Twelfth century scholar, philosopher and religious commentator Mosheh ben Maimon, known in the west as Moses Maimonides, is considered one of the main foundations of modern Jewish law, and the most widely accepted authority on Jewish philosophy.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve mentioned in several JewishPress.com articles that there are huge differences between our views of Islam and of Christianity—the former generally considered a fine religion for gentiles, the latter considered, essentially, idol worship. My source for those statements, which most yeshiva-schooled Jews are familiar with, is Maimonides. And since it’s difficult to describe traditional Judaism without Maimonides, what he says on these issues is followed and adhered by the vast majority of observant Jews.
Each time I mentioned the fact that a religious Jew is permitted to pray in a mosque, but forbidden to even enter a church, I would be challenged by a few readers, and answer on the spot. But as the issue of Islam vs. Christianity keeps coming up, I decided to offer this essential article which we could all refer to in future exchanges.
I’m grateful to Prof. Eliezer Schlossberg of Bar Ilan University for his article “Maimonides’ Attitude Regarding Islam,” on which I relied heavily for citations.
If you woke up Maimonides in the middle of the night and asked him his opinion of all the non-Jewish religions, he would tell you they’re all stolen from Judaism, they all offer little more than a shallow veneer of what our Torah has to offer, and the difference between all the gentile religions and our own is like the difference between a statue and a real person (Yemen Epistle).
Moreover, since all the other religions are well aware of our special relationship with God, their fundamental purpose is to destroy the Torah of Israel. The more God loves us, the more the gentiles hate us (Yemen Epistle).
However, Maimonides views the two major religions, Christianity and Islam, as necessary preparations for the coming of the Messiah and the universal worship of God that will follow in the future.
In his legal opus Hayad Hachazaka, Maimonides states that thanks to both these religions “the world has become full of the ideas of the Messiah, the ideas of the Torah and the ideas of the commandments, so that these have spread to faraway islands and to many dim hearted nations, and they now discuss these ideas and the commandments of the Torah.”
Nevertheless, Maimonides considers both Christians and Muslims to be heretics, mostly because of their various replacement doctrines regarding the Torah and the status of the Jewish nation.
So far, though, Maimonides’ assertions are expressed in the abstract, without hard and fast references to their halachic implications. Both Islam and Christianity are far better than the pagan religions, and both of them are a far cry from the truth of God’s only Torah.
Halachically, Maimonides says in three distinct places that the Christians are idol worshippers.
1. In his interpretation of the Mishna, tractate Avoda Zara 1:3, he writes: “Know that this Chriatian nation, who are making the claim of a messiah, with all their many different sects, are all idol worshippers and all their holidays are forbidden, and we deal with them regarding religious issues as we would pagans.”
And he adds (AZ 4): “Therefore one must know that in every one of the Christian nation’s cities which has an altar, meaning their house of worship, it is a pagan house of idolatry without any doubt.”
2. In the uncensored version of Hayad Hachazaka (Hilchot Avoda Zara 9:4), Maimonides issues the edict: “The Christians are idol worshipers and Sunday is their religious holiday, therefore in Eretz Israel we may not trade with them on Thursday and Friday of every week, and needless to say on Sunday, which is forbidden [for trade with Christians] everywhere.” Trade in this context refers especially to paying back loans, which would enhance their joy on the day of their idol.
3. Also in Hayad Hachazaka, the laws of forbidden foods, the uncensored version (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 11:7): “The Christians are idol worshippers and their regular wine if forbidden to be consumed” by Jews since it is likely to be used as libation in their pagan service.
On the other hand, Maimonides defends Islam against the popular accusations of his day, which argued that the Kaaba stone in Mecca and some of the rites performed during their Haj pilgrimage were rooted in idol worship.
In his Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte Maimonides states clearly: “These Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers in the least, and [paganism] has been long since cut off from their mouths and their hearts, and they worship the singular God properly and without any blemish.”
However, Maimonides’ view on the discourse between Jews and members of the two other major religions appears to contradict everything that we’ve established so far. It is an example of the great man’s clarity of thought, and his ability to depict crucial nuance in both religions.
“It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, and it is not permitted to do the same with the Ishmaelites,” he writes.
This is because the Christians never denied the authenticity of our Torah, they merely added their nonsense on top of it, but they and we believe both in the Torah’s sanctity and in the fact that it is an accurate representation of the original Torah delivered to the Jews by God through Moses.
The Muslims, on the other hand, even though their Koran describes the giving of the Torah to the Jews, they insist that in every point where their version differs from what’s in our Torah, this is because we either made a mistake in copying our texts, or, worse, falsified our texts.
Therefore, argues Maimonides (Rambam’s responsa, Blau, answer 149) that while a discourse with a Christian could lead to his understanding of his mistaken reading and therefore could benefit from the explanation, even if he didn’t convert to Judaism – a Muslim will always perceive our explanations as being founded on a lie, so don’t bother.
To summarize: while we consider both Islam and Christianity to be merely stepping stones in humanity’s path to true Divine enlightenment, we do not treat the two of them equally. We recognize a higher capacity for abstract worship in Islam, while Christianity remains mired in embarrassing paganism. However, the discussion of our Torah is permitted only with Christians, who accept its validity, and not at all with Muslims, who see it as a Jewish forgery.
Now you know.