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The Rambam quite clearly considered Christianity to be avodah zarah. He did not feel the same way about Islam, however, going so far as to condone praying within a mosque, and many Orthodox Jewish Rabbis take the same position on the subject, but with some adding a "shittuf" exception for gentiles.

If Christians are idolaters and thus violate the Noahide laws against idolatry and the commandment to worship the one G-d, why has the Christian West come to dominate the entire world? Why was it Christians who explored and colonized the globe, went into space and then later to the moon, and not Muslims? It really does seem that G-d has favored and blessed the West and the United States in particular, which seems to be completely at odds with the designation of their faith as avodah zarah, when G-d could have just as easily elevated the Muslim world instead. Why would G-d prefer idolaters to non-idolaters?

Second, why are Jews still living among Christians if they are idolaters and not with each other in Israel or, following the Rambam's lead, living among Muslims? Isn't it hypocritical to denounce the faith of the majority of those around you as idolatry when you could choose to live, as Maimonides did, in a Muslim country without those idolaters or without as many of them (particularly without them in positions of power)?

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Gabriel, welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for the thought-provoking question! We'd love to have you as a fully-registered member, which you can accomplish by clicking login/register, above. –  Isaac Moses Feb 22 '11 at 4:08
+1 for the second part of the question about the choices disposably mobile Jews make regarding places to live. Is the first part not just a special case of rasha v'tov lo, or "why do good things happen to bad people?"? –  WAF Feb 22 '11 at 4:26
On the other hand, the Rambam felt that Christians could be taught Torah and Muslims could not, since at least the Christians accepted the sacredness of the Old Testament. And beyond that, the Rambam lived in the Muslim world -- those Rishonim who lived in the Christian world were much more accommodating with their Christian neighbors. Indeed, many achronim felt that Christians were not Ovdei Avodah Zara (see R. David Chaim HaLevi's piece in Techumin 9 on Darchei Shalom for a variety of sources, including many of the most distinguished achronim) –  Curiouser Feb 22 '11 at 14:50
For a period of time (from 750 CE to 1258 CE) called Islamic Golden Age Muslims were in much better position than Christians scientifically, economically, and militarily. There has been many reasons given for their decline in the later period. –  Kaveh Nov 18 '11 at 4:29
These are two separate, and loaded, questions. I'm not sure they really are productive. –  Seth J Oct 30 '12 at 14:46

8 Answers 8

R' Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (author of Daas Sofrim), in his volume on Jewish history since the close of Tanach, in fact harshly criticizes the Jews of Babylonia for migrating from there to the Christian West during the Geonic era. He argues, for one thing, that they should have learned from the experience of the Jews under Byzantine domination (especially in the 5th-6th centuries) that a Christian society is no place for Jews.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and maybe indeed if our ancestors knew then what we know now, they might have stayed put. But on the other hand, the fact is that neither religion has been monolithic in its treatment of Jews - in fact, during that era Charlemagne and his immediate successors in Western Europe were pretty friendly towards Jews.

As for why the Christian nations dominate the world rather than the Muslim ones, some thoughts:

  • History isn't over yet. Were we living a thousand years ago, the question would be reversed - and we don't know what might happen in the future.

  • We're still in the exile of Edom (until the coming of Moshiach). Throughout Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Edom is identified with Rome; and Rome's successor (cultural and religious) is the Western world far more so than the Islamic one. (Though there were some early authorities - I think R' Saadiah Gaon was one - who say that the Romans were the cultural inheritors of Greece and therefore count as part of that kingdom, while Islam is the "fourth kingdom" that will hold sway in the era before Moshiach's arrival.)

