As a people, the Jews have never been particularly good at following Gd's instructions. Messengers, sages, rulers, prophets and others have been sent to remind us to follow Gd's ways, and still we ignore them. If I were to give the classical Israelite prophets a grade based on their success at calling the people back to Gd, it would, for the most part, be a pretty miserable grade.
One instruction we were initially bad at following was that of Lev. 18:3-4, to not follow the ways of the Egypt where we had dwelt, or the ways of Canaan, where Gd would bring us. In fact, we did so badly at it that Gd wound up destroying the Temple and sending us into exile. And even after we were given a second chance, we blew it again, and this time, we were exiled for 1.878 years. (It remains to be seen what will be made of our third chance. The signals are mixed.)
Throughout the time we dwelled in Canaan, we stubbornly continued to copy the practices of those we lived among and with. We created altars to other Gds, built asherahs, etc. During our second chance, we longingly gazed upon the practices of the Greeks. Some of us so desired to be like them we even tried to hide or surgically repair the very mark of the covenant that men bore on their bodies.
During a large part of our time in galut, after 70 C.E., we did strive to not be so like those around us, so that our faith might persevere. Yes, we adapted, and incorporated, we co-existed, but we weren't afraid to be different, weren't so compelled to be like our neighbors, and adopt totally the cultic and other practices of the places we lived.
This being different did have consequences. In largely Christian communities we were forced to only play certain roles in society, and prevented from enjoying the full rights of other residents. Sadly, the very roles we were often forced into made us further despised, and created a long, still extant tradition of anti-Semitism. Muslim communities were, in many ways, more tolerant of the Jewish residents - and often, in those communities, we were sometimes more open to cultural influences - but still, for the most part, we obeyed Gd's call to not be like the others.
Then a funny thing happened. Our oppressors began to grow enlightened. They harkened back to the greatness that was Greece, they began to espouse science, even began to think that the Jews could be a part of society. Opportunities began to open for Jews, barriers started to become porous, and eventually, even the ghettos where we had been forced to live were torn down (though the last medieval ghettos were closed in the mid 1800s!) Some Jews rushed to be accepted, to become part of the societies of the countries where they lived. Others were more cautious.
It turns out that the belief and conversation was one sided. Many Jews really thought they could become "Germans" or "Czechs" or "French" et al, but it turns out to have been largely a delusion-one that came crashing down with the Shoah.
During our brief flirtation with modernity, we managed to develop a movement that sought to modernize Judaism itself. This movement saw great flowering when transported to American shores. Here, in a place less fettered by a two thousand year history of anti-Semitism, we again sought to become part of the nation, the community. We began to incorporate the practices of the places we dwelt in our worship. It met with some success. Then the Shoah happened. Rather than increasing our desire for Jewish identity, to not adopt the practices of others, it seems to, in a large part, have increased our desire to not stand out, and to assimilate even further. This is ironic, especially in light of the lesson we learned from Europe.
To this day, we continue to aspire to be just like our neighbors-to be part of that great country where it didn't matter if we were "Catholic, Protestant, or Jew" as the title of the famous book read.
Yet all around us are the signs that history can repeat itself. The flames o f anti-Semitism, which many assumed were, if not extinguished, at least controlled, are beginning to burn again. Seeking to be more like our neighbors will have no greater success in the future as it has in the past. To call on our Gd, we must do as our Gd demands of us - and that doesn't mean just "doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your Gd." It means not following the ways of the modern equivalents to our ancient Egypt and Canaan. It means being who we are, unashamedly, and unabashedly, as Jews. To practice as our Gd commands us. There is a price to pay-and that price to being different from our neighbors. That does not mean we cannot befriend them, that we cannot participate in much of what they do. But the more we allow ourselves to transgress the boundaries that Gd gave us, in an effort to be able to do as our neighbors do, the less entitled we are to call upon Gd for Gd's part of the covenant.
Our synagogues do not need to be like churches. Our worship practices do not need to be like those of our Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu and other neighbors. It's okay for us to keep kosher, to not eat our neighbor's Johnsonville brats, to not allow our children to participate in sports or other activities which their school schedule on Shabbat. We need not fear being different.
By all means, let us examine our faith tradition in the light of modern knowledge and society. Adapt our practices if we need to. But we need not emulate the practices of others to do so. Our own history and traditions are flexible enough, if we try. Gd does not call on us to be perfect. Modern orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism understand this. Strive to obey Gd's commandments. Sometimes, you may fail, whether by intent or circumstance. Our religion has a means for dealing with this - the day of atonement that Acharei Mot tells us about. Perhaps we can even find a modern equivalent for the goat sent to Azalel, the so-called "scape-goat" to carry away the sins of the community.
But we don't need adopt the practices of our modern equivalents to Egypt and Canaan talked about in Acharei Mot to accomplish these things. Let's be who we are - the Jews - the people with a covenant with Gd. That doesn't make us better than others-if anything, it gives us a harder life to live. Let's stop taking the easy road, and relish the more difficult journey along the path Gd has set before us.
We need only remember those three words that end this portion, and are used in so many other places to remind us why we should do what Gd asks us to-
Ani Adnai Eloheichem - I am Adnai your Gd.
That should be enough reason for any of us born to or choosing to accept the yoke of the covenant.
©1996-2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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