Introduction to Avodah Zarah
Avodah Zarah is the Hebrew word for idolatry. It literally means foreign worship. The Tractate Avodah Zarah discusses the prohibition of Jews from using objects that non-Jews may have used while worshipping idols. The central idea is that once an object has been used in idol worship the object is forbidden to be used by Jews. There are many passages in the Torah which strictly forbid Jews from worshipping idols and enjoin them to destroy any of the objects used in idol worship (see for instance Exodus 23:24, 32-33; 34:12-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 25-26; 12:1-3). The Rabbis went further in these prohibitions and created an entire system of law meant to keep Jews away from non-Jews and their idolatrous practices. Throughout Jewish history these laws aided in preserving the distinct identity of the Jewish people. However, they also were a primary cause in anti-Semitism, with non-Jews frequently scorning Jews for their separatist practices.
Rabbi Menahem Meiri, a Talmudic commentator who lived in Provence in the 14th century recognized that Christianity and Islam were not the same as the paganistic religions that existed in the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Christianity and Islam are both monotheistic religions with systems of law and many shared values with Judaism. He therefore stated that most of the laws preventing contact with non-Jews do not apply to the members of these religions. Other Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Menahem Meiri and claimed that the Jews had to continue to distance themselves from non-Jews, based on Talmudic law. Whether or not we agree with Rabbi Menahem Meiri or with his detractors, while learning this tractate I think we should keep in mind the vast differences between the circumstances in which we live and in which they lived. The Rabbis were surrounded by a hostile culture from which they wanted to keep as great of a distance as possible. In todays world our surrounding culture is thankfully much more respective of Jewish differences. However, we should also keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the Rabbis was to preserve Jewish identity and religion. The problem of how we accomplish this today when most of these laws are no longer observed and contact between Jews and non-Jews is great, is probably the greatest problem that modern Jews face.