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Why Christians, but not Muslims, can be taught Torah

December 10, 2015

reading-quranOver the past few months I have been corresponding via email almost daily with an Iranian Muslim man. Our conversations drift from religion to politics and back. When one talks with a Muslim about religion it quickly comes to the surface that Islam, while referring to Jews (and Christians) as “people of the Book” (the book being the Bible), considers the Jewish scriptures (including Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible) as having been thoroughly corrupted over time and even willfully adulterated by Jews, all in an effort to supposedly to edit Muhammad and Islam out of them.

As it says in the following hadith (quoting Muhammad):

Narrated ‘Ubaidullah bin ‘Abdullah: ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas said, “O the group of Muslims! How can you ask the people of the Scriptures about anything while your Book which Allah has revealed to your Prophet contains the most recent news from Allah and is pure and not distorted? Allah has told you that the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) have changed some of Allah’s Books and distorted it and wrote something with their own hands and said, ‘This is from Allah, so as to have a minor gain for it. Won’t the knowledge that has come to you stop you from asking them? No, by Allah, we have never seen a man from them asking you about that (the Book Al-Qur’an ) which has been revealed to you. (Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 614)

In other words, Koran teaches that the Jewish Bible, while may still hold some hints of once being revealed by G-d, is now completely unreliable. Such a stance almost immediately puts brakes on finding common scriptural ground between Jews and Muslims; arguing finer points and meanings of scripture is out of the question. Things like biblical prophecies about the glorious future of Israel are completely meaningless to a Muslim person (and even infuriating, since they contradict Islam’s own prophesied conquering of the world) as are Jewish biblical claims to the Land of Israel.

Having completely cut themselves off from Jewish scriptural sources (while claiming to have based itself on them), it is little wonder then that Islam is yet to do any soul searching about their own version of Replacement Theology as well as the pervasive anti-Judaism and antisemitism in the Muslim societyMuslims are generally silent about the evils done to Jews in the name of their religion from its very inception, something that many Christians have been doing for many decades since the Holocaust. Christians respect the Jewish scriptures as the holy Word of G-d and for some of them this reverence permits to re-examine their own Christian beliefs and test them against the Hebrew Bible.

These different approaches to the Jewish scriptures did not go unnoticed by Rambam (Maimonides), one of the greatest Jewish commentators on the Torah and philosophy.

Halachically, because of their worship of a man as god, Rambam viewed Christians as idol worshipers. He wrote in his interpretation of Mishna, tractate Avoda Zara 1:3:

Know that this Christian nation, who are making the claim of a messiah, with all their many different sects, are all idol worshipers and all their holidays are forbidden, and we deal with them regarding religious issues as we would pagans. 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.

In Hayad Hachazaka (Hilchot Avoda Zara 9:4), Maimonides put forth the following 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.

His view of Christianity as idolatry was unflinching. Living outside of Christendom and away from Church censors allowed him to speak far more freely about Christianity than his European brethren could ever do. On the other hand, Rambam viewed Islam (among which he lived) as a non-idolatrous faith, since it, unlike Christianity, did not ascribe any partners to G-d nor did it venerate statues or images of any deities or holy persons (as was common within most known Christendom before the Protestant Reformation). For this reason, Islam, with its rejection of idolatry, held a preferential place for Rambam among all non-Jewish religions (all of which he still saw as false). He wrote in his letter to Obadiah the Proselyte:

These Ishmaelites are not idol worshipers 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.

Nevertheless, while granting Islam monotheistic status, Maimonides ultimately didn’t have a very high regard either for Islam or its founder, calling Muhammad a “false prophet” and a “madman”, writing in his Epistle to Yemen:

“After [Jesus] arose the Madman who emulated his precursor [Jesus], since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission [talb al-mulk; pursuit of sovereignty] and he invented what was well known [Islam].”

