Rav Aharon Kotler ZATZAL, Truman, And Hirohito



It could be a study in contrasts between how two central figures in World War II dealt with Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

Rav Aharon Kotler zatzal and l’havdil President Harry S Truman both had their encounters with Hirohito – revered as a Divine figure among the Japanese prior to Japan’s capitulation.


Rav Aharon’s encounter was the first. After having received their Soviet-issued exit visas on February 7th, 1941, Rav Aharon, his wife and daughter Sarah booked passage aboard the MS Kamakura which was leaving Kamakura, Japan. The Kotler family arrived early and stayed in Kamakura until the MS Kamakura Maru 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 was to lay prostrate on the ground. Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, however, refused to listen to the police instruction. He was severely beaten, t inches of his life.

Visiting Rav Aharon as he was recovering, was Reb Moshe Cohn, one of his students from the Yeshiva in Kletz. 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 abizraihu d’avodah zarah! It is yehareg v’al yaavor!”

Rav Aharon recovered. He, his wife, and daughter Sara arrived in San Francisco on Thursday, April 10th, 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 7th, 1941.


In 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshimo and Nagasaki, President Truman wished to strengthen the hand of the Japanese emperor in dealing with the Japanese military. In a speech broadcasted around the world he publically 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 a vis the Seven laws of Noah. But the question does arise as to whether what Truman did was halachically permitted.

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 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. He would thus be in violation of the command not to have allowed the name of idols to be heard. The Ramah, however, cites a dissenting view (the Ran end of first chapter of tractate AZ). He writes that in modern times, when the gentile mentions idol-worship, he is really intending for the creator of Heaven and Earth it is just that he is looking at it as if it was shituf – i.e. 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 Ramah 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 co-exist with G-d.


One might, therefore, be tempted then to read the Ramah as only referring to the oath. Yet the Ramah elsewhere (Darchei Moshe YD 151) clearly refers to more than just permission to cause them 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 Ramah.

Yet we find that the Chsam Sopher, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s own son-in-law, writes in his Toras Moshe (parshas VaYishlach) that, in fact, gentiles are not commanded on 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 what 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 that 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 an entirely new understanding of what Shituf means. According to the view that permits Shituf, it does not mean polytheism as it is understood in a dictionary. Rather, it means that the Creator created secondary powers after Creation – powers that were not co-eternal in origin. These secondary gods took charge of various other forces. This is the philosophy that the Ramah and others permit for gentiles, and it would fit nicely with the 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 two-fold. They believe not only in his divinity but that he is co-eternal. Non-trinitarian Christians, however, would be a different matter altogether.

Getting back to President Truman, however. It could very well be that his politically motivated mention of the Avodah Zarah was just a matter of Maris Ayin or a Rabbinically forbidden issue. The Minchas Chinuch points out that the sages never made their enactments for gentiles. The Gemorah in Avodah Zarah (12a), however, clearly states that there are Rabbinic prohibitions for Jews in such circumstances. Thus Rav Kotler should not have bowed, while Truman’s speech – even according to the strict opinion – would still be permitted.

The author can be reached at [email protected]



  1. 1) If Reb Moshe Cohn did wrong by bowing, why is this Lashon Hara being publicized?

    2) If the emperor is really Avoda Zara, why is his picture displayed and his name used?

  2. “For political purposes, Truman conceded the existence of a sun goddess –contradicting thousands of years of the teachings of Christianity. ”

    In 1945 the teachings of Christianity would have been around for less than 1945 years. Not “thousands.” Get a grip.

  3. yaak:
    I believe Truman’s speech was before the actual Japanese surrender. However, as one of the conditions of surrender, Gen. Douglas MacArthur forced the Emperor to renounce his divinity, something the Japanese public had a very hard time dealing with.

  4. perhaps in answer to yaak’s question, there are plenty of Japanese that have given up on him and it’s as if the goy as מבטל the idol, so his name and picture is allowed. this is like ביטול helps that one can use an idol afterwards.

  5. I apologize for the “Get a grip” remark at the end of my comment. It was rude and pointless. I did not intend to disrespect you, just to point out that Christianity is relatively recent.

  6. Bmichilas kvod Harav shlita there seems to be something clear missing here.The Rama is not making a distinction in time, which would make no sense whatsoever,rather in type. Christian idolatry there’s what to talk about. Japanese idolatry is straight idolatry through and through. hence any recognition thereof is totally prohibited.

  7. A person does not become an idol in the sense that he would be prohibited to look at.However, recognition of him as an idol would still be prohibited for all including Gentiles.

  8. Yaak: if it is lashon hora this wouldn’t be the first time such reports on found on this site. But alas you probably won’t be reading my response.

  9. From the end of this article it would seem that the author is looking for a
    Rabbinic prohibition for Jews yet it was stated clearly earlier that the whole subject of shituf only connects to non Jews and for us it remains yehareig val yaavor as Rav Aharon ztl said. This is besides what I mentioned previously that Japanese avodah zara is without any shituf just exact avodah zara

  10. It is very possible that Reb Moshe Cohn was completely unaware that the Hirohito was worshiped. If so his bowing would not even be a “Shoggeg” (inadvertent level of sin) , similar to one who enters a house of idolatry thinking it is a shul and davens there.

  11. so YOU think in todays generation theres no avoda zara/idols in the world? the generation of technology.

    Ever heard of MONEY? well this is the main Avoda zara of todays generation R”L & THIS IS Why the economy is so bad today? Why is the whole world going down? For the past thousands of years there was always Avoda zara in the world-from the molech to the baal to the asheira tree etc…-todays avoda zara is MONEY, we are a servant to money, we serve money, we bow down to money, we let money talk & rule us. Thus we leave Hashem no choice but to take it away from us Rachmana L’tzlan. But you can still save yourself from going down. if a person can use his money the right way & remember that it all comes from Hashem & it was just loaned to him (even though he worked for it), then he is the perfect person to continue holding Hashem’s money

    Save yourself & your parnassa before its too late, by being an honest businessman & remembering that it all comes from Hashem even though you worked hard for it.