Imitating the Gentiles?

May 3rd: Achare Mot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A passage in this week’s Torah portion sets the stage for some very interesting arguments in Jewish history. In Leviticus 18.2, we read: “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 Lord am your God.”

Since a list of prohibited sexual relationships (various forms of incest) follows this general rule, the passage may have been meant as an introduction: do not behave sexually the way the Egyptians do. However, our Tradition has expanded this principle and used it in evaluating a number of other “non-Jewish” customs or practices. The philosophical approach is that the ways of our corrupt and immoral neighbors are dangerous to our holiness, while our ways of doing things are moral and holy. We may doubt whether this is actually the case—or whether it was ever the case with all of our neighbors, but our Tradition’s focus on our holiness has always been suspicious of the polytheism, idolatry, and moral quality of our non-Jewish neighbors. What do we think? Are all “non-Jewish” behaviors and practices immoral and unholy? Or, are some okay? What is it that makes a “non-Jewish” practice or custom anathema to Jewish values or religion? Is it possible for Jews to adopt some “non-Jewish” practices and customs and not deviate from God’s laws?

A possible early example is the verse that prohibits “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.” Found more than once in the Torah (Exodus 23.19, Exodus 34.26, and Deuteronomy 14.21), this is the verse upon which Kashrut’s separation of meat and dairy is based. Though later commentators speak to the perverse cruelty of using the life-giving fluid as a means of cooking a young animal, we really do not know why the command was given in the first place. Some 20th Century archeological finds, however, may give us a clue. One Canaanite ritual describes literally boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. So, could the Biblical passage be a prohibition of Canaanite religion, ala “You shall not copy the practices of the….Land of Canaan?”

Similar reasoning could be the basis of the prohibition of male homosexuality (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13). No reason is given for the ban, but Canaanite religion featured a number of sexual rituals. Is the problem, in Biblical thinking, with homosexuality itself or with the fact that it was part of Canaanite polytheistic and idolatrous religion?

There are lots and lots of examples in the Talmud, but I shall just mention my favorite: a discussion banning Roman-style sandals with cleats. For some reason, for some of the ancient Sages, this Roman fashion crossed the line of Jewish acceptability.

In our own day, one of the places we see the controversy is at funerals where “non-Jewish” customs—like flower arrangements—are often attempted. To my knowledge, there is no Christological meaning associated with flowers, but many Jews feel a firm religious conviction that there is something seriously “non-Jewish” or “anti-Judaism” about them. Some believe that the original use of flowers was to cover the odor of a decomposing body—something only necessary in religions where burial is delayed for several days. But, are the flowers themselves religious symbols? And, if the modern meaning is to soften the sadness and express care for the mourners, why is this a religious problem for Jews?

We face the same concerns with other “non-Jewish” funeral practices: cremation, donating remains to medical schools, embalming and public viewing. Though not what we now consider “traditional,” are they “anti-Jewish” and to be rejected? I look at them as non-religious practices—and compare them to other non-religious things that Christians do. If Christians wear coats in the winter, does that mean that we should not?

We could ask, in similar fashion, about spiritual practices from other faith traditions? Is yoga a Hindu (idolatrous) religious practice, or is it a form of exercise in which a Jew can participate safely? What about Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation? Is it part of Hindu or Buddhist spirituality and therefore “against” Jewish values or practice? Or, is it a meditative technique that is religiously neutral—and safe for Jews? We may draw the line at reciting The Lord’s Prayer or offering a sacrifice to Ganesh, but, if a practice from other religion is non-religious, what makes it appropriate or inappropriate for a Jew to use or practice it?

Many of the modern reforms in Judaism were taken from Christian worship practices: clerical robes, pipe organs, and even prayer leaders facing the congregation. Are they therefore non-Jewish or against Judaism’s spiritual culture? What about other, more benign strategies of modernization? Back in the mid-1800s, Orthodox Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer was a controversial figure because he tried to bring Orthodox Jews into the modern world. He established a school that taught both boys and girls, used proper German (not Yiddish), and included non-Jewish subjects—his goal being to have his religiously Orthodox students ready to participate in the modern world. He also advocated modern clothing—which meant short suit coats for men, as opposed to the long, below-the-knees coats Jewish men had worn for centuries. He had many supporters, but ultimately, he was censured by the Orthodox authorities and, under pressure from them, the Hungarian government closed his school. In 1860, the Orthodox zealot Yosef Schlesinger excommunicated Hildesheimer, declaring him “not truly a sincere Jew.” The ban was not universally accepted, but these episodes from just 150 years ago show how far we can take the prohibition of imitating the ways of the Gentiles.


We who believe that it is possible to be authentically Jewish and fully modern have an interesting tightrope to walk. Both are good goals, but sometimes we have to negotiate the meanings and implications of “modern” and “non-Jewish” practices. There is no sure-fire way to decide, but Jewish education, continuing thoughtfulness, and creative adaptability are good tools for us to use.