Mishnat Hashavua: Avodah Zarah 3:4

When does an idol own the bathhouse?

Proklos, son of Plosphos asked Rabban Gamliel a question in Akko, where he was washing in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Isn’t it written in your Torah (Deut. 13:18), ‘do not allow any banned items [from idol worshippers] to stick to your hand’? How then do you bathe in Aphrodite’s bathhouse?” He replied, “One does not respond [to religious questions] in the bath.” Once he exited, [Rabban Gamliel] said to him, “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine. [Further], people don’t say, ‘let’s make a bath as a decoration for Aphrodite.’ Rather, they say, ‘let’s make a statue of Aphrodite as a decoration for our bath.’” Another reason: Even if someone paid you lots of money, you wouldn’t commence your idol worship if you were naked or sticky*, nor would you urinate before [your sacred object]. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands over the sewer and everyone urinates before it. The verse “these are your gods” (Exod. 32:4) is not said about this case. If a [statue] is treated as a god, then it is forbidden, but if it is not treated as a god, then it is permitted [to be in its presence].

Comments

Our ancestors lived in a diverse society where many of their neighbors worshipped idols. Public institutions like the bathhouse might be decorated with pagan imagery—could Jews continue to use them? This mishnah reflects ambivalence about the participation in general society. Rabban Gamliel’s policy seems to be designed to maximize his freedom to participate in the broader society.

*Sticky is my translation of ba’al keri, which refers to a man who has ejaculated and not had the opportunity to immerse in the mikveh. In early rabbinic society, such men were not allowed to worship or study Torah, but this restriction was dropped as impracticable.

Question

Even today, pagan mythology has great appeal in popular literature, film, and art. What precautions are appropriate to avoid the impression that the gods are being venerated?