The Way of the Gentiles

The prohibition against non-Jewish practices, might relate to the practices of ancient Egypt, Canaan or the social and philosophical ways of non-Jews today.

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Being Different

"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that." (Merchant of Venice III:1) 

Though Shylock asserts the common humanity of Jew and Gentile, the Torah proclaims that the Jew should, in fact, be different. God tells Moses to teach the people:

"I am the Lord, your God. Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan to where I am bringing you. Do not follow their customs (be-hukotehem lo teileichu)" (Leviticus 18:1-3, cf. also, 20:23).

Deuteronomy suggests that this prohibition is intended to prevent idolatry:

"Take heed to yourself lest you be trapped by following them, after they are destroyed from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods?' that I may also do likewise" (Deuteronomy 12:30).

Avoiding Social and Cultural Practices

holy bible with crossThe language here is notably limited. The prohibition against "following them" applies specifically to the nations that will be destroyed upon Israel's conquest of Canaan. Maimonides (1135-1204), on the other hand, understands the prohibition as a sweeping law that prohibits any kind of assimilation to the customs of non-Jews.

"We do not walk after the ways of the idolaters. We do not assimilate ourselves to them; not in our clothing and not in other things like this, as it says, 'do not walk after the ways of the gentiles' (Leviticus 20:23)…Rather, a Jew should be distinct from them and recognizable through one's clothing and one's other actions, just as one is distinct from them in one's thoughts and characteristics" (Laws concerning Idolatry, 11:1).

Maimonides specifically mentions a diverse range of prohibited Gentile customs, including haircuts and using non-Jewish architectural models for Jewish buildings. In his laws concerning prohibited sexual relationships, Maimonides also considers sexual relations between women to be a violation of this law:

"Women engaging in sex with each other is forbidden under the category of Egyptian behavior against which we have been warned 'Do not act like the Egyptians' (Leviticus 18:3). Our sages said, 'What would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman, a woman would be married to two men."

For Maimonides, lesbian sex is prohibited only as a form of assimilation to Egyptian ways (and, in the case of a heterosexually married woman, also as rebellion against her husband). Significantly, this application extends the prohibition of imitating the non-Jew to include private acts, even though, according to Maimonides, the prohibition was put in place so that Jews would be recognizably distinct.

Limiting the Prohibition

Unlike Maimonides, Rashi (1040-1105) understands the verse from Leviticus 18 in a more circumscribed manner. Following an earlier tradition, Rashi says that the behavior of the Egyptians and the Canaanites was worse than that of other nations.

In asserting that the Egyptians and Canaanites were worse, Rashi limits the application of the law. One may not act like these two nations because they were particularly bad, but the practices of other nations are not so prohibited. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1029-1167) apparently agrees with Rashi (against Maimonides) in limiting the application of this law. The specific aspect of non-Jewish practice he feels is prohibited is adopting Canaanite standards of legal practice and evidence.

An even more limited approach to this law is found in the medieval Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible with many explanatory expansions. The Targum "translates" the phrase "the acts of the Egyptians" as "the evil/shameful acts of the Egyptians." Although the Targum is not a legal source, it implies that Israel must evaluate non-Jewish customs and reject what is shameful. At the same time, it is clear that the acts which are not shameful are not to be rejected simply because non-Jews practice them.

New Applications

David ben Samuel haLevi (1586-1667) argued that since "the custom nowadays is that non-Jews take off their hats immediately upon sitting down, [covering one's head] is [now obligatory and] included in 'do not walk in their ways'" (Ta"Z, Orah Hayyim 8:3). That is, the obligation to differentiate Jewish behavior from that of the surrounding peoples extends even to customs that are newly adopted by non-Jews.

In early modern times, Orthodox leaders like Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) condemned Reform rabbis for introducing organ music, sermons and liturgy in the vernacular, and adopting European styles, all under the rubric of "imitating the Gentiles" (cf. Responsa Melamed L'Ho'il 1:16). Of course, to the early Reform, imitating the Gentiles and creating a "modern" form of worship was seen as a positive endeavor, and not a negative one.

Contemporary Considerations

In many traditional communities, the pressure to erect new lines of demarcation between Jews and non-Jews has led to more expansive readings of what might be prohibited. How one draws the lines between acceptable and unacceptable "imitation" has been a dividing line between Modern Orthodoxy and more traditionalist forms of Orthodoxy.

As the dividing line becomes less clear, some communities have used the prohibition against foreign practices in ever more restrictive ways, prohibiting not only foreign action, but also foreign thought. Some modern authorities have forbidden women's prayer groups on the basis that feminist ideology is a non-Jewish mode of thought.

On the other hand, the contemporary halakhic authority, Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, has reacted against this extended reading of the law. Rav Henkin has opposed this argument against women's prayer groups, stating that the Torah only prohibits non-Jewish actions, not non-Jewish motivations or movements (Shut Bnei Banim II:10, 1992). 

The prohibition against imitating non-Jews was intended as a way to distinguish Jews from non-Jews. It is a great irony of modern  Judaism that this law now functions in a way that also distinguishes Jews from other Jews.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.