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Regarding Galus Yishmael: “There is no exile more difficult for Yisrael than the Galus Yishmael” – Zohar Shemos 17a . “It is already known the there are only four exiles: Bavel, Madai, Yavan, and Edom. However, in the future there will still be another in the end of days, in the exile of Yishmael.” – R. Chaim Vital, Eitz HaDaas Tov Tehillim 124 - from neryaakov.org/… . It appears that the Eitz HaDaas is quoted here: dafyomireview.com/article.php?docid=269 –  Menachem Jun 28 '11 at 18:51
Bavel is babylon. What is madai? Persia? Medes? What's Yavan? And where are all these written? –  Jim Thio Nov 15 '11 at 4:55
@Jim: Madai is Media (including also its neighbor Persia, which came to overshadow it). Yavan is the Greek empire of Alexander, and its successor Hellenistic states (the name Yavan is etymologically related to Ionia). The list of these four exiles ultimately goes back to the traditional interpretation of Daniel's visions (chs. 7-12); the exact list is found in Genesis Rabbah 2:4 and in other sources. –  Alex Nov 15 '11 at 15:10

Yes it seems funny; at the other extreme, anti-Semitism in India is considered virtually nonexistant historically, when Hinduism and Judaism have, shall I say, more or less mutually-exclusive theologies.

Part of the answer seems to be that "good fences make good neighbors", or as one genealogist put it, "you fight with your cousins." A religion that has nothing to do with Judaism whatsoever tends to mind its own business. It's because Islam shares so much history, ideology, and geography with Judaism that it has caused clashes.

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First, I have to point out that the Rambam, although he lived in Egypt, was no fan of Islam or Mohammed who he called a "madman" and "the defective one" in his Letter to Yemen.

On the general point: Over the last 2000 years, Jews have migrated extensively; probably more so than any other nation or people. Here is a nice summary of the post-exile movement of our people. As you can see from the descriptions and the map at the bottom of the page, Jewish migration was often linked to economic potential and cultural advantages and disadvantages. Therefore a variety of issues caused some people to emigrate to Rome, others to Greece, east to Babylonia, Europe or along the African and Asia Minor coasts.

For the first six centuries, the Christians were not a major problem to Jews as the Christians were busy battling and converting (often by force) the pagan tribes of Europe. Dimont, "Jews, G-d and History, pp. 151-152. Also Jews benefited because they were more educated and cultured than the newly-converted pagans were, and rose to relatively high positions. Ibid. pp. 213.

During the feudal era, Europe held some attraction to Jews because of the restrictions placed on Jews. Christians were tied to the land or if they were craftsmen, they were tied to their guilds and forbidden by law to lend money at interest. Jews, however, were forbidden to own land or join the guilds. But that meant they had nothing tying them down, and they alone could lend money with interest to non-Jews. Carroll, "Constatine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History," pp 243-44.

The conflict between Moslems and Christians, during the Crusades period, also benefited Jews who lived in or traveled to both worlds. Welcome in both worlds, Jews were able to sell the goods of Moslems (and others through Asia) to the Christian nations, thereby pollinating Europe with many influences from the Orient. See Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 214; Stillman, "Jewish Merchants," contained in Meri and Bacharach, "Medieval Islamic Civilization L-Z" at pp 497-498.

But with the success of Jewish merchants came a downside: "When Feudal man realized the superiority of the Jewish way of doing things, he absorbed Jewish know-how, kicked the Jews out to eliminate the competition, and went into business for himself." Dimont, at 224. Jews migrated instead to Eastern Europe where their special skills were welcomed. Ibid.

Jews did well in the Islamic world, depending upon the rise and fall of various sects. Jews during Rambam's early years were respected and protected in Andalusia during the reign of the Almoravids, but when they were deposed in 1148 by the Berbers, that sect forced Jews to convert to Islam if they chose to stay. 1954 Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 18, p. 140.
Similarly, other Jewish communities in the Arab world suffered ups and downs depending on who was in charge.

