Shabbat Parashat Noach | 5767
Ask the Rabbi
Question: I was approached by a friend who was surprised to see your column using an expression that comes straight out of another religion’s writings. Is that permitted?
Answer: We will omit the specific expression, as we will explain later. In truth, I was unaware of the expression’s source. While I have had a lot of exposure to American culture, I am quite ignorant regarding other prevalent religions and do not plan to study them to avoid any such problem. Yet, the question remains: may one knowingly use terms from their texts or lore in a context that is not religious in context?
The Torah forbids us to copy chukot hagoyim (gentile practices) (Shulchan Aruch, YD 178:1). It is hard to delineate the extent of this halacha, but let us mention some guidelines. One should not perform a strange or problematic gentile practice, which would indicate that he is doing so to copy them or makes it apparent that the practice is related to the service of their religion (Rama, ad loc.). Logical practices of society are permitted, even if they originate from non-Jewish elements, especially if they are not geared specifically toward the non-Jews (see Igrot Moshe YD I, 81).
The use of idioms and phrases is a logical practice. However, perhaps the origin in the context of a different religion, not general society, is a problem. A parallel case that is discussed by poskim is using a secular date that is associated with a central event of a different religion. Most poskim permit using these dates, which even appear sporadically in rabbinic literature without incident. The issue was raised prominently by Hungarian poskim at the height of the struggle against the Reform movement. The Maharam Shick (Shut, YD 171) strongly opposed the innovation of writing the gentile date on a tombstone. He considered it a violation of the prohibition to cause others to utter the name of gods of others by extending it to people thinking about other religions’ beliefs, as he felt the date would do.
Tzitz Eliezer (VIII, 8) argues that using a date of gentile origin per se is not a problem, even according to the Maharam Shick. Rather the initials that follow, which indicate its religious context, are the issue. The same date in a “pareve” context is not a problem. After all, the Maharam Shick identifies the problem as what one is led to think about, not the practice itself, as it is regarding regular chukot hagoyim. Thus, context is crucial. Admittedly, the Tzitz Eliezer (and Yabia Omer III, YD 9 who takes a different approach) while permitting use of the secular date, stresses to do so only when there is a specific need.
One should realize that even if a phrase’s source is the sacred books of a certain religion, if its use as a phrase or idiom freely crosses religious lines, it does not represent that religion. One can prove this from our own religious texts, l’havdil elef havdalot. One should not write three words from the Torah without underlining the scroll. Yet, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 284:2) allows doing so if the words are used as an idiom, not as a reference to the ideas as found in the Torah. Also, one can recite phrases from the Torah in a non-Torah context before reciting birkat hatorah (Mishna Berura 47:4). Similarly, phrases that emanate from other religions should be able to be removed from their context and status.
Let us summarize. One can be respected for avoiding non-Jewish cultural associations in strict adherence to the spirit of the laws of chukot hagoyim. Yet, many of us legitimately value the advantages of integration, to the extent permitted by halacha, in the general society of our origin, which has strong roots in other religions. At least when using society’s standard phrases does not conjure up thoughts of the tenets and texts of other religions, it is permitted. We purposely left out examples. Why should we cause the power of suggestion to make people self-conscious about common phrases that good Jews use without giving a second thought to their origin?
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