Judaism and Religious Freedom in the Medieval-Early Modern Period (1000 - 1782)

The medieval era marked a revolutionary change in the Jewish view of religious liberty. This was particularly clear in attitudes towards idolatry, as well as towards Christianity and (to a lesser extent) Islam, with whom Jews shared monotheism and morality but differed on matters of revelation.


For the rabbis of the Talmudic era, paganism was a living reality and was virtually synonymous with idolatry. Some early authorities maintained that Christianity had idolatrous features, the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation figuring most prominently. But some medieval rabbis, most notably Menachem ha-Meiri, reoriented the Jewish view of Christianity. He argued that paganism as described in the Talmud was no longer active, and that Christians, despite their association (shittuf) of Jesus of Nazareth with God, were truly monotheistic. This significant text, as well as several extracts below that build on it, represent a significant legal change in the status of Christians and Christianity in Jewish law. Ha-Meiri was joined in his views by the late medieval rabbi, Jacob Emden, who went even further in his positive evaluation of Christian morality. Christianity was thus no longer to be considered idolatrous despite its errant beliefs about Jesus, because Christians ultimately believe in and worship God.

Such reasoning narrowed contemporary understandings of idolatry while still managing to keep the concept alive. Jews later followed the same line of reasoning to think through the status of other traditions, in particular some of the apparently polytheistic Eastern religions. Still, Jewish tradition, like other traditions, contains many voices: some of the passages in this section, almost exclusively mystical in nature, insist on a metaphysical distinction, which extends into the political realm, between Jews and gentiles.

Along with removing the stain of idolatry from Christianity, the medieval rabbis also eliminated some of the double standards in rabbinic law. The example in our document is the “goring ox”: the rabbis of the Talmudic era maintained that if a gentile’s ox gored a Jew’s ox, the former had to reimburse the latter, but if the situation was reversed, reciprocity was not legally demanded. Medieval rabbis, such as Meiri, reversed this legal inequality because Christians and Muslims were judged to be non-idolators unlike the pagans of antiquity.

From the beginning of Islam, Jewish authorities generally considered it monotheistic, with some responsa (answers to halakhic questions) of the Geonim (leaders of Babylonian Talmudic academies in the early medieval era) even allowing Jews to benefit from wine handled by Muslims because they do use wine as an offering in their ritual practice. Unlike Christianity, however, Islam did not judge the Torah as revelation, considering it a corrupted text that scrubbed out passages heralding the Prophet Muhammed. Maimonides subsequently forbade teaching Torah to Muslims.

Lastly, at the edge of the transition from the medieval to modern era it is important to note briefly the case of Spinoza -- a case at the heart of developing conceptions of religious liberty. Because Spinoza publicly aired views at variance with Jewish tradition, he was placed under herem. Herem functions similarly to excommunication in Catholicism. Those put under the ban are denied public honors—reading from the Torah, being counted in a prayer quorum—and are socially ostracized. This brings up two questions about religious liberty: first, ought a religious community have the right, protected by the state, to decide who is to be a part of it? Alternatively, does an individual have a right, enforceable by the state, not to be excluded because of their opinions and practices? We see in the passages below that the community did indeed exercise what it took to be a right to exclude wayward members. In the next century, thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn would challenge this right.
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