Progressive Judaism and the Practices of the Land | Acharei Mot

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:  I the Lord am your God. 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 you shall observe and faithfully follow my laws. I the Lord am your God; you shall keep My Laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:1-4).

These instructions to the Israelite nation while still in the dessert and while still a “society” in formation, established a clear cut norm which we as a Jewish community are commanded to follow: we are to keep away from the practices of the non-Jews with whom we live. We, the covenanted people to Adonai, have our own set of rules and practices which must guide our actions. We must stay away from the “others” and not copy what they do.

Such an injunction may fit perfectly well with certain segments of our Jewish community today; namely those Orthodox and especially Ultra-Orthodox “family members” who reject the non-Jewish world and insist on separation from its peoples, ideas and practices. Whether living by choice in Jewish Ghettos today in the Diaspora or in Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Ghettos in Israel, this part of the Jewish people subscribes in total to the words of Leviticus: stay away from the “goyim” (other nations), including secular Israelis, for they have nothing to teach you and everything to threaten you.

We Liberal, Progressive and Reform Jews have never understood this passage from Leviticus quite the same way as our Haredi brothers and sisters. In fact, how we liberal Jews find meaning in this challenging injunction actually defines the nature of Progressive Judaism.  It is critically important that we appreciate the context in which the Leviticus text is written. Specifically, the Leviticus text in question relates to the sexual practices of incest and prohibited sexual unions which apparently were practices by the other nations with whom we lived. Our Torah prohibits the licentiousness practiced by pagan societies at the time.  Yet, we also read in Acharei Mot rules regarding how we are to eat – how we must not eat the blood of animals, for “the life of all flesh – its blood is its life” (Lev. 17:14) which teaches us to respect the value of life even as we indulge in our all too human need to eat meat.  Moreover, we also read in Acharei Mot how we are to observe the Day of Atonement (Yom Hakippurim), that one day in the year when we are commanded to “practice self denial…and make expiation to purify all your sins so that you shall be pure before the Lord” (Lev. 16:29-30).

Yes, we learn from Acharei Mot that we Jews are indeed to live differently from those around us – we are not to copy their ways when it comes to sexual perversions, or to the failure to respect the sanctity of life, or to be blind to the need to take personal responsibility for our actions and seek atonement for our sins.  But what it informs Progressive Judaism with its essential wisdom is not only to learn what aspects of the non-Jewish world we must reject, but also to learn what aspects of the non-Jewish world we can and should admire and even integrate into our own understanding of life and practice. From its inception, Progressive Judaism sought to infuse into our Jewish way powerful ideas, mores, and cultural practices we learned from the “others” – science, philosophy, arts, music, and the list goes on….

The act/art of distinguishing and choosing between what to accept and what to reject from our host societies – whether in the Diaspora or in Israel – is the ultimate test facing Progressive Judaism. How “simple” and convenient it would be to reject everything from the “other” including the “other” itself.  How clear-cut it would be to argue that every “other” is against us, posing a threat to our very existence. But that is not the Progressive Jewish way.

We must learn to face each “other” and all that emanates from the “other” with the understanding that we all are creatures and children of the one God. We must be wise enough and courageous enough to learn from each and every one of God’s children. In some cases we learn and then reject – and in some cases we learn and then integrate/adapt/modify/imprint/ the good info our very own way.

The Leviticus text in our Torah portion is a profound and awesome charge – stay away, stay apart from the evils of the “other”. We Jews must hearken to that teaching today as we were commanded to do thousands of years ago. But we Progressive Jews extend the Leviticus text as well – we must learn not only to reject but also how to accept without impairing our own unique way and constitution.  For in the end, as our Leviticus text counsels us – the ultimate commandment is to learn how best to live (V’Chai Bahem) – for all our commandments and all our teachings must lead us and all humankind to the appreciation and honor of life.

So May It Be God’s Will.


About the author:

Rabbi Joel Osrean is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) and the Rabbi at Beth Hillel Congregation in Rome, Italy. 

The above formerly appeared as #62 in our Torah from Around the World Series.

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