Both Christianity and Islam were to him false religions, but for Maimonides Christians had one tremendous advantage over Muslims. Quite remarkably considering his low opinion of Christianity, Rambam clearly thought that it was the Christians, and not the purely monotheistic Muslims, who had a far greater chance to discover the truths locked in Torah and other Jewish scripture. This was all due to the fact that Christians, unlike Muslims, viewed the Jewish scriptures as having a continued validity, not having been corrupted by Jews but instead supernaturally preserved by G-d Himself. (Although it must be noted that historically some Christians did accuse Jews of corrupting their own scriptures to write Jesus and Trinity of out of them, and preferred “superior” Church-authored Greek or Latin translations, eschewing the Hebrew text in use by Jews). Because Muslims rejected the Jewish scriptures as authentic, as forgery and lies, but Christians granted them great respect and veneration, Rambam gave his approval to teaching Torah and Judaism to Christians but not to Muslims (on whom such efforts would be wasted), thus permitting to draw Christians closer to the Jewish faith:

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

The infinitely more reverential view of Jewish scriptures within Christianity helps explains the far greater numbers of Christians becoming converts to Judaism or embracing Noahide Laws as interpreted by the rabbis and it also helps explain Evangelicalism’s support of Israel.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2015 4:26 am

    Great post. Interestingly, while the Christians consider the Hebrew Bible authentic, albeit at least partially obsolete, and Islam doesn’t, one can engage in discussion regarding the verses of the Tanakh with a Christian but not a Muslim. At the same time, it is permissible for a Jew to go into a Mosque and even pray in one (again according to the Rambam), since Muslims are truly monotheistic (their houses of prayer are not idolatrous). On the other hand, it is forbidden to enter a church and definitely not to pray in one, since it is a place of idolatrous worship.

    For anyone who thinks Allah is a different diety, in the Tanakh, God is rendered as El, Elohim, Eloah (actually Alohim and Aloah, as segol is the same as a patah authentically) in Hebrew. In the Aramaic sections of Tanakh, it is rendered Elah (truly Alah for same reason above). Arabic is rooted in TONS of Hebrew and Aramaic, and therefore it should be no surprise that Aloah (Hebrew), Alah (Aramaic), and Allah (Arabic) are the same word. It’s obvious enough for anyone who knows a little bit about Hebrew.

    Secondly, the very ancient community of Jews from Yemen used to read the Torah in not just Hebrew and Aramaic (Tarjum) as all Jewish communities used to, but also in Arabic (Tafsir). In the Arabic Tafsir, the Name of HaShem is translated “Allah”. Take a look for yourselves:

    Although this is all true, Islam is a foreign religion and while not technically idolatry, polytheism, etc, it is forbidden for anyone to follow Islam since it sets up often very similar laws to Torah, yet different, and like in the case of Christianity, it is comprised of bastardized forms of Judaism, in Islam’s case, mostly in it’s religious practice and laws (whereas Christianity is largely theological, having little to do with any real comprehensive adherence to religious law).

    Since even such things as anger and pride are considered like idolatry, as the Sages state, then Islam is definitely like idolatry, and is idolatry on a different level, since it sets up another kingdom that claims to worship The [One and Only] God, but perverts the true service of Him.

  2. Concerned Reader permalink
    December 16, 2015 6:39 am

    Aaron, while I agree with you 100% that Allah is indeed the equivalent Arabic term for hashem, and although its true that Muslim’s pray only to Allah, the picture of G-d that emerges from the Qu’ran and the Hadith is unlike Hashem as described in the Tanakh in several ways.

    So, while its true that Islam is strictly monistic (it prays to only one power,) and has some rituals in common with Judaism, it couldn’t be the “same” deity. Hashem himself is never actually addressing Muhammad, or making a covenant with him, but an angel is commanding Muhammad to recite. The described interaction is totally different.

    1st is the fact that Muhammad was not sure of the state of his own prophecy, (as the Hadith well attests.) He tried to kill himself several times, and was also unsure whether it was a good or “bad” messenger that he spoke to, until he spoke to his wife and other relatives.

