I am the Jewish Chaplain in a University in the U.K. Our graduation ceremony is held annually in our nearby city cathedral. The building is over 1000 years old and the experience is awe inspiring. One of my students is strictly orthodox and is concerned that he is not permitted to enter therein. He is also concerned that in entering the cathedral he will be walking through the attached cemetery where some of the graves are marked with a cross. He is not a Cohen so the cemetery prohibition does not apply. I would like to assure him that attendance by him and his parents will be permissible.
Thank you for bringing this question to me through JVO. As the former Orthodox Jewish chaplain at Harvard University, and the current dean of an institution which attracts many elite university students, I have deep appreciation for the office you hold.
I suspect that I cannot give you the assurance you prefer, for reasons I will set forth briefly. I hope that you’ll read what follows nonetheless. At the end I have some broader comments on the university chaplaincy.
The formal halakhic issue generally raised in this context is that of benefiting from a space dedicated to “avodah zarah”. Avodah Zarah is often mistranslated “idol worship”, but really refers to both worship of a false god or gods and egregiously improper worship of the true G-d.
Jewish scholars have debated for a millennium whether Christianity falls into this category. Leaving aside the technical legal discussion (you can read my opinion here), there is today on the one hand a recognition and acknowledgement of the good that Christianity does in the world and for Jews, including Catholic opposition to anti-Semitism and Evangelical support for Israel, and on the other hand an awareness of a long history of deadly violence, religious war, and persecution, and of Jews who martyred themselves rather than accept Christianity (which is only necessary halakhically if Christianity is classified as avodah zarah).
Contemporary Orthodox Halakhists respond to this tension in various ways. They distinguish between the religion and the religionist, and/or between “technical” and “substantive” avodah zarah. Some hold that Christianity is avodah zarah for Jews but not for Gentiles. Some hold that Trinitarian beliefs are not avodah zarah, but that specific practices such as the Eucharist (if one believes in transubstantiation or an equivalent) or kneeling before crucifixes are avodah zarah. Regardless, to the best of my understanding, the prohibition against entering sanctuaries actively used for and dedicated to Catholic or Anglican worship remains in force. It is redoubled rather than mitigated when associated with powerful ritual such as university commencements.
A pluralistic ethos has led some universities to rededicate their initially Christian sacred spaces as generic religious spaces into which religiously particularist symbols and accoutrements are inserted as necessary. If Muslim and Jewish and Sikh et al worship are now genuinely at home in the space in the same way as Christian worship, rather than (even the most honored of) guests, in my opinion the prohibition no longer applies. Possibly the same is true of some UK public cathedrals.
I should note that in my opinion none of this applies to walking through Christian cemeteries.
There remain two questions. First, all halakhic prohibitions exist within a matrix of values, and one might argue that other values supervene here. Second, what is the proper role of a university chaplain when a student expresses this sort of sensibility?
On the first:
There are circumstances under which I agree that Jews, especially public Jewish figures, may or must enter such spaces for the communal good. However, your formulation of the question argues only that it would provide the student himself with an edifying experience.
It would be foolish and dishonest to deny that Christian ritual itself can be powerful and uplifting and a genuine experience of transcendence. Nonetheless, Halakhah forbids Jews to seek out this experience. Let us grant the objective truth of your report of the positive power of the experience. Religious exclusivity has its costs, as does all exclusivity. We pay them willingly.
Moreover, I hold that a self-confident and historically aware Jewish community should strongly resist efforts to make Christian spaces the mandatory locus of universal rites of passage, even when there may be technical workarounds. The Harvard baccalaureate takes place in Memorial Chapel. I am proud of Deborah Klapper for choosing (before she met me) not to attend that portion of her Harvard graduation, and of the Harvard Divinity School valedictorian who did the same davka to make that point. And of the many others who did the same.
On the second:
A university chaplain should always be pushing students to develop their autonomous religiosity, especially when dealing with students who do not belong to one’s specific sect or denomination or confession. One can share one’s own core beliefs and experience, when the student has actively requested such sharing. Within specific terms of engagement, one can even seek to persuade.
With respect, however, and recognizing that my experience and attitudes may be parochially American, I don’t see it as the proper role of a chaplain to reassure an Orthodox student, who expressed an authentic religious discomfort, that something is halakhically permitted. Rather, I think you should encourage the student to do their own halakhic research; to develop relationships with Orthodox halakhists; and if they have discomfort with the results, to explore what that means for their religious identity. Under some circumstances, it might be your responsibility to represent the student’s discomfort to the university and advocate for the ceremony’s location to be changed. I am not comfortable with your trying to mediate or shield students from aspects of their tradition that you feel would deny them a worthwhile experience, any more than it would have been proper for me to reassure a Reform student that his or her denomination really opposes intermarriage, on the basis of finding some rabbis who held that way.
I acknowledge that this issue can generate serious intrafamily tension. Parents often have a deeper desire to see their child’s diploma ceremony than the child has to participate, and these sorts of prohibitions are observed more broadly and punctiliously in Orthodoxy today than in much of the 20th century. Helping students navigate the balance between honoring parents and their religious intuitions is a valid and vital pastoral role, and exactly what serious halakhic life and study should be about. (Deborah adds that the chaplain’s loyalty must always be to the student, and not to the parents.) The essay above incorporates my own experience playing that role with regard to this very question. You are welcome to contact me directly to continue the dialogue.
