My girlfriend runs a business selling hand-spun tzitzit (fringes for a ritual prayer shawl). Recently, a customer asked her if he could send her his tallit (prayer shawl) and have her tie the new tzitzit directly onto it. She agreed, but was surprised to find, when the tallit arrived, that it was a Messianic (a non-Jewish, fully Christian group that usurps Jewish ritual and incorrectly incorporates it into non-Jewish worship) tallit, complete with a New-Testament quote on the atarah (the neckpiece). Would it still be OK to sell tzitzit to this customer? On the one hand, we're profiting from an arguably idolatrous practice, but, on the other, she's helping a (presumably) fellow Jew (albeit an apostate one) fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit. What Jewish values are at work here? And what should we do?
( A Caveat - While there are actually a variety of halachic issues embodied within this scenario, I have chosen, in response to this question, to focus solely on the issue of a Messianic Jew attempting to do a mitzvah [as I believe that to be the essence and purpose of this question from which we should not deviate]. I would ask the reader, as such, not to necessarily form conclusions of my opinion in Jewish Law regarding other aspects of this question. In the same vein, I have also not considered the possible repercussions in secular law, if there are any, for refusing to service or sell to a specific customer in these circumstances. By extension, I also did not deal with issues related to when there may be, as such, a conflict between secular law and Torah law. )
There is a fallacy in the minds of many Jews that Halacha is solely about practice and not thought. As such, many Jews have the incorrect idea that intent in the performance of a mitzvah is irrelevant; that the focus of Jewish practice is solely on behaviour and not what one is thinking. This, however, is not the case. T.B. Rosh Hashanah 28a,b (amongst other places in the Talmud) discusses the concept of mitzvot tzrichot kevana, questioning whether, to count as a fulfillment of a mitzvah, an act must be performed with the proper intent or not. For example, if someone happens to pick up a shofar on Rosh Hashanah and blows into without any thought that he would thereby be fulfilling a mitzvah, would this blowing of the shofar be deemed to have fulfilled the command, the mitzvah, to blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah? The conclusion of Jewish Law is actually no. Especially in regard to Biblical commandments, the dominant view within Halacha is mitzvot tzrichot kevana, to fulfill a command an act must be done with proper intent that one is thereby fulfilling the Will of God. As such, given that this person would not be wearing tzitzit with the proper intent, in approaching this question we should first recognize that there is no argument that through providing the tzitzit this woman would be helping a fellow Jew fulfil a mitzvah. She would not. Should she, though, still, do this? Can she do this?
T.B. Pesachim 50b (again amongst many other places) raises the idea of lo lishmah bah lishmah, that a deed even if performed without the proper intent may eventually still lead to a performance with the proper intent -- and, as such, performance without the proper intent should still be encouraged. This argument was actually one of those at the root of the Lubavitch tefillin campaign – that even though it could not be guaranteed that those putting on tefillin had the proper intent, there was still a possible educational or behavioural value in promoting this behaviour although, without the proper intent, it could not truly be defined as a mitzvah. (An additional argument that Lubavitch presented was that, in these circumstances, the minority opinions that declared that proper intent was not necessary in fulfillment of a mitzvah should also be relied upon.) Perhaps one could maintain that a similar argument of lo lishmah bah lishmah would be possible in our case and that it would be appropriate to supply this tzitzit as this behaviour may lead to an eventual proper fulfillment of this mitzvah with correct intent. The further problem in this case, however, is that we are discussing what would be halachically defined as a negative intent.
In regard to the discussion of mitzvot tzrichot kevana, while the debate focused on proper intent or simply no mitzvah intent, it was generally accepted that if there was negative intent – intent not to do a mitzvah, not to fulfil God’s Will, intent for some idolatrous purpose – there would clearly not be a mitzvah. This is the case here. We are not just dealing with a case of no intent or a secular intent (such as, for example, blowing a shofar because one simply wants to blow a horn). In our case, the intent is further problematic for it represents a contrary theological perspective than that of Halacha. One would not just be wearing tzitzit for some other reason but with a reason contrary to Torah thought – one, it could be said, is using the law in a way to defy the law.
The fact is that Jewish Law looks very negatively on the usurpation of Jewish religious ideals by foreign religious concepts especially if done by a Jew. Perhaps the most powerful example of this is the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 281:1 which states that a Sefer Torah written by a heretic is to be burnt. Even though, this Sefer Torah contains the name of God and, in every detail, looks exactly like any other Sefer Torah, the call is not just to not use it and not just to bury it but to actually destroy it. Intent matters, even to this extent. A holy object such as a Sefer Torah created with intent contrary to the recognition of its specific holiness within the parameters of Torah thought is to be burnt. The bottom line, as such, would be that there would seem to be no Jewish value in providing this tzitzit to this individual. In fact, it would be contrary to Torah values to do so.
