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Vindication! (Avodah Zarah 2a)

It is nighttime, Sunday, April 9, Chol HaMoed Pesach. Easter is ending. Last night I ended a text conversation by wishing a Christian friend of mine “Happy Easter.” I immediately regretted doing so. I don’t believe in the premise of Easter (Jesus Christ’s resurrection); I believe it is a false holiday.

Earlier today I spent some time with a friend learning Masechet Avodah Zarah, daf 2a (the first daf). The masechta opens up with a Mishna prohibits certain dealings with idolaters in the three days leading up to an idolatrous holiday, in order not to contribute to the happiness of the idolaters. There are actually two versions of the Mishnah: one which uses a word for ‘holiday’ derived from the Hebrew word for ‘calamity’, and the other which refers to ‘holiday’ with a word derived from ‘witnesses.’ The version which uses the calamitous word has its basis in Deuteronomy 32:35: “for the day of their calamity is near”, referring to idolatrous nations. The version which uses the witness-word has its basis either in Isaiah 43:9: “Let them produce their witnesses and be vindicated, and let them hear, and say, ‘It is true!’”, referring to idolaters admitting the righteousness of the Jews at the coming of the Messianic era (I am skipping over a machloket regarding this second verse which I see as irrelevant to this drash). At the bottom of 2a is a story about the confusion of idolaters at the End of Days and the reward for those who were engaged in Torah. This story quotes Genesis 25:23: “One people shall be mightier than the other people”, God’s explanation to Rivkah of the Jacob-Esau situation brewing in her belly. Finally of note is that this story, on 2b, explicitly mentions the Roman Empire as an idolatrous nation.

First, some general observations. Presented with a Mishnah regarding commercial relations with idolaters before their festivals, the Gemara consciously frames its discussion with scriptural references to the End of Days, the Messianic era, in which the righteous will ultimately be vindicated and the evil exposed and punished. The verses from Isaiah portrays a cosmic trial in which the nations (i.e. Israel and the idolatrous nations) will be tried for their faithfulness, or lack thereof, to God. Israel (of course) will be vindicated, and the idolaters will admit their fault. The verse from Genesis and the reference to Rome play on an important Rabbinic trope: the identification of Esau with Rome and idolatry in general, as opposed to Jacob, representing Israel and Judaism. Why does the Gemara go in this direction?

It helps to think about the historical periods in which the Torah and Mishnah were formed. The Torah was given in a time when kingdoms were nation-states, ethno-religious entities. The people of Israel were to literally kill and drive out idolaters from the Promised Land upon arrival. This makes sense; to tolerate idolaters physically would be to tolerate idolatry ideologically. That’s just the way the Biblical world worked, and it was realistic to violently expel a people from a land. Fast forward to the Judea of the Mishnah. Jews are ruled by Romans, many of whom live among them. It was not realistic, not feasible to physically separate Israel from the idolatrous nations, Judaism from idolatry. The Jews couldn’t just drive out the Romans by the sword (though they did try on multiple occasions). However, tolerating idolatry is antithetical to Judaism. The truth of Judaism necessitates the falsity of idolatry. If Judaism were to tolerate idolatry, it nullifies itself and is no longer Judaism, and the Jewish people are no longer really Jewish and are in danger of dissolution. The Torah itself prescribes a war against idolatry! How then, do the Rabbis maintain this sense of war, lack of toleration for idolatry, and the sense of Jewish particularity that they engender in a world in which violence is no longer an option?

The answer: they regulate behavior between Jews and idolaters. In this case, it is commercial behavior surrounding holidays, which is the perfect case to achieve exactly what they want. Here’s why: observance of a holiday testifies to its origin story. For example, observance of Easter testifies to Christ’s resurrection, Pesach to Yetziat Mitzrayim, etc. When I refuse to contribute to your festive celebrations, I am challenging, I am denying, your testimony. It is a sort of commercial war, the ban on commerce pre-holiday, a commercial war which reflects an ideological war. It also reinforces the ethno-religious barrier between Israel and the nations. Thus, it maintains the integrity of Jews and Judaism by channeling the anti-idolatrous tendency into a practical channel.

In terms of the focus on the Messianic future, this follows naturally from the idea of holidays as testimony to the truth of a religion. The fact is that we don’t know whether Judaism is true or Christianity or Islam or any other religion. We can be quite convinced, but we don’t know. We feel, though, that we are correct, and we therefore look forward to a day on which we will be vindicated. We hope that one day it will no longer be a matter of dispute; Judaism and its holidays will be demonstrated true. Especially when we are oppressed by bigger, stronger nations like Rome, and it feels like the whole world is laughing at the Jews’ claims, we hope for vindication.

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