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Ask the Expert: Jews in Church

Question: My friend invited me to midnight Mass with him on Christmas Eve. Can I go if I just sit quietly and don’t pray?
–David, Queens

Answer: I’m impressed that you think you can sit quietly through an entire Mass, David. I can hardly sit quietly for a 15 minute mincha service!

As with most issues of Jewish law and theology, there is a difference of opinion when it comes to whether or not Jews can enter a church, be it for cultural reasons (for example, to view a famous work of art) or for a religious ceremony (for example, to attend the baptism of a friend’s child). This difference of opinion is predicated on a disagreement about whether Christianity should be considered idolatry.

The Torah and subsequent rabbinic literature are full of prohibitions concerning idolatry and interacting with those who practice idolatry. There is an entire tractate in the Talmud devoted to dealings with idol worshippers, and the general rule there is that one is to avoid interacting with idol worshippers as much as possible. Among other things, this means avoiding trading with them, dressing like them, eating with them, worshipping with or even near them, and entering their places of worship.

Because the Trinity is at the core of Christianity, and because it implies a god that is more than a single entity, there are those who consider Christianity equal to idolatry. Maimonides is one of the many rabbinic authorities who take this view. Much of the contemporary Orthodox community takes a hard line forbidding one from entering Christian churches under most circumstances, based on Maimonides and those who view Christianity the way he does.

However, the 13th century Catalonian Rabbi Menachem haMeiri argued that Christianity is not a form of idolatry. Meiri viewed Christians as “people whose lives are governed by religion.” Since Christians are encouraged by their religion to exercise free will and live worthy lives, Meiri argued, most of the laws prohibiting idolatry and consorting with idol worshippers do not apply to Christians.


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