    2nd Surah 53 An-Najm 19-20 has an angel tempt Muhammad to invoke Al-Alat and Al Uza, as well as Manat, three Arab deities. The shrine of Al-Lat is still standing.

    Al-lāt is also explicitly attested from early Islamic records discussing the pre-Islamic period. According to the Book of Idols (Kitāb al-ʾAṣnām) by Hishām ibn al-Kalbi, the pre-Islamic Arabs believed Al-lāt resided in the Kaʿbah and also had an idol inside the sanctuary:

    Strictly speaking then, Muhammad has violated Deuteronomy 4 in its plainest sense by invoking actual foreign deities whereas Jesus always spoke about hashem, though it was in a novel manner.

    (Though I would argue that Jesus’ descriptions were not that novel in light of later failed Jewish messianic movements, and replicated ideas/trends.) Jesus’ violation of Deuteronomy 4 is a violation by degree, ie violation per a novel notion about G-d’s nature relating to himself, not a violation of invoking foreign deities or maintaining their shrine (the Ka’ba) as Muhammad did.

    3. Muhammad was unsure as to the state of one’s relationship with G-d. G-d is not really maintained as a G-d of faithful covenant in the Qu’ran. The word covenant is used, and G-d in the Quran is very often described as compassionate and merciful, but the prophet is unaware whether his talking with the angel has any real effect on his relationship with G-d. The meat of the notion of covenant therefore is totally distorted, or lost.

    Contrast this with the Torah where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, are all aware of covenant promise, hashem’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel, and are even confident enough to deliberate with G-d on issues, ie Genesis 18 when Abraham pleads for Sodom. You can’t deliberate with G-d unless you know who G-d is.

    G-d as described in the Torah loves his people. Even the anti-Jewish christian bible states plainly that G-d loves his people, and will be faithful to them ie Romans 11, even the crucified one says “forgive them, they know not what they do.”

    So, it seems to me that Christianity should be classified as Minut primarily, perhaps a unique form of Jewish idolatry (in that similar ideas have emerged in later Judaism,) an idol like the brass serpent, as opposed to strictly espousing a foreign deity as outlined by Deuteronomy 4s prohibitions. So, while I agree that praying to J is not sanctioned, the deity the NT describes is much more in step with G-d then Islam’s deity. Jesus told Jews to follow the Torah and the Pharisees, told foreigners that salvation is of the Jews, said the Shema is the greatest commandment, etc.

    I think the Meiri was more adept at noticing the Nuances in Christianity and Islam than other rabbis.

  3. December 16, 2015 10:09 am

    Finally, some love for this post that I worked so hard on!

    My personal opinion is that you are both right:)

  4. December 16, 2015 6:39 pm

    It did not mean we did not appreciate the post even if we did not comment :)

  5. December 25, 2015 1:53 pm

    Good article but with regards to Islam or Mohammadism, surely praying to a single god or deity doesn’t mean they are not IDOL WORSHIPERS nor PAGAN.

  6. December 25, 2015 2:06 pm

    Lexa Go, I agree, it doesn’t mean that. One could believe in a single deity (such as an Egyptian sun god introduced by Amenhotep IV to the exclusion of all previous Egyptian gods), that is be a “pure monotheist”, and STILL be an idolater.

    Even regarding Islam, which is monotheistic, for Jews to practice Islam I personally would still put it in the category “avodah zarah”, or strange worship (a term which also includes idolatry, but not in the case of Islam) because it created a new religion by perverting the Hebrew Bible and created practices not commanded by G-d of the Bible. However, Rambam, who lived under Islam, is so highly respected among many Jewish halachic deciders (poskim), that his opinion that Islam is NOT “avodah zarah” is followed today by many Jews. (Some of the poskim, however, do consider Islam strange worship and forbid Jews from entering mosques, for example).

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