But, as always, Jews outside of their homeland live where they are welcome, and leave where they are not. Before World War II, 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe. Holocaust Encyclopedia. But because of the Holocaust and continued anti-semitism in parts of Europe, only 1.45 million reside there, according to the American Jewish Yearbook for 2010. The Arab-Israel conflict has caused a sharp downturn in the Jewish population in Moslem countries. The Jewish population in the Middle East dropped from 1 million in 1948, including Iran but excluding Israel, to less than 20,000 in 2010. That decrease includes 867,000 Jews who were expelled, or forced out of Moslem countries at war with Israel. "The Forgotten Exodus," Jerusalem Post Special Supplement, Nov. 29, 2002, pp. 12-13.

To summarize: The fact that Christians are or are not idolators is not determinative of where Jews live. They live where it is in their own interests.

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Ironic, then, that people claim the Rambam converted to Islam and that he has been claimed as a Muslim scholar in recent years. –  Seth J Feb 8 '13 at 3:14
@SethJ People say a lot of crazy things.... Irony is not even the word :( –  HodofHod Feb 8 '13 at 4:28

In response to your first question, see Rambam Kings (ch. 11) where he discusses the reasons for the success of Christianity and Islam. He prefaces the discussion by noting that we cannot ever hope to fully understand God's motivation for shaping history.

He then continues by offering the idea that these religions pave the way for the coming of Mashiach, by spreading the ideas of God, the Law and Messianic times.

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Some thoughts:

First, if there is a "shituf" exception for gentiles (making Xianity essentially permissible to them), then it's unclear why Islam should dominate.

Second, the United States has only been dominant for 100 years or less. During that period of time, rabbis have often referred to the U.S. as a medinat shel chessed, a state of lovingkindness, because of the relative absence of anti-Semitism here. So even if Xianity may be technically Avodah Zara, it is understandable that Hashem would allow one of the least anti-Semitic countries in the world, that allows Jews unprecedented freedom and tolerance (unmatched outside of Israel), to dominate the world.

Third, interestingly, many of the early Founding Fathers were Deists, who believed in God but not necessarily Yashka. (I'm trying to avoid saying the Xian "messiah's" name for halachic reasons.) Thomas Jefferson even wrote a version of the Xian Bible removing everything supernatural and portraying Yashka as little more than a wise man. Our national public discourse ("In G-d we Trust;" "under G-d, with liberty and justice for all," the "great God our king" line in "My Country 'Tis of Thee," which has the same melody as "G-d Save the Queen") often refers to G-d but seldom to Yashka. Perhaps this makes Xianity a less serious candidate for Avodah Zara here.

Fourth, it makes sense that a country would be judged for its national discourse and what it imposes on its inhabitants (which is very little, given church/state separation), rather than the beliefs of the population itself.

Fifth, I'm not sure we should assume it's such a good thing to dominate the world. The US lags behind numerous European (and a few Asian) countries in life expectancy, infant mortality rate, literacy, educational quality, inequality/social cohesion, social services/welfare, health care quality, public safety/crime, happiness, homelessness, etc., all of which result at least partly from insufficient public spending, while the military gets as much funding as it wants.

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It has been my understanding that the Rema stated that Christians are not exactly idolaters. They are, rather, practicing "Shituf", meaning that though they associate Hashem with... some other thing, they still have Hashem as the creator of heaven and earth in mind when they pray. Though the associations they are making are false and forbidden to Jews, they are not actually violating the prohibition on gentiles. Is this an incorrect understanding?

