Jews have always had to struggle with the question: to what extent should they adopt the ideas and practices of the outside world? Such influences are in some measure inescapable. They have affected not only those who welcomed new cultural values, the medieval Jewish philosophers and the modern Reformers for example, but also the spiritual isolationists. The custom of Yahrzeit was borrowed from the Catholics after the massacres that accompanied the First Crusade; present-day Chasidim wear garb that was fashionable among Polish Gentiles two centuries ago! In general, Judaism has been able to absorb values, ideas, and customs that are compatible with its basic outlook, while rejecting what could not be reconciled with the religious and ethical teachings of the Torah.
Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger,
The Torah: A Modern Commentary ed. by Rabbi Plaut UAHC Press
This week's Parasha describes the rite of Yom Kippur including the ancient ritual ceremony of casting a goat to Azazel (a mysterious word whose meaning is unclear). The word entered the English language after it was introduced by William Tyndale, the first great English translator of the Bible who rendered it as 'scapegoat', although its meaning has undergone a subtle, yet significant shift. In its original sense, the community, after publicly acknowledging its own sins, transferred its guilt/ sin onto the 'scapegoat.' Today, however, a scapegoat generally refers to any animal, object, or person whom people blame for their misfortunes (with no admission of their own faults). The remainder of the Parasha deals with laws relating to holiness, specifically around food (the prohibition against the consumption of blood is stressed) and prohibited sexual unions (including the famous and controversial prohibition against homosexuality).
Our highlighted verse prohibits copying the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, and I think it's fair to assume it means not to copy any surrounding culture (and not just Egypt and Canaan, if by chance you find yourself in another country). Although the verse introduces a series of prohibitions that specifically relate to sexual practices, it also seems reasonable to think that the prohibition extends to other areas of an idolatrous nature. Conservative Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson argues that this opening verse is the key to understanding the prohibition against homosexuality (one of the forbidden unions). According to Artson, committed gay relationships (unknown and probably unimaginable to the Torah) are not being prohibited, but rather the idolatrous homosexual practices of Canaan. (Recently, even Orthodox rabbis are re-thinking their positions, and while critical of same-sex marriage, are beginning to soften their attitudes towards homosexual Jews. British Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, author of Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View distanced himself from those who criticize and demonize homosexuals. The recent issue of Moment magazine also includes an article with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi.)
But is this introductory verse limited to prohibited sexual practices? 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. The champion of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Hirsch, disagrees and 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." The issue then, is what exactly is included in the prohibition 'to not follow the law of the land? Sifra, the Midrash on Leviticus, for example, expands the verse: 'Jews are forbidden to attend the bloody entertainments of the Roman amphitheatre, to practice various customs of the gentile world, and even to imitate gentile styles of hairdressing.' This prohibition 'to not follow their laws', however directly contradicts with the explicit ruling in the Talmud: 'The law of the land is the law' (Gittin 10b). Jews are in fact required to obey all civil laws, and cannot cheat on their income tax, or cross a red light (even though these rules do not appear in the Torah and are not among the 613 mitzvot). As law-abiding citizens, Jews are obligated to follow all of their country's laws (except if they violate a mitzvah- like if a country passed a law requiring their citizens to eat pork). This tension- how much of the outside world can be absorbed into Judaism - is one of the main differences between the denominations in Judaism.
At the beginning of our parasha, the Yom Kippur ceremony is described, and the Talmud comments: "Let him not prepare it outside [the Holy of Holies] and then bring it in. This is to refute the view of the Sadduccees who say that he must prepare it outside and then bring it in" (Yoma 53). The early reformers (and liberal Judaism still today) are criticized for being too influenced by the outside world, and bringing the 'outside' in. Polish rabbi Aaron Lewin, a staunch opponent to liberal Judaism who died in the Holocaust, expresses the classic Orthodox position:
It has been the way of the "Sadduccees" of every generation to seek to make changes and reforms in religious observance according to patterns prevailing in the world outside. They take "ordinances from the world outside" and "bring them into" the Sanctuary of Judaism. The Sages have always bitterly fought these reformers who seek to graft alien ways onto Judaism.
But, as the Plaut commentary notes, it is not only the 'assimilationists' who have been effected by outside forces. Jews have always adopted customs and ideas (and recipes) from their surroundings. Sometimes, it was the Jews who willingly embraced local traditions; other times it was forced upon them. During the reign of Czar Nicolas I, Russian Jews were required to wear hats with brims as was the gentile custom. This 'Gentile Law' was vigorously opposed by some chasidim- who saw it akin to idolatry! While they were furiously debating the issue of 'gentile clothing,' their Rebbe, Menahem Mendel of Kotz overhearing the argument, dismissively declared: "The clothing of Jews is only tallis [tallit], and tefillin."
Lessons for Today
The Kotzker Rebbe seems to understand that whether hats have brims or not is trivial, and debates over external dress irrelevant. It is the spiritual 'clothing' that the Jew must preserve. The genius of Judaism has been its ability to absorb surrounding culture, and 'Judaize' it. One of the key differences between liberal and orthodox approaches to Judaism, is the relationship between Judaism and the outside world, and the attitude to non-Jewish culture. A critical approach to Judaism recognizes that there have been forces that have influenced the 'flavour' of Judaism- that's why Jewish customs from communities around the world differ. Our problem today is that culture is evolving faster than Judaism can handle. We can't wait 200 years to find a way to absorb the outside world but at the same time give it a Jewish flavour. But building a wall against outside culture will only impoverish Judaism, or render it obsolete and irrelevant to the modern world. It's not easy, but the more we are grounded in Jewish sources, traditions and texts, the better we can be at navigating between Judaism and the non-Jewish culture and ideas.
This coming weekend we will sit down at our Seders, as Jewish an experience as anyone can imagine. But the Seder, as we now celebrate it is radically different from the original biblical festival (remember with the bloody door and Paschal offering). It probably did not have the youngest child sing 'Mah Nishtanah' either. The Rabbis, who created the structure of the Seder borrowed motifs from the popular Greek symposium which was a model of intellectual discourse centred around a ceremonial meal eaten while reclining, four cups of wine, philosophical questions and answers. The word 'karpas' and 'afikomen' are Greek. There is even a symposium recipe for a chopped fruit and nut dish. The Seder is more than a Greek symposium with a Jewish story. There are authentic Jewish elements as well: blessings, the ceremonial foods, Hallel. But clearly the Seder demonstrates how Judaism has survived, and even thrived, by taking the best of the non-Jewish world and 'Judaizing' it.
The Seder is a perfect laboratory for experimenting with this tension: this evening of memory should preserve the family traditions (certain foods, tunes, even a particular serving dish) yet at the same time, provoke curiosity, awaken wonder, and challenge participants (especially children) to think about freedom and redemption in novel, creative, and meaningful ways.