Parashat Ahare Mot

Threat And Promise Of Conformity

We can learn from and adopt only those practices foreign to Judaism that enhance and strengthen Jewish practice.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

In the movie Zelig, Woody Allen portrays an individual who repeatedly rises to the pinnacle of success through his uncanny ability to become identical to those in power.  Time after time, Zelig is able to transform himself into the image of people around him, and those people reward his ability by offering Zelig influence, prominence and prestige.

The movie audience sees Zelig in photographs with Indian chieftains, Nazi generals and capitalist millionaires. In each case, he has become more like them than they are themselves.  Always in the center, always a passionate advocate, Zelig's zeal and enthusiasm bear the mark of his insecurity. His very passion reveals his wish to belong.

Zelig portrays the Jews throughout history.  Like him, we too have managed to adopt the look and the rhythm of the cultures in which we dwell.  We take it as a matter of pride that we become better guardians of the dominant culture than are its biological children.  Always under suspicion of being outsiders, we seek to prove our right to belong through our zeal and our ingenuity.

Assimilation, the drive to become like the people we live among, is a time-honored Jewish passion.  It is certainly one of our consummate talents.  American Jews talk, dress, vacation and work as do all other Americans.  With a few exceptions, our habits and lifestyles reflect the priorities of American culture.  It is no coincidence that "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" was written by a Jew, or that "You're A Grand Old Flag" was sung by one.

Our Torah portion addresses this issue in clear terms. "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 . . . You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live."

Against Assimilation

Here, God speaks out clearly against all forms of assimilation.  The guiding assumption of this passage is that we are tempted to become like the people with whom we live, so there is a need to speak out against this all-too-natural impulse.  Why?  Because one cannot blindly adopt the standards of other people and simultaneously remain true to the values of the Torah and rabbinic traditions.  You cannot serve two masters.  Or can we?  Is the condemnation of assimilation really that sweeping?  Isn't it possible to learn (albeit selectively) from the accumulating wisdom of human experience, science and insight?

Two medieval interpreters do read the verse in a more restricted light.  Rashi understands this as applying only to the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who were "more corrupt than all other nations."  Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) explains that this stricture applies to "the Egyptian legal system."

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.