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Following the Ways of the Gentiles

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Following the Ways of the Gentiles

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish

"The customs of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not follow, nor shall you follow the customs of the land of Canaan, to which I bring you, nor shall you follow their statutes" (Vayikra 18:3).

What is the meaning of the repetition in this verse? What does the phrase, "nor shall you follow their statutes," add to the first part of the command?

In the following verse, we read: "You shall perform My judgments and observe My statutes." The term "judgments" (mishpatim) refers to those commandments whose reasons are clear, those which "had they not been uttered [by God], they would be worthy of being enacted [by man]" (Rashi, ibid). "Statutes" (chukkim), on the other hand, are commandments whose reasons are unknown to us - those which, from our point of view, appear arbitrary; there is nothing inherently negative about the prohibited activity itself.

We may explain verse 3 in a similar way. Commenting on this verse, Rashi writes: "This tells us that the customs of the Egyptians and of the Canaanites were the most depraved of all the nations." Hence, the customs of Egypt and Canaan are prohibited because of their inherent perversion, because of the depravity of the acts themselves. Indeed, the chapter does go on to describe acts of immorality which are abominations in and of themselves. But when the Torah speaks of "their statutes," it refers to ordinary actions that are not in themselves negative - just as, from our point of view, there is no moral imperative inherent to such laws as "kil'ayim" (the prohibition of mixing species) or the purification procedure involving the red heifer. Why, then, are these gentile customs forbidden?

The Torah does not want us to imitate the gentiles and their culture. We are not commanded, "You shall not perform their statutes," but rather, "You shall not follow their statutes." There is nothing wrong with the actions themselves; the problem is the very imitation of gentile ways and adoption of their culture. Clearly, if the act in question is positive and productive, it should be adopted, but if we are speaking of a mundane act that is performed only because "this is how the gentiles do it," with no inherent benefit, it is forbidden.

The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:1):

"We do not follow the ways of the idolaters, nor do we imitate them - neither in dress, nor hairstyle, etc., as it is written - 'You shall not walk in the ways of the gentiles,' and we are told, 'nor shall you walk in their statutes.' Rather, a Jew should be distinguished from them and recognized by his dress and by his other actions, just as he is distinguished from them in his thinking and in his character traits…."

The Kesef Mishneh comments here, in the name of the Maharik:

"Our teacher [the Rambam] meant here to prohibit only a style of dress that is particular to them, and which is avoided by Jews due to modesty or proper behavior. Since this outfit is worn by [the gentiles] for licentiousness, and Jews avoid it because of their Judaism, then when Jews dress in that way, they appear to acknowledge them and follow them. But if it is not a style of dress that is particular to them, then a Jew is not required by the same logic to distinguish himself from the gentiles at all."

There is no prohibition against performing any action that the gentiles perform; the prohibition involves only appearing like them and performing actions with the aim of being like them.

In the Ramban's view, this prohibition applies even to the service of God. The Torah teaches, "Guard yourself lest you be ensnared into following them, after they are destroyed before you, and lest you ask after their gods, saying: How did these nations serve their gods? I shall do likewise…" (Devarim 12:30). Rashi explains, quoting the Gemara in Sanhedrin, that the prohibition is performing idolatrous service in the way that it is usually performed. [Idolatry involves two separate prohibitions: a.) performing for a foreign god those actions that were performed in the Temple, even if those actions are not the accepted form of service for that god, and b.) performing actions for a foreign god when these actions represent the accepted service for that god.] Ramban rejects this explanation, maintaining that we are forbidden to serve God in the way that the gentiles serve their gods. His interpretation is based on what we are told in the following verse: "You shall not do so to the Lord your God."

The Midrash on our parasha (23, 7) teaches:

"R. Berakhia taught: The Holy One said to Moshe, 'Go tell Israel: When you were in Egypt, you were like a rose among the thorns. Now that you are entering the land of Canaan, be [once again] like a rose among the thorns and pay attention not to follow the customs of either those [the Egyptians] or these [the Canaanites]….'"

When Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt, they made a conscious effort to preserve their uniqueness and not to be assimilated into Egyptian society. As we say in the Haggada: "This teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there." Bnei Yisrael preserved their style of dress, their language, their names, etc. A nation that finds itself in a foreign environment tries not to lose its identity; for this reason, the danger of Bnei Yisrael starting to imitate the Egyptians was less acute in Egypt. Few of them imitated or adopted the Egyptian culture.

A much greater danger was presented when Bnei Yisrael settled in their own land, under independent sovereignty. They were no longer like a "rose among the thorns;" their conscious effort to preserve their identity and uniqueness grew much weaker. It is for this reason that specifically now, God commands the nation not to imitate the culture of the Egyptians or the Canaanites.

This problem is particularly acute in our times - the age of the communications revolution. Israel is located in a geographical environment of relatively backward culture, but the media deliver American culture directly into our homes. It is very important that we guard ourselves from imitating the gentiles, that we preserve our spiritual independence. Again, we are permitted to perform actions that the gentiles perform if they is not done for the purpose of imitating them. But we are not to perform these actions solely because "that's how it's done" in other parts of the world.

[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim 5753 (1993).]