When Interfaith Prayer Is NOT a “Foreign Fire”

Earlier this year, I participated in a very controversial event. An event so shocking that it was branded by one Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem as a gathering that “sickens his stomach” and a “strange fire,” — a clear reference to the demise of Nadav and Avihu in Vayikra (10:1-2). Furthermore, the comments on social media as well as my private discussions with people left many wondering how I can halachically justify attending the event in the first place.

What, you may ask, could have caused such a stir?

The occasion was The Day to Praise. It was an event where Christians were invited into an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem to partake in a Hallel service to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut conducted by members of the Jewish community who are involved in Jewish-Christian relations. I wrote about this event in advance and thus became a lightening rod for this criticism.

The Day to Praise was a private event sponsored by the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. There was separate seating and everyone wore head coverings. The format of the event was as follows: a short explanatory dvar Torah on the Psalm was given by a Jew, a Christian read the Psalm in English or Spanish, followed by a musical interlude referencing the Psalm. Six psalms, six divrei Torah, and six songs, with Rabbi Riskin opening and concluding the service with messages stressing the importance of Christian support of Israel and the miracle of the State of Israel in our lifetime.

Given the 2000 year history of Church antagonism to the Jewish people, the shock of Christians coming into synagogue to partake in a service understandably evokes powerful visceral responses. Many people had the gut reaction that this must be wrong and that there certainly must be some Halacha prohibiting it. The consensus among those critical of the event is that inasmuch as Christianity is Avodah Zarah it is forbidden to pray with together with Christians. Others simply said that interfaith prayer is generally forbidden without even inquiring about or even being willing to hear what exactly was done at the event. Some accused me of blurring the lines between Jews and Christians, which could lead to assimilation, as well as endorsing and enabling Christian evangelizing of Jews.

While discomfort is understandable, we dare not assume that what is uncomfortable and new is therefore forbidden.

As for the claim that Christianity is Avodah Zarah, I would caution my interlocutors that before labeling Christians with the most negative of definitions, we should know our sources well.

Many people are surprised to learn that the definition of Avodah Zarah as it pertains to Jews is different from what constitutes Avodah Zarah for a non-Jew. There are practices and beliefs that are forbidden for Jews as Avodah Zarah that are permissible to non-Jews and are consistent with the seven Noahide laws. In other words, between pure Pagan idolatry on one end of the Avodah Zara spectrum and pure monotheistic faith on the other, there are beliefs and behaviors that are permissible to non-Jews while Jews are held to a more restrictive standard.

The normative position of Halacha is that Christianity is not forbidden Avodah Zara for non Jews. This is the opinion of the majority and that of Tosafot, the Rema, and the Shach, the latter being among the most mainstream and dominant authorities in modern Halacha. Even my interlocutors, who perhaps prefer a different rabbinic authority, would have to agree that the Rema and the Shach are worthy authorities. It should be noted that these opinions were rendered centuries ago. Christian theology and doctrine have developed significantly since the Rema’s time.

Of particular relevance to our topic is the context of the Rema’s statement.

In discussing business partnerships that involve oaths, the Rema writes that even though one’s partner in business may be gentile and therefore a believer in Christianity, his oaths in the name of G-d are not to be seen as idolatrous because “gentiles nowadays do not take oaths to idolatry and even though they mention their false god, nevertheless their intention is to refer to the creator of heaven and earth — however they combine [the belief in G-d] with something else” and this is not a problem because, as the Rema continues, “they are not prohibited from combined belief.”

In other words, when they refer to G-d, they mean G-d.

There are two additional items of halacha that bear mentioning here before addressing the Day to Praise specifically.

First, in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 215) it is clearly ruled that one says Amen in response to the blessing of a non-Jew provided one hears the entire blessing.

What is Amen? In saying Amen, I declare a shared belief and affirmation of the spiritual statement of praise by the one who recited the blessing. Why do I say amen to the blessing of a non Jew? The answer is simple. G-d has been praised. I need to hear the entire blessing to know that G-d — and not something else — has been praised. Provided that the words of the blessing are liturgically correct, Amen is said.

