May 28, 2024
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Following in the Ways of the Goyim

One of the most difficult concepts to deal with is the Torah’s admonition in this week’s parsha to not follow in the ways of the nations (Vayikra 18:3). What does this mean and what are the limits? Was this only an admonition for the Jews at the time they were entering Canaan? Was it also meant for future generations? Does it apply today in America and, if so, how far? Can we watch television? Attend a Bruce Springstein concert? Can we attend a Yankees baseball game?

Different Jewish factions deal with this verse in different ways. Some chasidim, for example, still wear the clothes and the looks of the 1700s when the Baal Shem Tov started the movement. They refuse to wear modern clothes for fear of becoming assimilated into modern society and losing their religious identity. Some observant Jews will go to the movie theaters, but others may not. Some Jews feel at ease attending a secular university, while others would shun this practice.

Those who identify as modern orthodox might have an even greater conundrum. How modern can one be while still staying true to their orthodox roots? Can we send our young women off to work in a secular job setting? What does one do when he is invited to have drinks after work with his co-workers? Is it better to live in Israel than to live in a non-Jewish country?

The Talmud addressed this topic in Gemara Shabbos (67a) and Sanhedrin (52b). Rashi summarizes this discussion by stating that we should not attend secular theaters and stadiums to watch gladiators. In today’s language, this might include a prohibition to attend concerts and football games. Rabbi Meir stated that this also included the prohibition of following the superstitions of the Emorites. A modern equivalent would be avoiding walking under ladders or having a black cat cross one’s path.

Much of this debate comes under the late Jackie Mason’s amusing concept that it is okay to be Jewish, but don’t be too Jewish. He typically stated that other Jews were uncomfortable with his thick Yiddish accent. They wanted to fit in more like the goyim around them. He said he made some Jews feel self-conscious with his antics. Then again, today, the politically correct expression of diversity is that we are part of a “tossed salad,” rather than caught up in a melting pot. We can be unique, while still being part of the cultural whole.

Rav Hirsch offers an explanation that may be a fitting compromise. He explained that it was acceptable to imitate the nations around us if it was rational and reasonable. We can wear modern clothing in good taste, use modern medicines and enjoy similar amusements. He drew the line at not imitating them when it came to religious matters or matters of immorality. As such, we would have to think twice before attending a Christmas party. While it might be acceptable to attend a secular college, joining a fraternity which engaged in drinking alcohol or lewd practices would probably not be okay.

May Hashem give us the insight and discernment to stay true to our Jewish roots and traditions, while being careful to select which of the ways of the nations are acceptable and morally correct. Let us be careful not to fall prey to any mindless, conforming societal pressures to be just like our neighbors in the nations we may find ourselves in.


 

Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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