‘Can’t we all just get along?’

‘Can’t we all just get along?’

Rabbi James Gibson
Rabbi James Gibson

Achare Mot–Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Those famous words, “Can’t we all just get along?” were plaintively said by Rodney King, whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police more than 20 years ago triggered some of the worst ever race riots in that city.

America is a strange and wonderful blend of cultures, languages, ethnicities, faiths and races.  In the old days we were told that we should aspire to be a “melting pot,” in which all of our differences would disappear.  

Today, however, the favored term is “salad bowl.”

The salad bowl has many different elements, from lettuce to carrots, to mushrooms to peppers to cucumbers and more.  Each element keeps its shape, form and taste, yet when eaten all together it’s a wonderful (and healthy) combination.

This week’s Torah portion, Achare Mot, seems to teach us not to go the salad bowl route.  We learn in Leviticus chapter 18.3-4:

“Do not follow the deeds of the land of Egypt, where you once lived; nor follow the deeds of the land of Canaan, to which I bring you, nor walk in their statutes.  Follow My judgments, My statutes keep to walk therein; I am the Eternal your God.”

This was written for a time when the greatest danger to our people was being swallowed whole by another culture, especially one whose values were incompatible with our own. The wonderful commentator and collector of rabbinic teachings, Nechama Leibowitz writes about this verse:

“The children of Israel, who had left and were about to enter a highly civilized environment after their long wanderings in the desert, were particularly susceptible to the cultural attractions, or as the Torah terms it, ‘defilements’ and abominations of their past and future neighbors.  We know today, only too well, how the technical achievements of civilization do not always reflect similar advancement in the field of ethics and morality.”  (emphasis added)

Leibowitz is also concerned that our unique norms of behavior could be ridiculed to the point where we simply drop them.  She cites Rashi, the incomparable 11th century French commentator, who teaches:

“Keep My statutes — these are the commands constituting royal decrees about which the evil inclination raises the objection of why we should at all observe them, and regarding which the Gentiles taunt us, such as the eating of pork.”

The implication is clear.  There is much in the modern societies in which we Jews live that is technologically advanced, but morally bankrupt.  From outrageous commercial entertainments to misuse of social media, there are many elements of our culture that are suspect to Jews who take the values of our faith seriously.

We might be tempted to simply turn our backs on the cultures in which Jews live all over the world.  There are Jews who live in separate enclaves and neighborhoods, protected against the evil influences of the outside world and culture.

But our Torah verse can be offset by the teaching of Rabbi Ben Zoma, whose teachings we read in this week’s installment of Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers), the tractate in the Mishna dedicated to ethics.

In chapter 4, teaching 3, Ben Zoma taught:

“Do not be scornful of any person and do not be disdainful of anything, for you have no person without his hour and no thing without its place.”

In the Hebrew text, Ben Zoma uses the term “ADAM,” to signify a person, as opposed to “YEHUDI,” or “ISRAEL” which would signify only another Jews.  I believe that Ben Zoma’s lesson is for us who live in cultures in which our values do not always hold sway.

We learn that every person created by God has a place and a purpose.  Our challenge is to engage each day with other human beings, even those not like us, and find the Divine purpose they may have in our lives.

To be part of a “salad bowl” society is to find a way to be the very best carrot we know how to be, refusing to give up our distinctiveness.  At the same time, we do not have to hang out only with other carrots.  Because each element of the human “salad” has a place and purpose from God.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)