Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim: Imitation and Integrity

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Achrei-Mot/ Kedoshim

This week’s double portion has three distinct themes (and a few other laws mixed in): first, the laws of Yom Kippur. Second, laws of sex and family life. Third, ethical and social principles. The parsha ends by returning to the topic of sex and family life.

Greetings on a beautiful spring day!

The portion Kedoshim begins with the general injunction to be “holy,” or kadosh:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy, , , ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:1)

This verse has mountains of commentary heaped upon it, which we’ll climb another time, but for now it’s enough to note that some see the idea of “holiness” as related to separation from sin and the practices of the nations that surrounded ancient Israel. This reading is supported by a passage towards the end of the next chapter:

“You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. . . . You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” (Vayikra 20:23-26)

Verse 23, above, about not “following the practices” of other nations, was interpreted by the ancient rabbis as a general principle that Jews should not adopt or copy the cultural or religious practices of other nations. That’s why some groups of Jews adopt distinctive dress, for example- adopting modern styles might be seen as following a foreign culture.

Most of us- at least, the likely readers of this commentary- consciously choose to “live in two civilizations,” to quote Mordecai Kaplan, and we’re perfectly comfortable dressing, talking, working, singing and going about our daily lives as Americans, Canadians, etc. Yet it’s equally true that most committed Jews have a notion of Jewish authenticity, or at least a vague sense that not every Jewish practice is adaptable to changing cultural norms. A funny example from last December occurred when we somehow ended up with a few (kosher) Christmas cookies mixed in with the cakes at the Shabbat oneg [refreshments]. Even though they came from the bakery that I myself supervise, quite a few congregants had the emotional reaction that Christmas cookies (little stars with silver sprinkles) just can’t be kosher and don’t belong on a synagogue table.

Scholars and historians write books upon books discussing how Judaism adapts- or rejects- input from the general culture- it’s not a simple subject. Yet it’s worth considering that many of the practices most familiar to North American Jews- especially relating to clergy and synagogue services- are direct and conscious adoptions of non-Jewish customs. These include special robes for clergy; the leading role that rabbis play in worship; standing for the Shma; and choirs and instruments during religious services. I bring up these examples neither to advocate nor condemn, but merely to point out that what’s “traditional” to one congregation may be seen as distastefully inauthentic in another. Not every innovation works to further basic Jewish ideals, and Judaism has to be something that connects Jews to our history as well as Jews in other cultures- yet who among us objects to singing Adon Olam to the “traditional melody,” which was once a German beer-hall song?

I offer no simple resolution, but instead an opportunity to learn more; one cannot determine one’s own criteria for Jewish authenticity without information on the background and meaning of prayers and practices. A Judaism which is not somehow set apart is not Judaism; a Judaism which is only set apart has no ability to engage and raise up the culture around it. In between those extremes we try to discern a balance between tradition and change, which is not a Conservative slogan but the perpetual endeavor of our people.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- I started thinking about this issue a few weeks ago, during Pesach, when I adapted an old Southern folk melody to a piece of Hallel [the Psalms of praise sung during holidays]. If you want to hear Jerry Garcia sing The Sweet Sunny South, click the link; if you want to hear how I adapted it to pitchu li, sha’arey tzedek. . . (Ps. 118), you’ll have to come to our minyan on Rosh Hodesh or another holiday.

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