The Way of the Gentiles

The prohibition against non-Jewish practices, might relate to the practices of ancient Egypt, Canaan or the social and philosophical ways of non-Jews today.

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Limiting the Prohibition

Unlike Maimonides, Rashi (1040-1105) understands the verse from Leviticus 18 in a more circumscribed manner. Following an earlier tradition, Rashi says that the behavior of the Egyptians and the Canaanites was worse than that of other nations.

In asserting that the Egyptians and Canaanites were worse, Rashi limits the application of the law. One may not act like these two nations because they were particularly bad, but the practices of other nations are not so prohibited. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1029-1167) apparently agrees with Rashi (against Maimonides) in limiting the application of this law. The specific aspect of non-Jewish practice he feels is prohibited is adopting Canaanite standards of legal practice and evidence.

An even more limited approach to this law is found in the medieval Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible with many explanatory expansions. The Targum "translates" the phrase "the acts of the Egyptians" as "the evil/shameful acts of the Egyptians." Although the Targum is not a legal source, it implies that Israel must evaluate non-Jewish customs and reject what is shameful. At the same time, it is clear that the acts which are not shameful are not to be rejected simply because non-Jews practice them.

New Applications

David ben Samuel haLevi (1586-1667) argued that since "the custom nowadays is that non-Jews take off their hats immediately upon sitting down, [covering one's head] is [now obligatory and] included in 'do not walk in their ways'" (Ta"Z, Orah Hayyim 8:3). That is, the obligation to differentiate Jewish behavior from that of the surrounding peoples extends even to customs that are newly adopted by non-Jews.

In early modern times, Orthodox leaders like Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) condemned Reform rabbis for introducing organ music, sermons and liturgy in the vernacular, and adopting European styles, all under the rubric of "imitating the Gentiles" (cf. Responsa Melamed L'Ho'il 1:16). Of course, to the early Reform, imitating the Gentiles and creating a "modern" form of worship was seen as a positive endeavor, and not a negative one.

Contemporary Considerations

In many traditional communities, the pressure to erect new lines of demarcation between Jews and non-Jews has led to more expansive readings of what might be prohibited. How one draws the lines between acceptable and unacceptable "imitation" has been a dividing line between Modern Orthodoxy and more traditionalist forms of Orthodoxy.

As the dividing line becomes less clear, some communities have used the prohibition against foreign practices in ever more restrictive ways, prohibiting not only foreign action, but also foreign thought. Some modern authorities have forbidden women's prayer groups on the basis that feminist ideology is a non-Jewish mode of thought.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.