The Threat And Promise Of Conformity

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

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

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 Native American leaders, 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.

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.”

Both of these sages perceive that there is much to be learned from the wisdom of non-Jews.  Not only in the realm of science, but also in human relations, Jewish traditions have been open to insights from other peoples.  The key, both to this Torah verse and to the later interpretations, lies in the final phrase.

Those non-Jewish practices and insights which strengthen Jewish survival, which sensitize us as a people, which teach us how to be more loving, more caring and more sensitive, which prompt us to understand more about Judaism and to practice it more fully, pose no threat to our Jewishness.

On the contrary, we benefit from their inclusion.  An openness to learn, however, should not be mistaken for the blind adoption of all Gentile standards.  Torah and later Jewish traditions stand as the ultimate counterculture–opposing all that would cheapen human life or reduce our consciousness of the holy.

Much in modern life deserves our opposition.  But those insights that strengthen Torah, which make Jewish identity more vibrant and more central, deserve our study and our adoption.  In cultivating those insights, we harvest a growing Torah.  By adding to the riches of our heritage, we assure its continued greatness.

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

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