Performing Israel's Faith: Narrative and Law in Rabbinic Theology

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
The Halakhic Theology of Idolatry

An Outline of the Halakhah of Abodah Zarah in the Mishnah,
Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli

This account now turns to the Halakhah that mediates between Israel and the world beyond the boundaries of the people, Israel. The world of the gentiles forms an undifferentiated realm of idolatry, and the definition of the gentile is “an idolater.”3 The Halakhah takes as its task the negotiation between Israelites and the pagan world in which they live. It explains in detail how they are to conduct themselves in accord with the Torah so that at no point and in no way do they give support to idolatry. In its basic exposition of the theme of idolatry, the Halakhah rests squarely on the foundations of Scripture, supplying rules and regulations that carry out the fundamental Scriptural commandments about destroying idols and everything that has to do with idolatry. But the issues of the Halakhah do not simply recapitulate those of Scripture.

The Halakhah formulates the entire topic of idolatry into an essay on Israel’s relationships with non-Israelites, who are idolaters by definition. Here too, the Halakhah addresses the condition of individuals, the ordinary life of common folk, rather than concentrating on the situation of all Israel, viewed as a collective entity. While the Aggadah speaks of the community of all Israel, the Halakhah addresses the condition of the private person, a point to which this account will return at the end of chapter 5. We will now see how a theology of the gentiles as idolaters and enemies of God produces concrete laws—on the one hand segregating idolaters, when they practice idolatry, from Israelites, and on the other, accommodating diversity in society

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