Too cross with making a cross

May 03, 2015 10:20

Weary of the current political mud-slinging and descent into personal invective, I have been searching for some light electoral relief - and I may have found it.

Hampstead Garden Suburb is located within the Finchley and Golders Green parliamentary constituency. It's one of the most hotly contested seats in London and also one of the most heavily Jewish. On April 21, a public meeting addressed by all five candidates was held in the imposing Free Church, designed at the beginning of the last century by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The Free Church was so-named because it was the first truly interdenominational church in the land. But it remains a Christian house of worship. And once it became known an election hustings was to be held there, a number of rabbis kicked up a fuss.

One, who reportedly asked not to be named (why not?) explained that "Jews should not go into churches, particularly areas for prayer where Christian religious symbols, like Jesus on a cross, are present. This form of idolatry is forbidden in Judaism".

Of course idolatry is forbidden. But I can cite plenty of examples of Jews - even rabbis - entering churches and even taking part in religious services held therein. Chief Rabbi Sacks's well-publicised participation in the Westminster Abbey marriage service of Prince William and Kate Middleton was excused - sorry, explained - on the grounds that Sacks was obligated to obey a royal command (assuming this is what an invitation from Buckingham Palace amounts to). But what about the decision of the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, to attend the funeral mass for Pope John Paul II (2005) and the installation mass for Pope Francis (2013)? Or the presence also at the 2005 funeral mass - held in St Peter's Basilica - of the chief rabbi of Haifa, Shear-Yishuv Cohen? Or, the extremely controversial decision of American Orthodox rabbi Haskel Lookstein to participate in the "national prayer service" held at the National Cathedral (Washington DC) to mark the first inauguration of US president Barack Obama? To say nothing of the apparent attempt by the Jews of London to attend the Westminster Abbey coronation of King Richard I in 1189 and present him with gifts (the Jews, according to the then Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, Ralph de Diceto, were refused entry and brutally assaulted)?

In each of these cases you might argue that matters of national importance were at stake, and that the safety, status and/or well-being of the Jewish people as a whole were involved. I'm not impressed by such arguments. The absolute prohibition against idol worship has much resonance. Of course anyone entering a church (though not a mosque), runs such a risk. The question is, how great is it?

One can’t enter church without an aspect entering you

This issue was addressed by Naftali Brawer (then rabbi of the Borehamwood & Elstree United Synagogue) in this newspaper in 2008. Citing various halachic sources, Brawer argued that "one cannot simply enter a church without some aspect of the church entering you. By entering a church, one enters into a Christian religious experience. No matter how subliminal, it is inconsistent with Jewish faith and practice".

This reasoning is elegant not least in its unequivocal simplicity. But, even within the Orthodox world, it is not universally held. Shlomo Riskin (chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel) says: "Evangelical churches do not have icons or statues and it is certainly permissible to enter Evangelical churches.

"Churches do have icons as well as paintings and sculptures. If you enter to appreciate the art with an eye towards understanding Christianity and the differences between Judaism and Christianity so you can hold your own in discussions with Christians, then it is permissible."

I understand that the Free Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, was chosen for the election hustings on April 21 simply because of its size. The idea that Jews who attended that meeting somehow risked being alienated from their Jewish heritage seems to me very far-fetched indeed. But putting a cross on a ballot paper? There's a halachic question if ever there was one!

May 03, 2015 10:20

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