By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It could be a study in contrasts between the way in which two central figures in World War II dealt with Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, and, l’havdil, President Harry S Truman both had encounters with Hirohito—revered as a divine figure among the Japanese prior to Japan’s capitulation.
Rav Aharon’s encounter. Rav Aharon’s encounter was the first. After receiving their Soviet-issued exit visas on February 7, 1941, Rav Aharon, his wife, and daughter Sarah booked passage aboard the MS Kamakura Maru, which was leaving Kamakura, Japan. The Kotler family arrived early and stayed in Kamakura until the ship was to depart to San Francisco. While Rav Kotler was on the street, Emperor Hirohito’s arrival was announced. The police ensured that everyone present lay prostrate on the ground. Rav Aharon Kotler, however, refused to listen to the police instruction. He was severely beaten, within inches of his life.
Visiting Rav Aharon as he was recovering was Reb Moshe Cohn, one of his students from the yeshiva in Kletzk. Rav Aharon asked him, “How is it that you are in such fine physical shape? You were there too when Hirohito arrived!”
“Yes, Rebbe, but I listened to the instructions,” responded Reb Moshe Cohn.
“What? How could you do such a thing? Hirohito is revered in Japan as a god. That is avodah zarah and bowing is abizreihu d’avodah zarah! It is yehareig v’al ya’avor!”
Rav Aharon recovered. He, his wife, and daughter arrived in San Francisco on Thursday, April 10, 1941. It was two days before Pesach. Eight months later, the United States and Japan were at war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
President Truman’s kowtowing. In 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman wished to strengthen the hand of the Japanese emperor in dealing with the Japanese military. In a speech broadcast around the world, he publicly referred to Emperor Hirohito as a “direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.”
For political purposes, Truman conceded the existence of a sun goddess—contradicting thousands of years of the teachings of Christianity. Gentiles are enjoined by the seven Noahide laws to believe in G‑d. President Truman certainly would not have asked halachic questions as to what his obligations might be vis-à-vis the Seven Laws of Noah. But the question does arise whether what Truman did was halachically permitted.
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 156) explains that a Jew should not have a partnership with an idol-worshipper, as perhaps a situation will arise where the idol-worshipper will be forced to take an oath. The Jewish partner would thus be in violation of the command to not allow the name of idols to be heard. The Rema, however, cites a dissenting view (the RaN, end of first chapter of tractate Avodah Zarah). He writes that in modern times, when the gentile mentions idol-worship he is really speaking of the creator of Heaven and Earth, but he is viewing it as if it were shituf—both G‑d and (l’havdil) the avodah zarah entity who created things. He writes further, and this is the key idea, that “gentiles are not commanded against ‘shituf’—a belief in both G‑d and (l’havdil) the avodah zarah entity.”
The reading of this Rema is the subject of great controversy. Does he really mean that a gentile is not commanded against a belief in G‑d plus avodah zarah? A look at the RaN itself shows that his view is that there is no special prohibition of a gentile swearing to avodah zarah, but not that there is no prohibition in believing that avodah zarah can coexist with G‑d.
Two dissenting views. One might, therefore, be tempted then to read the Rema as only referring to the oath. Yet the Rema elsewhere (Darchei Moshe Y.D. 151) clearly refers to more than just permission to cause such gentiles to swear. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in a letter to his son Rav Shlomo (new responsa, end), writes that one may not rely on the lenient view of this Rema.
Yet we find that the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s own son-in-law, writes in his Toras Moshe (Parashas Vayishlach) that gentiles are not commanded against shituf. There is also a fascinating Rashi on Tehillim 6:11 that finds fault with the gentile nations for making idol-worship central and the Holy One Blessed Be He minor. The takeaway from this Rashi is that it is the lack of centrality, rather than actual “sharing,” that is faulty. The Maharatz Chajes (Horios 5) also writes clearly that a gentile is not commanded in “shituf.”
There is also a Pirkei D’Rebbi Elazar (beginning of chapter 34) that states that if a gentile says that there is a second god, he will not have life in the World to Come. How, then, does the view that a gentile is not commanded in shituf understand this latter source? It would be difficult to say, “He is not forbidden in this belief, but if he does believe in it, he will have no spiritual future.”
This author would like to suggest a new understanding of what shituf means. According to the view that permits shituf, it does not mean polytheism as it is normally understood. Rather, it means that the Creator created secondary powers after Creation—powers that were not coeternal in origin. These secondary gods took charge of various other forces. This is the philosophy that the Rema and others permit for gentiles, and it would fit nicely with the history. For Jews, however, such a belief would be strictly forbidden.
How would this new definition fit with those who believe in the divinity of the founder of Christianity? Well, their theology is actually twofold. They believe not only in his divinity but that he is coeternal. Non-Trinitarian Christians, however, would be a different matter altogether.
Getting back to President Truman, it could very well be that his politically motivated mention of the avodah zarah was just a matter of maris ayin, a rabbinically forbidden issue. The Minchas Chinuch points out that the sages never made their enactments for gentiles. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (12a), however, clearly states that there are rabbinic prohibitions for Jews in such circumstances. Thus Rav Kotler was correct in not bowing, while Truman’s speech—even according to the strict opinion—would still be permitted.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.