In 2005 a delegation of rabbis and cantors were invited to Rome to meet with John Paul II just before he passed away. The delegation was made up of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, including several prominent Orthodox rabbis: Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Joseph Arbib, the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Rome, and Rabbi Shmuel Rene Sirot, Past Chief Rabbi of Europe and France. The Rabbis in attendance recited a special prayer for the Pope and the cantorial group chanted the Shecheyanu. All of this took place in the Vatican. Given the ecumenical nature of this group, it would seem that at least for some Orthodox rabbis is permissible to enter a domain dedicated to the non-jewish worship.
The question, of course, is more complicated than an audience with the Pope. Jewish law contains statements such as, "It is a mitzvah to distance oneself four cubits from idolatry," (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 150:1) which some interpret as a reference to any religion that allows the worship of images. If one understands Catholicism as a form idolatry, then one might conclude that it is prohibited to enter a church, either for purposes of worship or for more secular purposes. Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote: "Regarding whether children can play ball in a hall that is connected to a church, it is definitely forbidden, even if there are no images there, for “Distance from it your ways” – this is heresy." (Igeret Moshe Orech Chaim 4:40.26) The question of whether Christianity is a form of idolatry is one that was debated throughout Jewish history. Ironically, Jews who lived among Christians tended to see Christianity as idolatry while Jews who lived in Moslem lands did not.
In addressing the Orthodox student, I would not try to convince him one way or another. Instead, I would ask him if he has addressed this question to his own Rav. If the student in question considers you his rabbi and decisor in matters of Jewish law, then I would make the following arguments to him. Firstly, today most contemporary rabbis do not consider Catholicism a form of idolatry. With our deeper understanding of other faiths, we realize that Catholics or other Christians do not worship the images of God in their holy place but simply use them to inspire a sense of reverence and faith. Secondly, in an age of ecumenicism we cannot expect Christian leaders to be open to dialogue in our domain if we are not willing to do the same for them. By wearing a kipah, you will be making a powerful statement that you are not there to participate in worship but to be a part of your graduation. Finally, since the purpose of entering the building in question is to participate in a purely secular activity and it is not being used for worship at that time, then its religious purpose is irrelevant at that moment. It is simply a venue without any religious significance. If anything, it has been chosen for its historic significance rather than its theological importance.
For the record, even if the said student was a kohen, it would be irrelevant even if he is passing through a non-Jewish cemetery. Kohanim are forbidden to enter a Jewish cemetery or have contact with a Jewish corpse because of impurity. But a non-Jewish cemetery or corpse do not convey impurity to a Jew, as far as I know!
 Sources borrowed from an essay Rabbi David Sperling, http://www.yeshiva.co/ask/?id=6517
The year before my son was born, my wife and I went to Paris. I'd never been, and I especially wanted to make a point of seeing the churches, including the cathedral at Notre Dame. Every church we went into took my breath away; the stained glass windows, the architecture, the way the nave seemed designed to amplify one's own voice such that one's immediate reaction was to become very quiet and still. Of course, I had been to churches before--to celebrate a friend's confirmation, weddings, interfaith services and study opportunities, including churches in Jerusalem--but this was different somehow, like something out of a novel.
One of the churches we visited was in the 16 arrondissement, and was still in use, so when we went in we had the same awe-inspired experience, but were also greeted by a bulletin board with pictures from some recent Sunday School activity. Seeing this filled me with a profound sadness, and it was only later that I was able to understand it; that sense that these young people could celebrate their Christianity without a worry in the world; meanwhile, their grandparents and great-grandparents would have watched their Jewish neighbors be led off to their doom in the 1940s. And who knows how many parishioners in each church going how far back in time witnessed slaughter, forced conversion, and oppression of Jews in Paris?
Even with rising antisemitism we live in a blessed time of openness and pluralism, but so many of our ancestors never had that luxury. So one can understand your student's concern about going to a place of explicit Christian expression, one that has not always been so kind to us as Jews. And it is worth mentioning that both the Shulchan Aruch and the Tur prohibit a Jew from entering within even 4 cubits of the door, but these are laws that reflect the time they were written; when a Jew at the church door could expect a beating, a forced conversion, or worse. Today we expect nothing of that sort to happen, and while it may make us feel uncomfortable (perhaps even with the beauty of the place) we know we are 'safe'.
I think the question becomes one of intent of the venue. Your student and his parents are not going to be converted under false pretenses. They're going to watch him graduate. So long as the graduation exercises have suitably non-Christian language in their formalities (I did have a friend who misread the form for graduation and so found himself receiving his degree in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!) he should feel reassured that this is a moment of celebration and achievement, not one of betrayal of either his tradition or ancestry. Part of being a Jew in the world, even an Orthodox one, is managing these moments where our differences are highlighted. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for him to do a little study himself around the halakhot before or after as a tribute to his graduation.
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