Healthy (and Maybe Even Holy) Ambivalence
Building identity is complicated and sometimes painful work. This is true both on an individual level and when it comes to nations. What makes thinking about identity even more complicated is the fact that identity is really never completely “formed.” Sure, a national identity should have core commitments. But I would suggest that we shift our understanding of identity from something that is fixed to a subjective process by which one group comes to recognize itself as being different from other groups. Understood in these terms, identity is dynamic—always emerging and continually being transformed over time.
Our Torah portions this Shabbat spend a fair amount of time discussing the formation of Israelite identity by means of the rejection of the practices of the “nations.” Specifically, chapter 18 of Leviticus demands that the Israelites reject the sexual code of the nations around them. The “nations” defile themselves by allowing certain practices, “But you must keep My laws and My rules and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen, nor the stranger who resides among you” (Lev. 18:26). I want to redirect us from the biblical discussion and study a subtle midrash where the Rabbis will use a verse that commands religious and ethnic separation in order to consider—in a brutally honest way—some of their own ambivalence and anxieties around the contemporary implications of these verses in a Roman milieu.
The point of departure for this midrash is Leviticus 18:3:
As the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt—you shall not do, and as the practices of the land of Canaan to where I am taking you, you shall not do; you shall not follow their laws (huqotahem).
At this liminal moment in the history of the Israelites—as they move from Egypt and slavery into the land of Canaan in order to begin their lives under a new national constitution—the children of Israel are warned not to follow foreign practices and laws. As chapter 18 unfolds, the Israelites will be instructed regarding forbidden sexual activity. A line in the sand is drawn—on one side of the line is what “they” do, and on the other side is what “we” do.
A selection from the Sifra, the central rabbinic collection of legal exegesis on the book of Leviticus dating from the first half of the third century, reflects rabbinic efforts to create a distinct cultural territory for rabbinic Judaism. It draws attention to a process of an emerging rabbinic identity in the decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE) and the failed Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE). After the loss of the Temple and the crushing defeat of the revolt, rabbinic groups work towards creating a new post-Temple Judaism with its own set of values, institutions, and ways of conceiving of the role of human beings in the world. While this text from the Sifra that we are about to study expresses anxiety about the competitiveness of nascent rabbinic ideas vis-à-vis pagan culture, the selection also reveals a rabbinic effort to persuade an audience, and we might entertain the idea that this was an act of self-persuasion.
The Sifra (Aharei Mot 9:13) begins:
Did Scripture leave [some law] out that they did not say?
Is it not already written, “[When you enter the Land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.] Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire [or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer],” “Or one who casts spells . . . ” (Deut. 18:9-11).
So [why did Scripture need to repeat], “You shall not follow their laws (huqotahem)” (Leviticus 18:3)?
The question asked in the opening statement of the midrash is predicated on the rabbinic commitment to the idea that the Torah uses language economically. That is to say, the Torah never repeats itself, and if it does, it must be teaching something new with these seemingly redundant words. Working under this assumption, the question posed is: “If Deuteronomy carefully delineated the practices of the nations that Israel is prohibited from following, why did the Torah teach the general prohibition “And you shall not follow their laws”? Simply put: what does Leviticus 18:3 add that was not already taught in Deuteronomy?
The Sifra responds:
In order that you do not walk in the ways of their customs (nimusot)
in the things inscribed for them [legislated for them] (ha-haquqin
lahem), like theaters, circuses and amphitheaters. [“Theaters” were
spaces for plays; “circuses” were most often used for horse races;
and “amphitheaters” or statdia were used for athletic
In response to this question, the Sifra argues that the word huqotahem in Leviticus 18:3 means “customs (nimusot)”; The Rabbis arrive at this understanding by explaining huqotahem as “those practices ‘inscribed’ (h-q-q, carved) for them”; that is to say, customs figuratively “etched” into a public consciousness. Now, as explained by the Rabbis, Leviticus 18:3 should be understood as a general prohibition against sharing “their” customs (nimusot)—in other words, the larger cultural practices of the Gentiles. The Sifra gives the examples of their “theater, circuses and amphitheaters”—perhaps the cultural spaces and activities most representative of Roman culture.