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It is correct regarding Catholicism. I am not sure if there are differences re: whether it is shituf or AZ based on the varying beliefs of other sects. –  Yahu Feb 28 '11 at 0:06
from ottmall.com/mj_ht_arch/v33/mj_v33i68.html : Following are a few of the Gedolim that paskened shituf to be (prohibited for a ben noach: The Pri Megadim (O"C E"E 156:2, Y"D S"D 65:11) | The Machatzis HaShekel (O"C 156:2). | The Chasam Sofer (hagahos to S"A O"C 156) | The Minchas Chinuch (86:1) | The Sha'ar Ephraim (Shu"t 24) and the Meil Tzedakah (22). | The Pischei Teshuvah (Y"D 147:2) | The Darchei Teshuvah (Y"D 147:12). I didn't actually check out any of these sources. –  Menachem Jun 6 '11 at 19:39
The Nodah B'Yehuda (Second Edition, Responsa 148) says that there is no source for the people who say that Shituf is permissible for a non-jew. He says that the people who say that are making a mistake. He also interprets the Remah to show that the Remah did not say that either. hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14662&st=&pgnum=188 –  Menachem Jun 6 '11 at 20:49
@Menachem See what the Pitchei Teshuva YD 147 says about that Noda B'Yehuda –  Double AA Feb 6 '13 at 7:42
This seems more like a comment. –  Double AA May 29 at 21:47

Here is a relevant Gemara in Yoma 10

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום ר' יהודה ברבי אלעאי עתידה רומי שתפול ביד פרס קל וחומר ומה מקדש ראשון שבנאוהו בני שם והחריבוהו כשדיים נפלו כשדיים ביד פרסיים מקדש שני שבנאוהו פרסיים והחריבוהו רומיים אינו דין שיפלו רומיים ביד פרסיים אמר רב עתידה פרס שתפול ביד רומי אמרו ליה רב כהנא ורב אסי לרב בנויי ביד סתורי אמר להו אין גזירת מלך היא איכא דאמרי אמר (ליה) אינהו נמי הא קא סתרי בי כנישתא תניא נמי הכי עתידה פרס שתפול ביד רומי חדא דסתרי בי כנישתא ועוד גזירת מלך הוא שיפלו בונין ביד סותרין דאמר רב יהודה אמר רב אין בן דוד בא עד שתפשוט מלכות רומי הרשעה בכל העולם כולו תשעה חדשים שנאמר (מיכה ה, ב) לכן יתנם עד עת יולדה ילדה ויתר אחיו ישובון על בני ישראל:

Edit: Translation from Soncino

Rabbah B'Bar Hana in the name of R'Johanan, on the authority of R'Judah B'Ila'i, said: Rome is designed to fall into the hands of Persia, that may be concluded by inference a minori ad majus: If in the case of the first Sanctuary, which the sons of Shem [Solomon] built and the Chaldeans destroyed, the Chaldeans fell into the hands of the Persians, then how much more should this be so with the second Sanctuary, which the Persians built and the Romans destroyed, that the Romans should fall into the hands of the Persians.

Rab said: Persia will fall into the hands of Rome.

Thereupon R'Kahana and R'Assi asked of Rab: [Shall] the builders fall into the hands of the destroyers? - He said to them: Yes, it is the decree of the King.

Although the point it is addressing is not altogether the same, the question of why the Romans succeed underserved is addressed. The answer is that it is the will of the King (Hashem).

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Can you translate and/or summarize per our site policies on jargon and citations? –  Double AA May 29 at 20:17

The Christian world is more advanced in science an technology now because they are blessed with most Jews (outside of Israel) living among them. This is the opposite to Muslim countries. But Muslims got their peace of blessing for strict monotheism, and that is through oil, which was given to them in such disproportional abundance that they got lazy and slack on education.

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This is circular. Why were the Jews there to begin with? And can you source that Muslims are less educated because they are lazy and rich? That isn't my understanding. –  Double AA Oct 30 '12 at 14:22
Additionally, not all Muslims are rich. From what I know, the wealth gap in Middles Eastern countries is huge. Think "We are the 99.9999999 percent" –  HodofHod Feb 6 '13 at 4:21
@HodofHod One in a billion. So there's only one wealthy Muslim in the Middle East? ;) –  Fred Feb 6 '13 at 6:58
@Fred Or perhaps, everyone just like to complain about a single Muslim. –  Double AA Feb 7 '13 at 5:37

protected by Double AA Feb 7 '13 at 1:52

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