The nominal subject of Tractate Avoda Zara is idol worship, one of the worst sins in Judaism. But as Daf Yomi readers complete our third week of studying this tractate, it is becoming clear that the real concerns of the rabbis are much broader than idolatry. In effect, they are aiming to regulate all of Jews’ relationships with non-Jews. Nowhere, perhaps, is the gulf between the Talmudic worldview and the experience of modern American Jews more evident than here. American Jews live in a world that, while certainly not free of anti-Semitism, is marked by a historically unprecedented openness and trust between Jews and non-Jews. After all, this is a country where President Barack Obama, a Christian, hosted an annual Passover Seder in the White House.
Things were very different in the Talmudic period, in the first centuries CE, when Jews were subject to terrible persecution by the Roman authorities. As Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon is quoted as saying in Avoda Zara 18a, it was Rome that “destroyed God’s Temple, and burned His sanctuary, and killed His pious ones, and destroyed His best ones.” Yet somehow, “it still exists,” which suggested to Chanina that God must have “given reign” to Rome for inscrutable reasons of his own. This combination of resignation and resistance was dramatized this week in several stories about confrontations between Jewish sages and Roman power.
Rabbi Chanina himself was charged with teaching Torah in public, “with a Torah scroll on his lap,” in open defiance of a Roman ban. Not only was he sentenced to be burned alive, but his wife was to be decapitated, and his daughter sold into prostitution. Of course, all of them accepted their fate as God’s will. When Chanina was put on the pyre, he was wrapped in a Torah scroll, and the destruction of a Sefer Torah pained him even more than his own death. That death was a terrible one: the executioner “brought tufts of wool and soaked them in water, and placed them on his heart so that his soul should not leave his body quickly.” In the end, the executioner, evidently impressed by Chanina’s faith, agreed to remove the tufts of wool in exchange for the sage’s promising him a place in the World to Come.
Other stories have happier endings, when the Sages manage to outwit the Romans, often with the help of miracles. Rabbi Elazar ben Perata was brought before a Roman magistrate and accused both of teaching Torah and of being a thief. He protested that the two crimes were incompatible: “if one is an armed robber he is not a scholar, and if he is a scholar he is not an armed robber.” When asked to explain why people called him Rabbi if he was not a Torah scholar, he fibbed that they were really calling him a master weaver—rabban being the Aramaic word for “master.” The Romans challenged Elazar to prove this claim, bringing him two coils of wool and asking him which was the warp and which was the weft—something a weaver could do, but Elazar could not. Fortunately, a sign from Heaven, in the shape of a pair of hornets, revealed the answer: a female hornet came and sat on the warp, and a male sat on the weft. Finally, Elazar was rescued by the prophet Elijah, who came to the trial disguised as a Roman nobleman and distracted a key witness.
As we have seen on many occasions in the Talmud, the Rabbis generally believed that there was no such thing as an undeserved punishment. If a Jew suffered, it must be as a chastisement for some secret sin. This was the case with Rabbi Eliezer, who was arrested by the Romans and charged with “heresy.” In context, this seems to mean that he was accused of practicing Christianity, which at this stage was still a crime in the Roman empire. (Eventually, of course, Christianity would become the state religion, which would make things still harder for the Jews.) Eliezer was acquitted, but he was tormented by the thought that God would not have made him undergo this ordeal if he hadn’t been guilty of something.
Akiva agreed, suggesting that perhaps once in his life Eliezer had taken pleasure in heresy. And Eliezer did remember one such occasion when a Christian preacher had offered an ingenious Scriptural interpretation. The Torah says that “the payment of a prostitute” cannot be consecrated to the Temple because it is unclean, but a “student of Jesus the Nazarene” suggested that such a donation could be used to build a bathroom for the High Priest. “Since the coins came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth,” the Christian argued. “I derived pleasure from the statement, and due to this, I was arrested for heresy,” Eliezer concluded.
Such stories tend to suggest that the safest course for Jews was to avoid gentiles altogether, and Tractate Avoda Zara clearly uses idol worship as an excuse to separate the Jews from the pagan world that surrounded them. It is not just heresy the rabbis want to stamp out—indeed, actual idol worship seems to be the least of their worries—but excessive intimacy of any kind. We saw earlier that Jews could not do business with gentiles near their festival days, nor sell them items that might be used in pagan rituals. The mishna in Avoda Zara 14b goes further: a Jew should not sell gentiles large livestock because they will be used to violate the Shabbat prohibition on labor.
More troublingly, Jews should not leave small animals alone with gentiles, or entrust their sheep to gentile shepherds, because they are likely to use them to commit bestiality—a law that speaks volumes about the rabbis’ estimation of pagan morals. In addition, a Jew should not entrust his child to a gentile teacher “to teach him to read books or to teach him a craft.” It is not entirely clear whether this prohibition, too, stems from sexual fears, or whether it has more to do with the chance that the teacher will lead the child into apostasy. Broadly speaking, “one may not seclude oneself with gentiles,” since the assumption is that they will try to do a Jew harm.
Other prohibitions are meant to discourage social intercourse with gentiles. Jews may not go to places of amusement, such as circuses, theaters, and stadiums, for two reasons: not only are pagan sacrifices performed there, but they are what the Bible calls “the seat of the scornful,” homes of levity and frivolity. Any time spent there is time lost to Torah study. Moreover, Jews should not praise gentiles, especially women; according to Rav, “it is prohibited for a person to say: How beautiful is this gentile woman!”
Yet it is far from clear how these harsh rabbinic prohibitions operated in practice. Indeed, the Talmud itself seems to open up a number of loopholes in its strict bans on commerce with idol-worshippers. The mishna in Avoda Zara lists several kinds of buildings that a Jew may not help to build for a gentile, on the grounds that they will be used for idol-worship. One example is “the arched chamber of a bathhouse,” where statues of gods were customarily displayed. But the Gemara explains that a Jewish craftsman is permitted to build such a building, or even, shockingly, to build an idol itself. This is because the object does not become an idol until it is handed over to a gentile for worship; so long as the Jewish craftsman is paid for his work before the idol is delivered, he is in the clear. Moments such as these suggest that, despite the rabbis’ wishes, Jews and gentiles managed to live in the same world after all.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.