Tazria 5774 – Picking and Choosing

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.

Shabbat shalom!



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

3 thoughts on “Tazria 5774 – Picking and Choosing

  • I dont know why Christians do that and I dont think they know.I think it is because they have separated themselves so far from their Hebrew heritage and they have no Hebraic understanding just a Greek view. Since reading the Torah for 6 years my views have changed. My community has had some good teachers who have given the Hebraic thinking. Ihave been guided by Rabbinical thinking. Jesus didnt pick and choose he followed Torah.I used to follow Christian festivals but I dont now because I cant see why they are celebrated.I see a reason for Biblical festivals.
    Thanks for your word it was very helpful about relationships which reminds me of love God with all your heart strength and your neighbour as yourself which is what life is about.

  • You must not have really had “many conversations with deeply thoughtful Christian friends, including some clergy people,” because any Sunday School Christian could point you to the New Testament verses below for the basis of their beliefs:

    Regarding homosexuality…
    Romans 1:26-27
    26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

    1 Corinthians 6:9-10
    9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

    And for why we eat pork with a side of bacon…
    Acts 10:9-16
    9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
    14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
    15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
    16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

    I’m not Amish and I’ve grown a mustache outside of leprosy afflictions so I couldn’t tell you their reasoning for picking a fulfilled mosaic law to follow. The fact of the matter (and what pertains the most to your question) is that you’re not going to find a universal and unwavering answer from Christendom to your question. Many different groups within Christianity would answer your question in many different ways. If you really are interested, I would encourage you to check out http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2013/05/06/christians-follow-old-testament-laws
    This should help clear up your “picking and choosing” misconception. From there, (again, if you really are interested in learning) research “Covenant Theology” and “Dispensational Theology” for more answers and insight.

    I hope none of your Christian friends were offended. Just understand that if your Christian “friends” (none of whom have helped you here) do respond, you should expect answers as varied as the opinions of Orthodox to Reformed Jews.


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