Second point: Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah (Work of Offerings 3:2) rules that sacrificial offerings are accepted and offered in the temple from Jews and non-Jews alike. This is not surprising as the well known verse states, “for My house is a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). What is surprising to many is Maimonides ruling that offerings are accepted from a non-Jew “even if he is an idol worshiper”. Even an idol worshiper may bring an offering in the Temple? How can we allow such a thing? The answer — like the above ruling regarding saying Amen to a blessing of a gentile — is that our G-d is being served. The offering of an idolater is accepted because this person entered into our Temple to serve Hashem, in our way, in our house of worship, and led by our Kohanim.

Let me be clear. I raise this last point despite the fact that as I explained above Christians are not worshipers of Avodah Zarah. My point is only to silence those critics who choose to turn a blind eye to the majority opinion and define Christianity in more severe terms.

Which brings us to the Day to Praise event.

It is well known that there are a great number of Christian supporters of Israel. These are people who see a profound theological significance in the existence of the State of Israel. They understand and believe that the long awaited return of the People of Israel to their land that we are experiencing is, in fact, the ingathering of the exiles foretold in the Bible.

What could be more appropriate than for these Christians to praise G-d – who they believe is both Creator of Heaven and Earth and G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — for the State of Israel on Yom Haatzmaut? That such praise and thanks should be the Jewish form of praise and thanks, under the guidance and leadership of rabbis, together with Jews, in a synagogue in Jerusalem should not make the event more problematic. In light of the above sources, the facts that the event included Jewish liturgy and was held in a Jewish house of worship only serve to make the event less problematic.

Numerous critics of the Day to Praise cited Rav Moshe Feinstein’s opposition to interfaith events. It must be noted that in the famous responsum in question Rav Moshe frames the problem by referring multiple times to the fact that such events are initiated by the Christians with the goal of causing Jews to assimilate. It makes perfect sense that in the United States of the mid 20th century an interfaith event on neutral ground, initiated and led by Christians would serve to blur the lines between the Christian and Jewish communities. In a context in which the danger of assimilation was paramount the problem with such events was real and obvious.

What about an event initiated, planned, and carried out by rabbis? What about a context in which the chance of Christian proselytizing is non-existent? What about liturgy that is only Jewish?

Perhaps a more appropriate responsum from Rav Moshe Feinstein would be this:

Rav Moshe rules that Jewish children are permitted to pray in school together with non Jewish children — even though the prayer was composed by Christian authors — because there is no specific Christian content in the prayers nor is there any danger of such prayers leading Jewish children away from Judaism.

Earlier in the same responsum, in response to the question of whether or not gentiles are obligated in prayer, Rav Moshe concludes that “inasmuch as from the standpoint of the fundamentals of faith there is an obligation to pray, it is also an obligation for a gentile to pray… and he is rewarded for his faith in G-d and his prayer is an obligation.”

We pray that the world will know the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even the Rambam, who was not an admirer of Christianity, wrote that Christianity is part of the mystery of G-d to bring out His designs — “to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah”. In a responsum Rambam ruled that one may teach the Torah to them because they believe in its divinity. If Judaism mandated that His house “will be a house of prayer for all nations” and Psalm 117 — a line in Hallel that is sung in every synagogue — clearly heralds a time when “all the nations praise G-d for what He has done to us,” then what better way for these developments to come about than through events such as Day to Praise?

Jewish-Christian relations are not for everyone, but it should not be labeled as something that goes against our halachic system or undermines Judaism. If we are going to be “light unto the nations” that requires interfacing with other religions based upon religious values and theology. It also requires us to have the courage to bring in another faith, who in the past has been an enemy, to begin a new path in reconciliation.

“Hallelu et Hashem kol goyim… ki gavar aleinu chasdo”

“Prasie Hashem all nations…, for his kindness has overwhelmed us

In other words, Gentiles praise G-d for giving the Jews the State of Israel.

“Foreign fire”? Try “Kiddush Hashem” or “Beginning of Redemption”!

About the Author
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Associate Director and Lecturer at the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. Previously, he served as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah. He resides with his wife and eight children in Bet Shemesh.