Sunday, December 30, 2007

Foreign Service - Avodah Zara - Introduction

Introducing his discussions on the purpose of the Mitzvot, Rambam focuses on Avodah Zara, generally translated “Idolatry”, which I hope to show eventually to be a somewhat inexact translation. I believe the literal “Foreign Service” is more accurate. The reason for Rambam’s focus on Avodah Zara -

The knowledge of these [idolatrous] theories and practices is of great importance in explaining the reasons of the precepts. For it is the principal object of the Law and the axis round which it turns, to blot out these opinions from man's heart and make the existence of idolatry impossible. As regards blotting them out, Scripture says, "Lest your heart be persuaded," etc. (Deut. xi. 16), "whose heart turns away to-day," etc. (ibid. xxix. 17). The actual abolition of idolatry is expressed in the following passage: "Ye shall destroy their altars, and burn their groves in fire" (Deut. vii. 5), "and ye shall destroy their name," etc. (xii. 3). These two things are frequently repeated; they form the principal and first object of the whole Law. As our Sages distinctly told us in their traditional explanation of the words "all that God commanded you by the hand of Moses" (Num. xv. 25); for they say, "Hence we learn that those who follow idolatry deny as it were their adhesion to the whole Law, and those who reject idolatry follow as it were the whole Law." (B. T. Kidd, 40a.) Note it.

What is the relevance of all these many Mitzvot that are there to eradicate Avodah Zara to a contemporary Jew living in a Western culture that supposedly has already eradicated such archaic beliefs? At the time of Rambam and the Islamic society he lived in, as well as Christian Europe where the rest of Jewry lived during that time, Idolatry was considered an abomination. Was then Rambam unaware of this when he wrote these words?

To answer this question it is important to define exactly what Avodah Zara means. It is only after we understand thoroughly what it encompasses, the underlying theories and philosophies and the resultant practices that we can understand Rambam’s thinking on this matter. I plan to work on this as a project over the coming weeks (months?) and will post on the subject (among others) as I go along.

I will appreciate your input and thoughts.


  1. 'Idolatry' by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit is a pretty good overview of how the concept developed.

  2. EJ thanks, I have the book for a while but decided not to read it until I do my own work on it.