Understanding Avoda Zara: The Maimonidean Model

  • Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Part of the Interreligious Studies in Theory and Practice book series (INSTTP)


The first chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Avoda Zara is likely the most influential discussion of what constitutes Avoda Zara. Probably no other single text has been as influential in providing a theory of what Avoda Zara is. Its echoes reverberate not only in relation to other religions, but also in relation to internal Jewish concerns, such as the appropriateness or inappropriateness of prayer to angels, the legitimacy of kabbalistic understandings of God, and more. Maimonides offers what has become the default understanding of idolatry for many later Jewish thinkers. Let us, then, examine the first chapter of Maimonides’ Laws of Avoda Zara:

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: Since God, they said, created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them; and it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandize and honor those whom He aggrandized and honored, just as a king desires that respect should be shown to the officers who stand before him, and thus honor is shown to the king. When this idea arose in their minds, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them—their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to attain the Creator’s will (or: favor). This was the root of idolatry, and this is what the idolaters, who knew its fundamentals, said. They did not however maintain that there was no God except the particular star (which was the object of their worship). Thus Jeremiah said “Who would not revere You, O King of the nations? for that is Your due, since among all the wise of the nations and among all their royalty there is none like You. But they are both dull and foolish; [Their] doctrine is but delusion” (Jer. 10,7–8). This means that all know that Thou alone art God; their error and folly consists in imagining that this vain worship is Your will. (Laws of Avoda Zara 1,1)


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  1. 9.
    See Ashok Vohra, Metaphysical Unity, Phenomenological Diversity and the Approach to the Other: An Advaita Vedanta Position, The Religious Other: Hostility, Hospitality and the Hope of Human Flourishing, ed. Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2014, pp. 99–115.Google Scholar
  2. 12.
    On Maimonides and Christianity, see Howard Kreisel, Maimonides on Christianity and Islam, Jewish Civilization: Essays and Studies, ed. Ronald Brauner, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press, Philadelphia, 1985, Part 3, p. 156. See also David Novak, Maimonides’ Treatment of Christianity and Its Normative Implications, Jewish Theology and World Religions, ed. A. Goshen-Gottstein and E. Korn, The Littman Library, Oxford, pp. 217–233.Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    See my The Triune and the Decaune God. Kabbalists had to creatively manipulate the legacy of Maimonides in order to maintain the legitimacy of their own religious world-view. See Gershom Scholem, Mehoker Limekubal, Tarbiz 6, 1935, pp. 90–98 [Hebrew].Google Scholar
  4. 20.
    See Francis Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, Chapter 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Alon Goshen-Gottstein 2016

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  • Alon Goshen-Gottstein

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