I have always been interested by the Torah’s claim (4:6-8) that when Jews follow its laws, other nations are extremely impressed. But even more interesting than what the gentiles think of the Jews here, is the implication of what the Jews think about the gentiles. That is, the Torah seems to clearly posit that Jews will be more motivated to follow the commandments if they think it will impress the gentiles.
Rabbi R. S. Hirsch (on 4:6) denotes a good reason why Jews should care what the gentiles think. That broadcasting the right image will lead to nothing less than “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.” Not a trifling matter. And yet he was certainly aware that Jews sometimes go overboard in worrying how they appear to others.
One way to get a better handle on these verses is to look at them in context. Right before being told this reason why Jews should observe the Torah, we are confronted with an even more basic one. Says Moshe to the Jewish people, “You know from experience that you will be wiped out if you don’t!” The example given is the incident with Ba’al Peor (4:4-5): Those who worshiped it were killed and those did not survived.
At first glance, these two sets of verses seem unrelated. They appear to just be two different items on a list of reasons why we should keep the Torah – after speaking about physical survival, the Torah moves on to how we will look in the eyes of other nations.
In fact, I think these verses may have a much closer and more profound connection.
For the incident with Ba’al Peor was not just one of idolatry. It was the most extreme example of Jews’ willingness truly do anything in order to please the gentiles. For according to Jewish tradition, the worship of this particular idol was especially depraved and involved public defecation in front of it. This notwithstanding, the Moabites accepted it as normative. And because they did, the Jews who wanted to be in their good graces were expected to go along with it.
We are likely to wonder how any of the Jews could have justified doing such a thing only to please Moabites. Granted, the Moabites used sexual temptation to lure the Jews that succumbed to this worship. Yet it is hard to believe that so many Jews of that generation would have fallen to pure and unadulterated temptation. In that light, I believe that they did see some justification, especially if – as is suggested by some – they only went through the motions, without any intention of actually worshipping Baal Peor.
So what was their justification? To understand, we need to think about cultural interchanges more generally. Any traveler will tell you that a surefire way to impress locals is to show admiration for their culture. Tourists who learn the language, try the food and dress in the local style, etc. invariably get a warmer reception. And when innocuous, there is nothing wrong with that. But what happens when the customs are not so innocuous?
We must remember that rejection of other cultures comes with a price. For the Jew (or any individual) who is liked and accepted has an inside track on being a positive influence. Conversely, one who stays aloof essentially forfeits that track. And so even the rigors of halacha recognize that this sometimes requires compromises.
And to this rule the Peor-worshipping Moabites are no exception. Of course, the Torah is quite clear that nothing can justify idol worship, even when just going through the motions. And so whatever influence is lost by not worshipping other gods, it is a tradeoff that must be made. Yet while there is no doubting the Torah’s wisdom, it is natural to still mourn the lost opportunity to influence an entire nation.
And so I am suggesting that the Torah wants to address this in this section, and reassure us that such a loss is only temporary. Accordingly, the two sections we saw above come together and tell us that keeping the Torah’s guidelines – even in the face of losing our ability to positively influence others – only involves a short term tradeoff. In the long term, there is an alternative route. It may be longer road, it may involve hardship, but in the end it will work. For ultimately, what will really make the difference is not our appreciation of other cultures, but their appreciation of ours.
Hence the Torah reminds us here that there are times when mixing with the local culture is to choose death, as with Ba’al Peor. But then the Torah immediately reassures us that any positive motivations we might have had will in the end be fulfilled regardless. For over time – and as we become part of the emerging global village – even those nations with which we have no contact will come to study the practice of the Torah… assuming we are actually practicing it. And it is for that day that we must truly be prepared.