our ‘causing’ those gods’ names to be uttered, even by others. Thus, causing an idolatrous gentile to swear would be a direct violation of this Torah command. On this, Tosfos writes:

“Even though when a gentile takes an oath to God (of heaven and earth), and he joins God’s name with another deity, there is no violation of deception (Lifnay Ivare) for Noachides are not warned on this, and for us [Jews] we do not find a prohibition regarding ‘causal’ cases of misleading others towards joining.”

If read in a cursory manner, the phrase contained therein, “for Noachides are not warned on this” appears to imply that Noachides are not warned on “polytheism” and are allowed to view God as not truly one. However, the Torah states emphatically “Hear Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One”. Can God be both, “one” for Jews, and “plural” for gentiles? That is absurd. God is one, as He stated through Moses’ words. Gentiles too are prohibited from idolatry, and polytheism is idolatry. We then wonder, to what does Tosfos refer when stating, “gentiles are not warned on this”? On ‘what’ are they not warned?

The answer is: they are not warned on the prohibition of “mentioning” alien gods’ names. Meaning, when we demand their oath – forcing them to swear to God – and in doing so, we cause them to mention other deities of their faith, there is no problem for two reasons, as Tosfos states: 1) “for Noachides are not warned on this”, and 2) “for us [Jews] we do not find a prohibition regarding ‘causal’ cases of misleading others towards joining (shittuf).” This means that, 1) Noachides or gentiles have no prohibition to ‘mention’ a false God. That prohibition and high degree of sanctity is mandatory for the Jew alone. Mentioning the name of idols is not one of the 7 Noachide Laws. 2) As Jews, even if this demand for an oath ‘possibly’ causes the gentile to join God with another deity, there is no violation for us, as his joining is merely a ‘possible’ outcome, and not a definite result. Of course, had a gentile’s commitment to idolatry been an “inevitable” result of our actions, we are certainly concerned for him, and we are prohibited from causing him harm.

To be clear, Tosfos mentions two reasons why we can enforce the oath of a gentile: 1) “Noachides are not warned on this” meaning, he is not warned against mentioning false gods, and 2) we as Jews are not prohibited from cases that are infrequent and only ‘causal’. The Torah has limits on its prohibitions. The Torah does not go so far as to demand Jews against an act that ‘might’ cause gentiles to violate joining names to God. Causal (grammah) cases are not treated with the same degree of stringency, as are inevitable cases. This means polytheism is absolutely and unequivocally prohibited for gentile and Jew. However, our prohibition does not extended to less-likely cases.

The cause of the error of both the teacher and the book is the reading of Rabbeinu Tam’s words out of full context. Had the full Talmudic portion, and the beginning of the Tosfos been read and “studied”, all would understand the issue discussed, and not obligatory on gentiles, is the “mentioning of false gods”. The issue is not as the teacher thought, that gentiles might violate God’s unity. No intelligent person, including Rabbeinu Tam, Maimonides and any Rabbi, would ever suggest that “any human” might be allowed to corrupt the most vital fundamental, that God is one. Before all, every human being must obtain the truest knowledge of God, and that starts with His exclusive nature; His exclusive responsibility for the universe; and His antithesis to anything of this world, including possessing parts, or being subject to division of any kind. Although accepting Maimonides’ view that Christianity and polytheism is prohibited for all mankind, this teacher greatly erred, as he repeated with support from that book, that someone as great as Rabbeinu Tam thought it acceptable for gentiles to violate God’s unity. I strongly urge this teacher to retract his statements, and correct those whom he misled. It makes no difference whether one possesses the wrong view himself, or repeats it as truth based on hearsay or books.

Avtalyon said, “Wise men, be careful with your words…” (Pirkei Avos 1:11) Maimonides comments that teachers must be careful what they say, lest heretics misunderstand them as teaching that the Torah contains heresy, as they believe, thereby profaning God’s name. Such occurred to Tzadok ad Baysos, Talmudic scholars who misunderstood their Rabbi and left the path of Torah. Now, if we must be careful how we teach true ideas, certainly, we must first ascertain that we possess those Torah fundamentals. Had we all been taught Torah fundamentals, no one would have interpreted Rabbeinu Tam or the Shulchan Aruch as condoning polytheism: we would have properly interpreted what we read, we would dismiss the written quote in Tosfos as an error, or we would have said, “I just don’t know what Rabbeinu Tam means”. But, we would never assume any Rabbi or sage to support polytheism for anyone, Jew or gentile. I will now correct other misunderstandings.

Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dayah 148:12)

This section discusses the prohibition to transact with gentiles before and after their holidays. By doing so, we give the gentile a reason thank his gods (monetary success). (Taz 148:1) This would lead him astray, and we must be concerned not to directly lead any human astray from the one God. The Mechabare states (148:12) that some opinions are lenient with the restriction of transacting with gentiles during this time of their holidays. But the Mechabare explains his reasoning is due to the current-day ignorance of alien religions. However, this means that had someone the accurate knowledge of a faith that is clearly idolatrous, like the Christian trinity, then in such transaction would e definitely prohibited: the gentile would thank his false gods, and it would be our fault for encouraging his attachment to idolatry. But be clear: in no source do we find any claim that Christianity or other idolatry as permissible for gentles.

Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 156)

This section deals with transacting with gentiles in general. The Ramah states, “Today, since gentiles do not swear by idolatry, and although they mention another god, their intent is for the Creator of heaven and earth, and even though they join another deity with God’s name, there is no deception, as gentiles are not warned on joining.” This means to say that had a gentile truly intended on swearing to a deity other than God, then it would be prohibited, and we could not transact with them, or enforce an oath. These sources prove the point that leniency exists only when we estimate gentile as intending on swearing to the true God. We also learn that the word “joining” (shittuf) cannot refer to polytheism. It is impossible that the Torah, a system whose primary aim is to make mankind aware of One God, might suggest that gentiles may become heretics.

A Rabbi once taught that if we know something to be true based on reason, it is inconsequential if we find printed words that imply otherwise. Certainly in this case, when the word in question is “joining”. To suggest that gentiles not being warned against “joining” refers to polytheism, one errs twice: first, by interpreting the word according to his own notions, and second, by undermining the entire fabric of Torah monotheism.

Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dayah 147, see the Taz): “It is completely prohibited to strengthen the beliefs of idolaters”. Reason dictates that God desires all mankind to recognize Him. The “Alaynu” prayer with which we conclude our services states clearly, “V’chol b’nei basar yik-ri-uh shimecha”, “all flesh will call your name”. This means that God desires all mankind to recognize His truth, Jew and gentile alike. Since polytheism is false, it is therefore prohibited for gentiles as well as Jews.

This area in the Shulchan Aruch says that one is allowed to say to a gentile during the years of shmitta, “Elokim should bless you with good this year.” The Gra states that this term “Elokim” cannot reference the false gods of this gentile. If so, one would be strengthening the beliefs of idolaters, which is prohibited. In fact, the Gra held that when you say this, you must be referring to God Himself, thereby wishing a real blessing for the gentile. Even though we cannot work the field, we can wish the gentile success, as laws of shmitta do not prohibit him from working the land in this year.

Pilpula Charifta (Talmud Sanhedrin Chapter VII)

Quoting Maimonides, the Pilpula Charifta states, “polytheism is real idolatry”. He further states via a fortiori argument, addressing the accepted law that celebrating multiple deities carries prohibition, “How can their holidays be prohibited, but their beliefs be permitted?” He thereby reasons that celebration of polytheism cannot be worse than the belief itself. Accordingly, the Pilpula Charifta deems polytheism a prohibited belief; otherwise the holidays would not be of prohibited status.

Summary

Polytheism denies the most central, Torah Fundamental: God is one, an idea mandatory for every intelligent being. If one believes God to be more than one, even if he says I believe in the God of the Torah and another god, his concept of God is completely wrong. Any prayer to such a god would be idolatry. For with such a view, one’s idea is no longer that there is “one” cause for the universe.

Be mindful of Abraham’s refutation and destruction of idolatry and idols, and his life-risking mission to teach monotheism to ALL members of the human race. God selected him, appointing him as the forefather of a nation destined to teach the world of Jews and gentiles. May it be soon, that all Jews learn earnestly, guide themselves first and foremost by reason, strive for the available proofs of the One true God and the beautiful reasons behind His laws, and educate others on what incontrovertible reason proves must be the exclusive truth.

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