The Torah and the laws of the gentiles: the appeal of non-Jewish laws and practices
Title of work:
Aḥarey Mot, parashah 8 chapter 3, 86a-b
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
- evil inclination
- forbidden sexual acts
- Jewish wisdom
- levirate marriage
- nations of the world
- Rabbi Meir
- Rabbi Yehudah ben Betirah
- Roman customs
- Roman law
- shedding blood
- ways of the Amorite
- wisdom of the nations
- world to come
This passage from the Sifra expounds on the closing clause of Leviticus 18:3 and on Leviticus 18:4: “(3) You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow [lit. walk by] their statutes. (4) My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God” (NRSV). The midrash treats these verses as an opportunity to discuss non-Jewish practices and laws which, in its context, are primarily Roman or Greco-Roman. A careful reading of this text indicates that its authors are addressing the significant challenges that were posed by Roman laws and ways of life (for a detailed discussion of this source, see Hirshman, Torah, p. 48-52).
Section A inquires about the meaning of “You shall not follow their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3, NRSV); namely, does this verse focus on gentiles laws or practices? The midrash continues by asking why this general statement is needed while other biblical sections explicitly detail forbidden acts performed by non-Jews. Our passage concludes that Lev. 18:3 forbids nimosot, (from the Greek term nomos, meaning customs or laws). Since this midrash lists “theaters,” “circuses” and “stadiums” as examples, customs seem to be the subject here, as distinct from laws. Other tannaitic texts also seek to deter Jews from attending these Roman institutions, though for different reasons (see the commentaries on Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:5-7, and Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:7, 40a).
Next, this midrash presents additional explanations of “You shall not follow their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3, NRSV). Rabbi Meir, a fourth-generation tanna who was active in the mid-second century, reads this verse as a reference to Amorite practices. As Giuseppe Veltri explains, “According to biblical sources, the Amorites are among the former inhabitants of Canaan (cf. Gen 10:16 and Ex 8:17), whose ‘abominable’ practices the Israelites were not allowed to adopt (cf. Deut 20:17f. and Ezek 21:29ff.). In rabbinic discussions, the ‘ways of the Amorite’ became a halakhic category which included most kinds of forbidden foreign customs” (“On the Influence of Greek Wisdom,” p. 309). Many of these practices are discussed in Chapter Six of Tosefta Shabbat. Rabbi Yehudah ben Betirah, a third-generation tanna who was active in the first third of the second century, defines the statutes that this verse forbids as three practices: First, killing an animal by puncturing (from the Hebrew root n-ḥ-r) it, a method of slaughter that does not meet halakhic standards. However, the same root also refers to a snorting sound that Saul Lieberman posits was associated with idolatry (see Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-Feshutah, vol. 5, p. 1363-1364; Hirshman, Torah, p. 52). The other two practices listed by Rabbi Yehudah ben Betirah are hair styles; the second one, the qomi, also appears in Tosefta Shabbat 6:1 among “the ways of the Amorites” (for more information on the qomi, see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 6:1, 7d).
Section B acknowledges then counters two positions which posit that the Torah is not of the same caliber as the laws of other nations: In response to an Israelite notion that their own statutes do not qualify as laws, this midrash cites the first portion of Leviticus 18:4: “My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep” (NRSV), where God classifies his commands as laws. Having thus demonstrated that the Torah is indeed law, this midrash challenges an argument for the superiority of non-Israelite law. This stance is articulated by the evil inclination (yetzer ha-r‘a) – an inner voice or, perhaps, an entity that resides within a person – that tempts people toward malicious thoughts and actions (on the evil inclination in tannaitic literature, and the different understandings of this concept held by the Houses of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, see Rosen-Zvi, “The School of R. Ishmael”). These two hypothetical accusations against the quality of Torah law indicate that at least some Jews considered non-Jewish (probably Roman) law to be preferable (see Hirshman, Torah, p. 52; Dohrmann, “The Boundaries,” p. 71); otherwise, such refutations would not have been needed. As a further response to these claims, the midrash cites Deuteronomy 4:6, which states that adherence to God’s law would raise Israel’s esteem among the nations: “You must observe them and practice them, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” (Deuteronomy 4:6, based on NRSV). This section signals that Israelites compared their laws to at least one other legal system – probably Rome’s, for that power had an elaborate legal system that served as an instrument of control over its empire and whose excellence was lauded in Roman imperial ideology. Furthermore, Section B signals that Jews were also concerned about other nations’ perceptions of them and their laws. Here too this midrashic attempt to refute the notion that Israelite law is inferior (or perhaps not even considered as law) apparently stems from an accepted view, at least among some Jews, otherwise there would be no need to address it.
