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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Acharei Mot - Celebrating Difference

This week’s Torah portion Acharei Mot presents a timeless question: how are we as Jews meant to differentiate ourselves from the nations and societies around us? 

God commands the Israelites, “speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I the ETERNAL am your God. 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 God. You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humans shall live: I am GOD.” (Leviticus 18:2-5)

The Torah has a clear, twofold expectation of the Israelites as they go on their journey through the wilderness. The first step is to do away with the cultural influences they adopted through the generations of slavery in Egypt. The second is to adopt God’s laws and teachings on their way to Cannan so that they will not be influenced by the peoples they will meet upon their arrival. Israelite society is meant to be something new, something different. 

The clear red lines illustrated in the written word of Torah prove, as many other mitzvot, more difficult to implement in practice. The Israelites and the Jewish people have never existed in a vacuum. There is no real way to hermetically seal Jewish communities, or any communities for that matter, and prevent outside and cross cultural influence from seeping in. Reading between the lines of the Torah, we can understand that, even in ancient times, the Israelites struggled between maintaining a particular, unique identity and adopting the customs and practices of their neighbors. The constant warnings against practicing avodah zarah - idol worship - suggest that not all Israelites were able to adopt the belief and worship of one God. Another example, the entirety of the book of Judges tells several sagas in which the Jewish people, now living in the Land of Israel, turn away from God and begin to worship deities of other peoples. 

As the Jewish people became a nation living in the diaspora as thousands of minority communities spread across the world, this issue became even more relevant. The need to create distinctiveness is discussed many times over in rabbinic literature. In the Mishna, the earliest codified work of rabbinic law, there are clearly set boundaries that define the relationships that Jews can have with Gentiles, particularly surrounding their festivals and celebrations. The rabbis of this time understood the necessity of trade and commercial connections between the communities and simultaneously viewed with suspicion the allure of non-Jewish festivals necessitating clear limits to those interactions. 

In the midrash VaYikra Rabbah, written in the 5th century CE, Rav Huna teaches that for four reasons the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names or their language, they did not engage in slanderous talk and they did not behave licentiously. A similar sentiment is found in Pesikta Zutra, a work of midrash from the 11th century where it is stated, “Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians”. Both of these texts glorify and praise the distinctness of Israel, going so far as to say that is the reason that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. Maintaining a distinct identity, then, was a rabbinic and Jewish value. 

A survey of Jewish history will show that this value was implemented in myriad ways, largely dependent on the particular context of a Jewish community. One of my favorite wings of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem pays tribute to the incredible diversity of Jewish communities that were created all around the globe and speaks to this constant tension in Jewish life between maintaining difference and accepting outside influence. All the items displayed show two aspects of each community: the first is that they were all proudly and devotedly Jewish, the second is that each and every one was influenced by the surrounding culture. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the wall of Hannukiot on display. There are dozens of pieces but two come to mind: the nearly three foot tall, gold candelabra adorned with an eagle, the national symbol of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which it was made with nine branches awaiting wax candles to be placed in each. Juxtapose this image with a set of nine separate, small clay holders painted green, awaiting the oil and wick to be placed in each from Algeria. Everywhere we have been as a people, we have maintained our ancient customs and values, yet we have also been shaped by the world around us. 

In the modern world, the 20th and 21st century in particular, for many of us liberal Jews these lines are more blurred than ever. While there are plenty of Jewish voices that criticize assimilation (a very loaded term) we should also understand what a blessing we have in that our ancestors came to and helped shape a pluralistic country and society that allows for difference in culture and custom. So what relationship is there between us and this mitzvah presented in Leviticus? 

I want to address this in the context of these past months and specifically of the last two weeks in which we have seen college campuses across the country erupt in purportedly pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have, nearly uniformly, adopted anti-Jewish speech and behavior. We are, sadly, being reminded of a lesson from Jewish history that even in the places where Jews are most successful, most accepted, most at home, our feeling of belonging does not act as a cure for antisemitism. For other minority groups, we typically see that the longer they live in a certain place and the more they adapt to their new surroundings, the primary unaccepting stance of the majority shifts and softens. It is one of the paradoxes of the oldest and longest-enduring hatred that even as Jews “blend in” and succeed in society, their Jewishness, even if it is not outwardly displayed, renders them an eternal ‘other,’ never truly part of the place which they very much see as home. 

The fear and concern the events of the past weeks and months for many are a sign to take down and hide symbols of outward Jewishness. I will admit that I am no stranger to those anxieties. Yet I would argue that what both our tradition and our history teach us is that it is particularly during times like these that we must be the most vocal, the most seen, the most proud to be Jews that we have ever been. We must be our own best advocates, reminding the country that we do not demand anything beyond the very promise of the American experiment itself: a place to live our lives the way we deem correct while lifting up the fortunes of all citizens. 

I know we have the resolve to see this through. The Torah reminds us a half dozen times that we are an am k’she-oref - a stiff-necked people. It is precisely our stubbornness, our demand that we be welcomed as part of the collective even as we continue to observe our ancient rites and customs that has maintained and sustained us through times of triumph and of challenge. This work is not only to our benefit. History teaches on many occasions that healthy, prosperous societies are those that know how to accept and embrace our uniqueness. 

So, my friends, I encourage you to keep your Magen David hanging around your neck, go to services (even if you haven’t been in a while), join Jewish causes in your community, speak with friends and family about these complex issues. We are not alone. We see that, still, there are far more allies than enemies that surround us but the work starts with us. To paraphrase our great teacher, Hillel the Elder, ‘if we are not for ourselves, who are we?’

Of course, every person and family needs to make choices for themselves according to how they see the risks around them and I am by no means encouraging people to actively put themselves in danger. I do believe, though, that by embracing our uniqueness, turning to the wisdom, comfort, and strength of our nearly 4,000 year old, beautiful, odds-defying tradition, we can find the inspiration and energy to see ourselves, our families, and our communities through these challenging times. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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