So the straightforward answer would seem to be that you should not affix this tzitzit to this prayer shawl or in any way be involved in his manipulation of Torah into another religious system. In affixing this tzitzit to this tallis that reflects the views of another religion, one would really be called upon to desecrate Torah values and it would be clearly inappropriate. What if, though, the Messianic simply wished to buy the tzitzit and would affix them himself (or get someone else to do so)? My belief is one should still refrain from doing this as well, especially given the knowledge that the tzitzit would not be used properly. The issue here is not simply that you would be assisting a fellow Jew in doing an aveira, a sin, but also that you would be involved in the desecration of a Jewish religious object. Simply, Torah standards do not allow for you to be involved in providing tzitzit in this manner.
I should note in conclusion, though, that within cases such as this, a further consideration must always be the unique, personal situation. Perhaps, for example, through this sale you would be making a connection with this person and as a result perhaps could lead him away from these views contrary to Torah. The issue is actually a much broader one. How can anyone who sells Jewish religious items know for certain that all his/her customers will use the purchased items respectfully? Yet, if every time someone went to purchase an item of this nature they would face a third degree interrogation the result could be a strong decrease in interest in Torah. Every case of this nature has unique policy considerations and, as such, it is important in such matters to consult a Rabbi to discuss the particular circumstances and to determine the best possible alternative. Still, even the desire to do something good and bring a person back to the fold does not allow for transgression, especially of such a serious matter as profaning Jewish religious objects.
There are a number of interesting issues involved in this question. First, the question assumes that Christianity is idolatry. Is this true? The answer to this is "not necessarily." While there are many figures of authority (such as Maimonides) who held that Christianity, especially the belief in the trinity, is, if not outright idolatry then shituf, or the quasi-idolatrous belief in a partnership with God, or that there is more than one person in the Godhead. On the other hand, equally authoritative voices in the tradition held the opposite. In the thirteenth century, the great Provencal Sage Rabbi Menahem Ha'Meiri wrote that all who are bound by the boundaries of religion are not idolatrous. He definitely included Christianity within this definition (and probably also Islam which Maimonides also believed was not idolatrous). So on the concern of aiding and abetting an idolatrous practice (a problem for the tradition), your girlfriend is seemingly on safe ground.
A different concern (that you didn't raise) might be that the tallit would be used in an evangelizing context. That is, by wearing the tallit, the wearer might give the impression that s/he is an authentically observant Jew, and therefore in some way trick an observer into listening to what s/he has to say as if it were traditional Judaism. This is a serious concern referred to in the tradition by the Biblical verse: "Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person." (Leviticus 19:14) This is understood by the rabbis to refer to many types of activity that lead another astray. Giving a Messianic Jew the ability to present themselves as professing an authentic form of Judaism may just be placing a stumbling block before a blind person.
However, what if the situation is that the Messianic Jew in question is not interested in evangelizing or presenting himself as anything other than a Jew who sees the belief in Jesus as part of his Jewish practice (and I'm not sure how one would verify this). As a result of his belief he fulfills the commandments to the best of his ability, and in addition, declares his fidelity to Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Is there a fundamental problem for a Jew in believing that the messiah has already come and will come again? Again, most authorities would answer yes. However, in recent years the answer to this question has become a little more ambiguous as at least part of the Lubavitch or Chabad Hassidic sect (unquestionably a significant and authentic Jewish movement) has claimed (based on esoteric kabbalistic or mystical texts) that the last Rebbe, who is dead, is the messiah and may in fact return. Almost no one (there are a few dissenters such as the philosopher David Berger) would refuse to sell tzitzit to a Lubavitch Hassid because of his belief in the messiahship of the rebbe OBM.
So there you have it. If your potential customer is a non-evangelizing, honestly believing Messianic Jew and you don't think it a problem to believe that the messiah died and will return, then by all means sell him or her the tzitzit. On the other hand, if your situation does not fit this paradigm, then perhaps you should return the tallit bereft of tzitzit.
Look at it this way: by selling tzitzit to a Messianic Jew, you would not be helping him to fulfill a mitzvah. Rather, you would be aiding him in the commission of – at least – two sins (aveirot).
The first of these is apostasy, the abandonment of Judaism for another religion. Jews, as you are well aware, tend to disagree about many things. But one thing we all seem to agree on is that a religion centered upon the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is not Judaism but Christianity. The Messianics, of course, will deny this, arguing that their creed is a legitimate version of Jewish belief. But that’s where we diverge from them. This is one of our red lines, an act of communal self-definition, a boundary that over the last two thousand years has distinguished Jews from Christians. The Messianics do not respect that boundary. But we should.
The second transgression is g’neivat da`at, often translated as “deceptive behavior” or even “false advertising.” Messianic Jews may be quite sincere in thinking that Jesus-worship is a legitimate Jewish act. But precisely because we deny this assertion so completely and fundamentally, we must refute it at every appropriate opportunity. And we ought not do anything that helps them persuade others that one can be a good Jew and a Christian at one and the same time.
For a more complete argument on this question, see the Reform responsum (rabbinical opinion) no. 5754.1, “Selling Ritual Objects to Jews for Jesus,” in Teshuvot for the Nineties (New York: CCAR Press, 1997), pp. 143-146.
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