The remaining sections of this midrash (C-E) each expound on one portion of Leviticus 18:4. Section C explains that “My ordinances you shall observe” (NRSV) refer to matters in the Torah which are deemed so fundamental that “by right they should have been written,” for they enable a society to exist; the midrash specifies “robbery, forbidden sexual acts, idolatry, blaspheming the Name of God, and shedding blood.” There was likely a consensus among Israelites regarding these elements of Jewish law, so they could be enumerated without debate. By comparison, Section D focuses on commandments that were seemingly more problematic, for challenges to their necessity are attributed to the evil inclination. This group is comprised of religious requirements from the Torah that were anomalous, and thus difficult to justify, in the Roman context. For instance, the Jewish prohibition against consuming pork, which was commonly eaten throughout the Roman world, drew negative attention, as illustrated in Juvenal’s Satire 14, which describes a God-fearer (a gentile who was drawn to Judaism) whose sons ultimately converted: “Taught by their fathers on the self-same line / With human flesh to place the flesh swine / With no less rigour from it they abstain…” (translation from Kaiser, “An Unpublished Translation,” p. 312). The ban on wearing a garment of mixed wool and linen – following Leviticus 19:19: “… nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials” (NRSV) and Deuteronomy 22:11: “You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together” (NRSV) – is also included here. Another prohibition that was difficult to explain in a Roman context is ḥalitzah, a ritual that is related to the obligation of levirate marriage (described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10): this passage instructs that, if a man dies without a son, his brother should either marry the widow (Deuteronomy 25:5-6, NRSV) or perform ḥalitzah, the ritual that releases her to wed another husband. Indeed, the protocol detailed in Deuteronomy 25:9 lends itself to criticism: “Then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house’” (NRSV). This section also mentions the commandments on purifying lepers and on the scapegoat. According to this midrash, these religious instructions were questioned by the evil inclination and by the nations of the world (more on the yetzer ha-r‘a in this section in Rosen-Zvi, “The School of R. Ishmael,” p. 48). Section D addresses this challenge by referring to God’s instruction: “I am the Lord (Leviticus 18:4, NRSV) – I legislated (ḥaqaqtim) them, [so] you are not permitted to refute them.” By presenting these commandments as divinely authored, this midrash attempts to limit human critiques; however, the absence of reasoned explanations suggests that, at least for some Jews, religious requirements which lacked a logical basis posed difficulties in a Roman environment.
Section E further emphasizes the importance of adherence to biblical law over the laws of the nations, in its comment on Leviticus 18:4: “My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep following them” (NRSV).” This section teaches that Jews should follow the Torah’s commandments and practices to the exclusion of any other legal system; moreover, studying the wisdom of the nations is discouraged, rejecting the assertion that, after becoming expert in the wisdom of Israel, other forms of knowledge may be acquired. The midrash, therefore, instructs full commitment to and engagement with Israelite teachings alone. In the tradition of concluding chapters or tractates with a positive tone, Section E closes with an interpretation of Proverbs 6:22 “When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you wake up, they will talk with you” (based on NRSV), which promises that the laws of the Torah will accompany Jews who are devoted to them in this world, at the time of death, and in the world-to-come.Considered as a whole, this passage from the Sifra seems to indicate the sages’ recognition that Jewish life within the Roman Empire – whose laws, wisdom, and practices contrasted with many teachings and standards in the Torah – demanded responses. This midrash acknowledges Jewish opinions that reflect the allure of non-Jewish law and thought.