D’var Torah for May 3, 2019
This week we will be continuing the reading of parashat Acharei Mot (see Cantor’s D’var Torah from last week). In it 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 Eternal am your God” (Lev. 18:3-4).
This is an incredibly problematic passage. If we are to read it literally, it means we are not to follow the practices or Egypt or Canaan, but by extension we should not follow the laws of any nation. We are to follow the laws and practices that were only ordained by God.
And yet, at every point in history, Judaism has been influenced and adopted ideas and customs of surrounding cultures. The Reform movement is only one the more recent of the many iterations of Judaism to do so. Even our ultra-Orthodox brethren who subscribe to the belief of “all that is new is forbidden by Torah,” dress in the custom of Polish gentry from the 18th century.
The rabbis came up with a rabbinic maxim of dina de’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” This concept appears twenty-five times in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Halacha. Now most of these laws pertained to what we might refer to as civil matters. Nonetheless, even the rabbis worked to reconcile Leviticus with the reality of living in the world.
As the Torah: A Modern Commentary goes on to state, “Judaism has been able to absorb values, ideas, and customs that are compatible with its basic outlook, while rejecting what could not be reconciled with the religious and ethical teachings of the Torah” (pg. 776).
Judaism, at its core, has always been a pragmatic tradition, for the most part. We strive to reconcile the sacred with the profane in all aspects of life. This is why the Torah is the beginning, not the beginning and end of our legacy. Centuries of interpretation continue to make meaning out of our ancient text, acknowledging that new is not bad, it just needs to be understood more and reflected upon.
Or as the Torah Commentary goes on to say, “By obeying God’s law, humankind lives well and meaningfully” (ibid.) The key being to make meaning. It is not merely a matter of picking and choosing which laws to follow, but to understand them in the broader cultural, social, and religious milieu. This is why we wrestle and struggle with our text, because what may be clear upon initial reading is much more subtle, nuanced and challenging.
May we all continue to be challenged.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
As a reminder, tonight we will be celebrating Solidarity Shabbat with Congregation Sons of Israel Nyack at 7:30 PM. This will be preceded by an interfaith dinner at 6:00 pM for those who RSVP’d. If you did RSVP, please be sure to bring Walmart gift cards to be shared with refugees being housed in New York State.