In a bold fashion, the Rabbis have expanded a chapter of the Torah that deals exclusively with sexual prohibitions (Lev. 18) to include a much broader mandate: the rejection of various behaviors prevalent in a Roman cultural context. As the Rabbis have formulated it: to be a rabbinic Jew in a Roman and pagan context requires that the Jew reject some of the most popular cultural (not just religious) institutions in the Roman world.
Yet after having established these cultural boundaries, the redactor of this midrash expresses the doubts he imagines arising in the minds of his audience concerning the meaningfulness of the cultural alternatives offered by the Rabbis. Perhaps he is also giving voice to rabbinic ambivalence towards the rejection of so much of Roman culture:
And lest one say, “To them [there are] customs (huqim). But for us
—there are no customs (lahem huqim ve-lanu ein huqim)!”
The sentiment expressed is: If we reject pagan cultural norms, what will replace them? Do we (rabbis) really have a compelling cultural alternative? The Rabbis who authored, redacted, and then transmitted this text recognized that there would be those who questioned whether rabbinic identity was substantive enough to compete with both the richness and the pervasiveness of pagan life.
The response to this challenge is less compelling than the question:
That is why the verse says, “My rules (mishpatai) alone shall you
observe, and faithfully follow my laws (huqotai): I am the Lord.”
The redactor responds by invoking a biblical verse and making a distinction between “My rules (mishpatai)” and “my laws (huqotai),” which God gave the Israelites. The Rabbis claim that this verse argues, “Not only do we have laws (mishpatai), but we also have our own huqotai, and here the Rabbis understand this word to mean “customs.” Moreover, implied in this verse is that these customs—unlike the customs of the non-Jewish world—were given by God. Making use of the ambiguity between rules (mishpatai) and laws (huqotai), the Rabbis suggest that this verse intends to reassure. This rabbinic response to potential doubts regarding the power of rabbinic culture basically amounts to: “We know we have culture because God told us God gave us culture (huqotai).”
However, the author of this midrash suspects that he has not convincingly settled the issue. In a moment of insecurity, he subverts the answer he gave regarding the power of rabbinic culture.
There still remains a chance for the evil inclination to murmur and
say—”Theirs are more pleasant than ours (shelahem na’im mi-
Here he acknowledges that even if one were to accept the rabbinic reading of these biblical verses, “proving” that the Rabbis can offer an alternative cultural system, questions regarding the quality of these cultural alternatives may arise. Murmurings may exist that, “Their customs are more pleasant than ours!”
He responds to this concern by once again reaffirming a version of the “proof” made above that rabbinic Judaism has meaningful cultural content:
Therefore, Scripture says, “See, I have imparted to you huqim [read: culture] andmishpatim [read: laws] . . . Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these huqim will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.'” (Deut. 4:6)
The midrash concludes with a bold rhetorical flourish claiming that not only has God given the Israelites their own customs, but that this cultural content is so rich and compelling that it will ultimately be a source of envy amongst the nations of the world. The Rabbis comfort themselves that the choice to separate from the ambient culture will be vindicated by the praise and acknowledgment of the nations.
What draws me to this midrash are the cracks, where we can hear the ambivalence and what I would describe as productive self-doubt in an otherwise powerful and sustained argument for cultural content. As the Rabbis construct a religious identity for their moment, they use a biblical verse from our parashah in order to expand the sphere of culturally prohibited activities to include all of “their customs” broadly construed. On the one hand, the Rabbis are so audacious to claim that Jewish cultural content—as they will define it—comes from God, so certainly it will be able to replace the Roman customs that they are asking Jews to distance themselves from. On the other hand, the Rabbis tell us there are still moments when they hear a voice whispering, “Theirs are more pleasant than ours!” I would propose that this rabbinic ambivalence, these moments of self-doubt in the creation of Jewish identity, are in fact holy because their acknowledgement serves as a healthy corrective against triumphant and overly dogmatic formulations of Jewish identity.
What does this mean for our contemporary Jewish lives? As formulations of Jewish identity continue to emerge—as we navigate and negotiate the broader culture in which we are located—we certainly need powerful iterations of what that identity is and can be. At the same time, however, the lesson we can draw from the Sifra is that we also need moments of self-reflection and humility in which we acknowledge and embrace all of the complications and ambivalence that come up in identity-building. Such moments of honest struggle will ultimately lead us to greater meaning and strength.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.