“Prelude to Holiness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, literally means “in the aftermath of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu.” Soon after the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, the Al-mighty instructs Moses to inform his brother Aaron that priests are strictly forbidden to enter the sanctuary in an unauthorized manner. This warning is immediately followed by a description of the Yom Kippur atonement service. Thus, parashat Acharei Mot serves very much as an introduction to parashat Kedoshim, preparing the Jewish people to live an ethical, moral and sanctified life.

The other themes found in parashat Acharei Mot also convey the importance of achieving holiness. The description of the Yom Kippur service and the ritual of the scapegoats is followed by instructions regarding the holiness of meat foods and the prohibition of eating blood. The parasha concludes with an exhortation against defilement, the prohibition of unlawful marriage, unchastity and Molech worship (Acharei Mot 5771-2011).

Among the most important and challenging laws in parashat Acharei Mot is the Almighty’s admonition in Leviticus 18 that the Israelites not follow the practices of the non-Jewish nations. G-d tells Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and to declare that He is their G-d. Furthermore, says G-d (Leviticus 18:3), כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכו, Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, and do not perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions. The Torah then declares that the Jewish people are to follow only G-d’s statutes, observe only G-d’s decrees and His laws. Finally (Leviticus 18:5), G-d promises that those who follow the Torah’s noble lifestyle and who properly practice the Torah’s laws and statutes, וָחַי בָּהֶם, shall surely live.

Although the recent Pew Jewish Population Report raised grave concerns in the Jewish community, especially among Jewish leaders, those who are familiar with Jewish history know that assimilation is not at all a new or recent development. Jewish assimilation has gravely impacted on every single generation of Jews, from time immemorial. I was recently told that the late, highly respected, Jewish historian, Professor Sidney Hoenig, had said that throughout Jewish history there was hardly a single Jewish generation that did not lose a significant proportion of its adherents to assimilation.

Because of the profound impact of the losses on Jewish life due to assimilation, the exhortation of Leviticus 18:3, of not performing the practices of Egypt and Canaan and not following their traditions, has become increasingly important. In fact, over the generations, this particular verse, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכו, You should not follow their traditions, has been singled out, and become a popular clarion call, an all-pervasive educational mandate, to protect, promote and strengthen Jewish identity. In fact, it even has its own “shorthand” nomenclature—חוקת הגוים, “Chukat ha’Goyim,” (non-Jewish practices).

In order to preserve Jewish identity, our rabbis and decisors have significantly expanded the breadth of this exhortation by prohibiting any imitation of gentile and idolatrous practices, whether clothing, hairstyle, entertainment or language. In order to protect the people’s fragile Jewish identity, following the sinful practices of non-Jewish societies, and copying their modes of worship is strictly prohibited.

Beware, lest you be ensnared by them and their idolatrous practices, warns the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:30). Do not try to imitate them. Just as your ideas are separate from theirs, you must keep yourselves apart from them, with your unique clothing and your exalted ethical deeds. This is what G-d meant when He declared in Leviticus 20:26: I will separate you from all the nations.

Although there is a long-standing difference of opinion concerning whether the prohibition of imitating gentile practices, “Chukat ha’Goyim,” applies only to the seven original Canaanite nations and the Egyptians, or applies to all gentiles, the emphasis on being separate and different has never been in dispute.

In order to foster Jewish identity, our rabbis called upon members of Jewish communities who lived among non-Jews to dress like Jews and to speak like Jews, using the Jewish language. That accounts for why most Diaspora Jewish communities always used a unique Jewish language, whether Aramaic, Yiddish or Ladino.

The scope of the rabbinic attempts to separate Jews from alien gentile practices has greatly expanded, and in some instances, has resulted in ironic developments. For instance, Chassidic Jews not only wear extremely unique “Jewish” garb and sport extremely unique haircuts with “Payot,” long side curls, they also, almost always, converse among themselves only in the Jewish vernacular, Yiddish. Ironically, in order to lift their followers out of the widespread depression resulting from extreme poverty and persecution, the early Chassidic leaders encouraged their adherents to dress like the non-Jewish elite, which in most instances meant adopting the garb of the Polish or Russian nobles and princes. Today, those gentile styles are considered uniquely Jewish, such as the high fur hats and the long satin robes. Some Chassidic men even button their shirts and jackets right to left, rather than left to right, to make a distinction from the practices of the non-Jews. In addition, they cut their hair short, so that their hairstyles in no way match those of the non-Jews, except perhaps soldiers who serve in the army or the Marine Corps.

Although bowing during prayer services in the Temple was a common feature of the ancient classical worship, when bowing and kneeling became so closely associated with Christian worship, both practices were eliminated among Jews. Kneeling or full body bowing is only performed on Yom Kippur. When bowing became common among Christians during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, the rabbis decreed that Jews cease bowing and folding their hands in prayer because their Christian oppressors bowed and worshiped with folded hands. The double ring ceremony at weddings of the gentile world is also frowned upon in the rigorously religious circles. The fear of being influenced by alien thoughts and philosophies is one of the reasons why many rigorously religious Jews avoid advanced secular education.

As we have previously noted, the proper response to these challenging existential issues lies in a single critical concept–“balance.” Jews may certainly adopt those practices of the non-Jewish world that are moral, ethical and life-enhancing. The concern is about the decadent and immoral practices that must be avoided at all costs.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Horeb, paragraph 505, wisely summarizes the laws of this commandment:

You may imitate the nations among whom you live, in everything which has been adopted by them on national grounds, and not on grounds which belong to their religion or are immoral; but do not imitate anything which is irrational or has been adopted on grounds derived from their religion, or for forbidden or immoral purposes. You may not, therefore, join in celebrating their holy days or observe customs that have their basis and their religious views. You must not, do anything which disturb their holy days or mar their festival spirit; and do not parade your non-participation in their holy days in a manner that might arouse animosity.

This is the true method for achieving holiness.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 14th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15th and 16th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 20th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 21st and 22nd.

Chag Kasher v’Samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.