And the leper in whom the disease is, his clothes shall be torn, and his head bare, and he shall put a cover upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. …Leviticus 13:45
I hope my Christian friends won’t be offended by my asking this, but I really don’t understand the Christian relationship to the commandments in what they call the “Old Testament.” Maybe one of my Christian readers will respond with a comment that will help me understand.
Orthodox Jews sometimes accuse Reform Jews, and even Conservative Jews, of practicing “cafeteria Judaism,” picking and choosing which commandments they want to follow and leaving the rest. Although to an extent everyone “picks and chooses,” even the Orthodox, because for every commandment there are deeper levels you can take it. The Talmud talks about the “favorite” mitzvot of various rabbis, which rabbis were particularly zealous about which commandments. You can’t be equally intense about everything.
As I understand Christian theology (and what do I know?), the commandments in the Hebrew Bible are not binding on Christians. Paul came along and taught you can be a gentile and still be a follower of Jesus. But an attachment to our old Jewish commandments still pops up, sometimes in surprising places.
Back when I was a congregational rabbi in Ohio, I went on a road trip to “Amish country” in central Ohio with my family. I had the opportunity to talk with a young Amish man at the “Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center,” and it was a fascinating discussion. I learned all about some of their customs, and he was very willing to answer all of my questions. So I asked him “what’s the deal with beards? Why no mustaches?” And he explained that it’s because of a verse in the Old Testament – a verse found in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria. Leviticus 13:45, which reads “And the leper in whom the disease is, his clothes shall be torn, and his head bare, and he shall put a cover upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.” So as a way to show they are not unclean, they “uncover” the upper lip. If you compare the picture of the Haredi Jew on the right with the picture of the Amish Christian above, clearly we do not understand that commandment the same way. By us cover the upper lip had nothing to do with mustaches, but rather with a veil.
But the thing that’s interesting to me is not the difference in interpretation – after all, we teach there are 70 faces to the Torah. The thing that’s interesting to me is “why this particular commandment?” Why are the Amish particular about following this particular commandment, but they ignore, for example, a commandment related to purity from last week’s parsha, Leviticus 11:7: “And the swine, though its hoof is parted, and is cloven footed, yet it chews not the cud; it is unclean to you.”
Similarly, why are so many evangelicals all worked up over Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with men, as with women; it is abomination,” yet as far as I know they ignore a verse that appears just three verses earlier in the same chapter, “Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her menstrual uncleanness.” As far as I know Jesus was not particularly concerned with mustaches or homosexuality, so how did those commandments from the Hebrew Bible become the ones that some Christians focus on, while the dietary restrictions, Shabbat, and laws of family purity are seen as irrelevant? Why does Christian America emphasize the Ten Commandments, but ignore “keep the Sabbath Day?” Even according to Christians, Sunday is not the Sabbath – Sunday is the “Lord’s Day,” the day Jesus was resurrected. Of course that’s the reason Seventh Day Adventists observe the Sabbath on Saturday. But they are a distinct minority in Christendom.
This post is really not meant as a criticism of any kind, so I hope my Christian readers will understand that. It’s just something I really am curious about, and despite many conversations with deeply thoughtful Christian friends, including some clergy people, I’ve never really been able to get an answer to this question.
But here’s a closing a thought: if you are going to engage in “picking and choosing” your commandments, the ones to pick and really focus on are the the commandments that regulate our relations with other people: don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Don’t gossip. Love your neighbor as yourself.