Is it permissible to enter a church to attend a 12-step meeting?
"...according to the Judaism of the Shulchon Aruch, it is permitted to attend 12 Step recovery meetings that take place in a church."
RABBI YEHOSHUA KAGANOFF
Passaic, NJ 07055
20 Sivan, 5776 / 26 June ‘16
Below is the pertinent part of my responsum to a highly regarded, prominent Talmid Chochom Posek, which is found on pg 158 of my sefer on addiction and halocho. I have translated (and annotated) it below and at the end enumerated the practical applications. Please feel free to pass it along to other Rabbis & also people in recovery. They should feel free to contact me for further clarification if needed.
בדברי אג"מ א"ח ח"ב ס' כ"ה שכתב ,,שלא נחשדו ישראל על ע"ז'' לכאורה הצ"ע שהקשה כתר"ה על דבריו מע"ז י"ג (עיר שיש בה אליל אין הולכין לשם וכו') מיוסד על פירוש הסוגיא אליבא דרש"י ורשב"א וכמובא בטור י''ד ריש סימן קמ"ט דטעמא דמילתא משום חשדא שיחשדוהו שהולך שם לעבוד ע"ז.
אבל אח"כ מביא טור פירושו ושיטתו של רבינו יונה שטעמא דמילתא "שלא יהא נראה כא' מהם הולך שם לסחורה ולכבד אליל וכו' אבל וכו' ואין הולכים שם משאר מקומות לא מצינו שיהא אסור לילך לשם משום חשדא" עכ''ל. לפי רבינו יונה טעמא דסוגיא הוא או משום חקות הגוים או משום מראית עין ומסיק שם הטור שכן מסקנת א"א הרא"ש
וכן הכרעת לשון הש"ע קמ"ט סע' א' כלשון רבינו יונה ודלא כפרש"י
ונלפע''ד דזהו שכתב הבעל אגרות משה ,,שישראל לא חשידי'' היינו להכרעת הש"ע בפ' הסוגיא
Rav Moshe Feinstein in his responsa (Orach Chaim 2 #25) states that "Jews are not suspected of transgressing idolatry" [therefore, they are permitted to recite the Pledge of Allegiance of the USA or the lord's prayer because we do not suspect them of intending another deity besides "God Almighty - the One Who took us out of Egypt”. Similarly, a Jew could enter a church and we would not suspect him/her of entering with the intent to serve the idolatry.
Upon this statement of Rav Feinstein, a very highly regarded prominent Talmid Chochom Posek asked, "This assertion is in contradiction to what is stated in the Talmud (Tractate Avoda Zoro 13); Wherein it arrives at the conclusion that it is proscribed by Halocho for a Jew to enter the locale of Idolatry!"
I responded that without a doubt the Questioner/Challenger is understanding the Talmudic passage according to the commentaries of Rashi & Rashbo. They explain the prohibition of the Talmud in the following manner: "We are concerned & suspect the Jew who enters the precincts of Idolatry as so doing with intent to serve the Idol" This is called 'Chshodo'. Indeed the Tur (Major Authoritative codifier of Jewish Law, 14th century Spain) brings these opinions precisely so.
However, I pointed out to the Questioner/Challenger that, with all due respect, he neglected to continue his reading/research in the Tur. Because after citing the above opinions, the Tur then proceeds to quote the differing commentary to that passage of Talmud by Rabenu Yona.
Rabenu Yona explicates that the Talmud is referencing a scenario wherein that Idolaters from all over are gathering at a locale in order to pay honor to their Idol. This is the scenario which is proscribed by the Talmud.
The reason: that the Jew by joining them would give the appearance of being "one of them". Concludes Rabenu Yona, "However, if the Idolaters are NOT gathering from all over, we do not find that it is proscribed by any source that a Jew may not enter the precincts of the Idol because of 'Chshodo.' "
Rabenu Yona explains that the operational principle of the Talmud's statement is either 1) the biblical prohibition of engaging in a definitively NOT-Jewish ritual; OR 2) the rabbinic principle of Maris Ayin - ie not to do something in the public eye that gives a misleading impression of transgression (BUT in no way do we suspect Jews of Idolatry!)
The Tur concludes that his father the Rosh (THE Major Halachic decisor & authority -13/14th century Germany/Spain - for Ashkenazic Jewry) concurred with Rabenu Yona's explication of the Talmud.
I then conclude that indeed the Shulchon Oruch in his codification of this discussion for practical application (Yoreh Deah 149:1) decides like Rabenu Yonah & Rosh. And this is - precisely as stated by Rav Moshe Feinstein as quoted above.
For practical application in our specific case, re: entering a church to attend a meeting: please see Yoreh Deah 149:2 for the following guidelines:
1 - If the meeting is NOT in the sanctuary then it is permitted to attend no matter when it is scheduled.
2 - If the meeting is in the main sanctuary, then attendance is only permitted when services are NOT taking place. (Obviously this must be the case of a scheduled recovery meeting; how can a recovery meeting take place at the same time & same location as services).
3 - The only prohibition is to be in the sanctuary while services are in progress (including just walking thru to get to another room where the meeting is taking place). This may be a Torah prohibition or rabbinic prohibition as discussed above. Even if it is a Torah prohibition, it nevertheless does not fall into the category of Yehoreg v'Al Yaavor - sacrificing one's life rather than transgress.
4 - Concerning the Torah prohibition prohibiting benefitting from the building (room) housing idolatrous statues and/or effigies:
a- This does NOT apply to a church which has no statues and/or effigies.
b- Even a church that has statues and effigies, if the building (room) is also used for other “secular/mundane” purposes (eg – a 12 step meeting etc.) then there is no prohibition of benefitting from it.
c- The prohibition is suspended when dealing with a life-threatening (Sakono) situation i.e. addiction.
Therefore according to the Judaism of the Shulchon Aruch, it is permitted to attend 12 Step recovery meetings that take place in a church.