Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Religious Rapprochement

Rabbi Menachem Meiri of Perpignan (1249-1310)
From Alan Brill, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding,” Chapter 8. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010.

“It has already been stated that these things were said concerning periods when there existed nations of idolaters, and they were contaminated in their deeds and tainted in their dispositions ... but other nations, which are restrained by the ways of religion and which are free from such blemishes of character on the contrary, they even punish such deeds are, without doubt, exempt from this prohibition.” (Beit ha Bechirah on Avodah Zarah 53)

“But anyone who belongs to nations restricted by ways of religion and worshipping the Godhead in any way, even if their belief is very different from ours, are not included in these rules, but are completely like Jews in such matters, including [the obligation of] returning lost items and [the ban on] taking advantage of their mistakes, and all other things, without any difference.” (Beit ha Bechirah on Bava Kama 113a b)

In many other places, Meiri writes that gentiles, meaning Christians, have knowledge of the ways of religion (Ketubot 3; Gittin 59) and that therefore the laws of idolatry do not apply to them. He even includes contemporary Christian as brothers, "in the ways of religion" and included with Jews under the prohibition of interest (Beit ha Bechirah on Bava Metziah, 219, 267). The full texts of Meiri's commentary were not available until recently. Until the mid twentieth century, most rabbinic scholars only had the citations of his opinions available in other works.

The full version of his reasoning opens with an empirical observation that Jews are not avoiding Christian holidays. In order to explain why some of the rabbinic restrictions on gentiles are not fully observed, Meiri explains that the laws of foreign worship only apply to ancient idolatry and do not have to be followed, but the rabbinic dietary and wine restrictions still apply to contemporary religions and are still in effect.

“I have seen many people puzzled by the fact that nowadays nobody is careful to observe these laws. But I have already explained which Gentile nations are meant in this tractate, and the names of their holidays will also testify to it: for, as I mentioned above, they all are feasts of ancient nations, not restricted by the ways of religions, but practicing fervently and persistently worship of idols, stars and talismans, which—and all things like them—are essentials of idolatry, as has been already explained. But in any event, with regard to [avoiding] the possibility of violation of the prohibitions concerning the Sabbath and the prohibitions concerning food and drinks [of non Jews]—e. g. [the ban] on wine of libation, and on their wine per se, and all those type of bans, whether it is only consuming something [of theirs] in food which was banned, or getting any advantage of it, or if the bans were made in order to prevent intermarriages—all the [non Jewish] nations come under these prohibitions ... From now on, let these things be settled on your mind, so that it will not be necessary to clarify them specifically on each and every occasion, but you should be able to analyze on your own whether in any particular case the ancient nations are meant or the non-Jews in general; examine things, and you will know them.” (Beit HaBechirah on Avodah Zara 26a).