May 19, 2024
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With the emotional and political turmoil in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, there is talk of a national registry of Muslims. It is not clear to me that this is seriously being considered by anyone other than pundits. Be that as it may, some Jews have expressed concern over such a registry and have voiced a desire to register as a Muslim in order to undermine the database. Setting aside politics, we will only discuss whether a Jew may register under a different religion. Whether, in a written survey, a Jew may check off the Islam box in the religion section, thereby declaring that he is a Muslim. The answer lies in a debate between two Holocaust survivors.

  1. Pretending to Be a Gentile

In discussing ways to avoid an anti-Semitic tax farmer, the Gemara (Bava Batra 113a) says that you may not wear clothing that contains a forbidden shatnez mixture in order to avoid the extra tax. This might imply that you are allowed to dress like a gentile in order to pretend to be one, just without shatnez. However, the Rosh (Bava Kamma 10:11) explains this passage differently. He says that the tax farmer exempts clothes made from shatnez. According to the Rosh, you cannot pretend to be a gentile because that appears like an explicit rejection of Judaism. We are never allowed to state explicitly that we reject Judaism, even if we do not really mean it.

Rav Yisrael Isserlein (Terumat Ha-Deshen 1:197) accepts the Rosh’s ruling and distinguishes between cases of financial and life threat. To save money, a Jew may not pretend he is a gentile. If there is a life threat, he may dress like a gentile and pretend he is not Jewish. However, you are never allowed to say that you are a gentile because saying so is equivalent to rejecting Judaism. Significantly, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 177:2) rules like the Terumat Ha-Deshen. The Bach (Yoreh De’ah 157 sv assur) explains that this is not a ruling just for times of official oppression of Jews but for any danger a Jew may face in any time. We can never accept another religion, even if just in words. These rulings seem to be the final word on the subject. To save lives, whether ours or someone else’s, we can hint, imply and feign but we cannot explicitly reject our religion by accepting another. But what constitutes a life threat and what constitutes explicitly saying that you are a gentile?

       2. Identity Papers

Rav Ephraim Oshry was a talented yeshiva student in Kovno before the Holocaust and answered a number of chilling halachic questions during and after the war, which he published in multiple volumes of Responsa Mi-Ma’amakim. One question (vol. 4, no. 12) regards a man who purchased non-Jewish identity papers but never had to use them. Still, he wanted to know whether that constitutes a sin, perhaps even apostasy, for which he needs to repent. Rav Oshry concludes that this does not constitute a sin and the questioner does not need to repent. However, in his answer, he notes that previous authorities generally dealt with two cases—dressing like a gentile and saying you are a gentile. Rav Oshry suggests that presenting gentile identity papers is closer to saying than to dressing because there is an action involved. You are not just letting people draw their own conclusions but presenting them with an affirmative identity statement.

Another Holocaust survivor, Rav Menashe Klein, took issue with this suggestion (Mishneh Halachot, vol. 9, no. 170). Rav Klein says that there is no difference between presenting gentile clothes and gentile identity papers. For example, if a Jew dresses as a priest in order to save his life, he is making a public statement greater than just handing papers to a limited number of guards. Therefore, since it is permissible, using gentile identity papers to save your life is a great mitzvah.

According to Rav Klein, the problem is the verbal statement itself. You would be able to register as a Muslim in writing, absent a verbal statement. According to Rav Oshry, the problem is actively declaring a gentile identity. Therefore, you would not be allowed to register as a Muslim because it constitutes saying you are a gentile.

      3. Islam

Rambam, in his Igeret Ha-Shemad, Epistle on Martyrdom, points out that the Muslim missionaries who were forcing Jews to convert on threat of death were only demanding verbal acceptance of Islam. Rambam counsels converting verbally to avoid penalty and fleeing the country as soon as possible, even abandoning family and property, if necessary. And someone who has the opportunity to leave and practice Judaism freely but instead stays as a secret Jew is guilty of profaning God’s name. Even if Islam does not constitute paganism or idolatry, willingly adopting it constitutes a chillul Hashem. Therefore, it seems forbidden to claim to be a Muslim just like claiming to be a Christian or Zoroastrian.

Based on all the above, it seems forbidden to check the Islam box in order to show solidarity with friends and fellow citizens in the unlikely event that a registry will be established. Those Jews who wish to support Muslims, an issue about which I feel strongly, should use another of the many ways to do so. Perhaps it would be ironic to diminish our own religious identities in order to support other people’s rights to maintain theirs. There are better ways to accomplish the desired goal.

By Rabbi Gil Student

 

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