Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
2009Acharei Mot, one of this week's two Torah portions (there are a few double-header weeks this year to fit everything into the calendar), begins with a description of the rites of Yom Kippur. Then, the portion goes on to explain ways in which all members of the community are responsible for holy behavior, with particular emphasis on certain dietary laws and sexual prohibitions. Leviticus contains a litany of laws and commandments; this particular chunk is known as the Holiness Code, and continues in the second portion we read this week, Kiddushim.
Working for the Integrity of Judaism
In the midst of laying out Gd's guidelines for our holy behavior, before diving into rules against forbidden sexual partners, we read, "You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow my laws: I the Eternal am your Gd." (Leviticus 18:2-4) These lines raised my assimilated Jewish-American eyebrows.
In trying to make sense of this passage, a d'var Torah from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Jewish Learning, suggests that it is "fair to assume [this] means not to copy any surrounding culture"—that if you find yourself in Russia or the United States instead of in the Sinai Desert, then you can substitute "Russian" or "American" for "Egyptian" and "Canaanite." The point, really, is that Jews follow Jewish law and tradition, and not the laws or practices of any other people.
Yet the Talmud states that "the law of the land is the law" (Gittin 10b); in other words, Jews are responsible for following the secular laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside, unless those laws contradict mitzvot. And beyond the law, I know that my own sense of self owes a great deal to what I have observed and adopted from the diverse communities in which I have lived and traveled.
Seeing how mega-church communities welcome newcomers has taught me how to relate to unengaged Jews, lyrics of Indigo Girls songs have helped me discern my values, and Barack Obama's leadership style reinforces my appreciation for dialogue and intellectual curiosity. It is not that these things are contrary to Judaism, but that I found them in secular places. For our students, the only reality they know is intercultural. A religion that asks them to build fences against rich and interesting outside influences relegates itself to irrelevance. Must we read this week's portion as a condemnation of all assimilation?
Many scholars have debated how we should interpret Acharei Mot's injunction against abiding the practices and laws of the "Egyptians" and "Canaanites," which has become even more problematic in recent centuries as most Jews have integrated into mainstream society (and, in reality, as all disparate cultural groups have become more integrated with each other).
Some suggest that these verses are only meant as an introduction to the subsequent sexual prohibitions against practices that were common amongst Egyptians and Canaanites. But the Kolel d’var mentioned above points out that "the Sefat Emet asks if only prohibited sexual unions are forbidden, why the text begins with the more general: 'You shall not do like the deeds of the Land of Canaan.' According to the Sefat Emet, we are not to imitate 'Egypt and Canaan' in all our deeds, in other words, even in innocent matters, such as clothing styles."
Along the same line, Sifra, the midrash that accompanies Leviticus, posits that "this passage forbids Jews to attend the bloody entertainments of the Roman amphitheater, to practice various superstitious customs of the gentile world, and even to imitate gentile styles of hairdressing." These sources suggest that it is not just when non-Jewish practices offend our values that we should reject them, but even in seemingly-innocuous cases of fashion or other aesthetic trends.
On the other hand, Kolel wavers, "the champion of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Hirsch, suggests that the injunction only holds in some contexts. He maintains that we may 'imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.' "
So how do we discern when we might absorb elements of the ambient culture and when we should reject secular practices? In a commentary published on MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes:
Those non-Jewish practices and insights which strengthen Jewish survival, which sensitize us as a people, which teach us how to be more loving, more caring, and more sensitive, which prompt us to understand more about Judaism and to practice it more fully, pose no threat to our Jewishness. On the contrary, we benefit from their inclusion. An openness to learn, however, should not be mistaken for blind adoption of all Gentile standards. Torah and later Jewish traditions stand as the ultimate counterculture—opposing all that would cheapen human life or reduce our consciousness of the holy. Much in modern life deserves our opposition. But those insights that strengthen Torah, which make Jewish identity more vibrant and more central, deserve our study and our adoption. In cultivating those insights, we harvest a growing Torah. By adding to the riches of our heritage, we assure its continued greatness.”
Our challenge, then, is to work for the integrity of Judaism. How can we and our students absorb the value of the world around us without losing a sense of what is most valuable about our own traditions and teachings? How can we validate the thought students give to all facets of their identities, and do so in a way that opens a conversation about how Judaism comes to bear on their senses of self? Just as we can expand the richness of Judaism by engaging deeply with outside influences, it is up to us to ensure that the same deep dialogue encompasses the scope of Judaism’s existing and inherent richness.
Written by Robin Weber, senior associate, Center for Jewish Experience.