Parashat Acharei Mot is composed primarily of the Torah readings for Yom Kippur. It begins with the ritual for purification of the sanctuary and the dispatch of the scapegoat read on Yom Kippur morning. And near the end, we find the passage read on Yom Kippur afternoon, the list of prohibited sexual relationships.
This latter passage is usually taken as the beginning of the “Holiness Code” that lays out many of the Torah’s ethical laws. It is introduced as follows: “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 am Adonai your God.”
Some suggest that this warning to avoid the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites refers specifically to the sexual prohibitions that follow. After all, we know that incest, particularly marriage between brothers and sisters, was practiced by Egyptian royalty and that Canaanite religion included goddess worship and fertility rites often accompanied by the use of cult prostitutes.
However, the Rabbis persist in reading this warning more broadly. The author of Be’er Yitzhak (Rabbi Yitzhak Horowitz of Yaroslav, 19th century) wrote: “The passage should be interpreted in its plain sense. If you follow the practices of the Egyptians, for what purpose did I bring you out of Egypt? If you follow the practices of the Canaanites, why should I expel them for your sakes? On this condition did I bring you out of Egypt and on this condition did I drive out the Canaanites — that you should not emulate their deeds.”
In the hands of the Rabbis, this becomes the halachic prohibition known as chukot hagoyim, the laws of the nations — the prohibition of following any non-Jewish practices or customs about which there is even a suspicion of idolatry or which differ from Jewish law and customs.
Rambam (Maimonides) offers this explanation: We should not dress like them, we should not cut our hair like them, we should not trim our beards like them, we should not build buildings that look like theirs.
This is pretty extreme, and there are certainly other authorities who limit this law to matters of idolatry and unchastity. Still, there are segments of the Jewish world who do everything they can to isolate themselves from the non-Jewish world. They avoid sending their children to college, watching movies and television, reading secular newspapers, and even — in some cases — speaking English or Hebrew.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are Jews who try to avoid appearing distinctive or different. Some early Reform congregations went so far as to move their “Sabbath” services to Sunday to fit in more
But, and this is the important part, chukot hagoyim is not the only halachic principle that applies here. There is also dina d’malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law. As long as the laws of the country in which we live do not force us to transgress halacha, we are obligated to obey them in addition to Jewish law. Thus, we require civil divorce in addition to Jewish divorce, we are to follow business law, commercial law, family law, etc., etc., etc.
Thus, there is a middle path, one more difficult than either extreme, that requires us to balance religion and citizenship, distinctiveness and accommodation. We American Jews live in two worlds, and to reject either of them out of hand is unthinkable.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.