I do not claim to have understood the subject but just by doing a tiny drop of the Gemara [Talmud] in Sanhedrin [60b] the whole subject is getting a lot clearer for me.
(This is I think a good idea for people in general whenever they are confused about any issue. Read the part of Talmud that relates to that issue.)
I see now that there are two completely separate issue concerning idolatry. One is what is service to an idol and the other is what brings something into the category of being an idol.
The first subject is highly based on verses of the Torah. The basic approach is this [from the Talmud 60b]: "He will go an serve false gods" [Deuteronomy in Parshat shoftim] applies to all service [i.e. whether that is the way of that idol or not]. Then we find another verse "he will serve and he will sacrifice." "He will sacrifice" was already in the category of "he will serve" so it comes out of that category to that which is not the particular service of that idol to teach about the whole category that serve that is not unique to that idol has to be like one of three inner services that were done in the holy temple in Jerusalem. Then there is a third verse "he will serve and bow down." “Bow down” can’t be adding anything because we already limited everything by means of the word sacrifice. so ''he will bow down'' cant be telling us anything except that it is in the category of service even when it is not the way of that idol. [note 1]
Sorry if this is not clear but I am anyway in the middle of this subject and I admit that it is not very clear to me. There is a lot to talk about here. You can see this for yourself if you look at the Tosphot on the page and then the Maharsha.
But even though all this is not very clear to me still it does come out of this discussion an important point. That if something is not an idol it is not forbidden to bow down to it. What is fascinating here is the fact that the instant something comes into the category of an idol, a whole new set of laws begins to apply to it.
So my question here is what brings something into the category of being an idol? [This seems to be the subject of Tractate Idolatry on the question of statues that are put up in honor of kings.]
And here also I am just staring to look at this. But one thing is clear. An idol or god is not a world creator.
For example we do not find that Zeus created the world. He had certain powers over certain aspects of the world. But that fact does not make him any less a god. Worshiping Zeus is still idolatry even if one does not consider him to have created the world.. Either sacrificing to him or even saying you are my god or doing a service to him that is the particular service of Zeus is still forbidden. Or if one serves Zeus in order that Zeus should bring him closer to God that is still forbidden.
I should perhaps mention that I am aware of the major types of idolatry that exist. I studies Greek mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey Euripides Sophocles and etc for years. I also learned Latin for about three years.
The Large and small Edas. Buddhism and Hinduism. And much more. So i have some idea of what idolatry is about. Though I know that each one of these areas of interest is vast. But still from the small amount of knowledge I have about them I can say that most gods are not world creators. Most of the time they find preexistent substances to make the world from.
Even Brahama is created and is emanated from Brahman. Brahman is not a world creator but his is the universe.
Clearly one does not have to be world creator to be a god.
So what makes one a god? This is relevant because the instant something becomes a god it is forbidden to have almost anything to do with it.
I mean to say that for example bowing down to people we find all the time in the Torah. During the middle ages the common way for men greeting each other was by a slight bow. Women would curtsy. This is not forbidden. But doing such a thing to a god would be forbidden. So what makes something a god?
Now this question should be considered different from what the Talmud is dealing with in Tractate Avodah Zara about how to tell which statues are idols and which are not. In that Gemara we find that rabbi Meir considers all statues to be forbidden to use because he is has a general opinion that we forbid a majority because of a minority.
But all that part of the Gemara deals with either the sigh that something already an idol or that if one does worship it that it becomes and idol. But still something can be an idol before one worships it.
Now we can see the answer to our problem in Maimonides. The way to see the answer is to notice what Maimonides says about a mediator. He says to worship a mediator in order that he should bring one closer to God or to receive some kind of blessing from God is considered idolatry. So now we see what is going on. . To worship an entity with any of the types of service that were done in the Temple of with any kind of serve that is specifically for that entity in order to receive some blessing or to bring one closer to God is idolatry.
This all came up yesterday when I was talking with some Breslov Hasidim in Uman.
The in the actual discussion after I mentioned the idea that a god does not have to be world creator to be an idol we got into the related subject of pantheism. Now we know that the belief system of the Torah is Monotheism and that of Advaita Vedanta is pantheism. So in theory there should not be any ambiguity that when a person wants to be following the Torah that he is accepting a monotheistic kind of belief system. But for some reason the basic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta has become the dominant theology of a most Hasidim along with belief in the importance of Jewish rituals. But that is not the same as belief in the Torah. note 2]
[note 1] Like if you say have the set of all colors and also blue. why did you mention blue?the way we understand the Torah when there is a situation like this is to say the Torah mentioned blue to tell us something unique about the set of all colors.
so when the Torah says he will serve and he will sacrifice it tells us something new.that service that is not the particular way of the idol has to be like a serve done in the Temple. Later the gemara will ask on this conclusion and ask that we could say just the opposite. But that I leave for another time.