A Dangerous Claim

No word in the Torah is as central to Judaism as the word kedusha (holiness). But no word in the Jewish tradition is as dangerous as this very word.

When discussing sexuality, food consumption and general human behavior, the Torah calls upon the People of Israel never to forget that everything in our lives must be sanctified. The ultimate goal is to turn the entire nation into a holy people: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:2) This call is repeated many times: “Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord your God.” (Ibid, 20:7) “And you shall be holy unto Me.” (Ibid, 20:26)

For hundreds of years, there has been intense debate among Jewish philosophers on whether the Jewish nation is inherently, or only conditionally, holy. Some, like Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and the kabbalists, claim that there is something intrinsically holy about Jews. Others, like Rambam, reject this idea and believe that Jews are essentially not at all different from any other nation, and only when they behave in a holy manner do they become special, but not a moment before (*). Either way, the above verses make one point abundantly clear:

There is no justification for any Jew to hide behind the claim of holiness that is not the product of an intensive effort to live an exalted moral life.

Any view that frees Jews of their responsibility to observe the laws of the Torah and maintain high moral standards because they are automatically considered to be holy is heretical and condemned. Jews have no claim to anything they have not earned through hard spiritual work and commitment. This is true regarding possession of the Land of Israel or any other matter. There are no automatic rights or claims based on inherent holiness, if the People of Israel do not actually prove to be holy in deed and thought.

The Sages were well aware of the danger of using the concept of inherent holiness as a way to justify what, in fact, is unjustifiable.

We see this in their choice of the haftarot that are read on the Shabbatot of parshiyot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, the portions of the Torah that deal par excellence with the need for holiness. Altogether, there are three haftarot for these two parshiyot.

The choice of haftarah on a given Shabbat depends on whether the parshiyot are read together, or separately, and on whether the congregation follows the Sephardic, or the Ashkenazic custom.

The haftarah that is read when the parshiyot are combined (as is the case this year) discusses the equality of all people and the Israelites’ mistaken view that they are something special because of their history and inherent holiness. In the Book of Amos (the prophet), God says to the Israelites:

“Are you not like the children of the Ethiopians to Me, O children of Israel, said the Lord. Have I not brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir”? (Amos 9:7)

In other words, the fact that God brought the Jews up from Egypt is not something unique, which would set Jews totally apart from the rest of the nations. The haftarah continues with a harsh statement that removes any possible conclusion that Israel can rely only on its holiness when it sins:

“For I will give the order and shake the House of Israel through all the nations, as one shakes sand in a sieve and not a pebble falls to the ground. All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, those who say: ‘Never shall evil overtake us or come near us.’” (Ibid. 9: 9-10)

Amos, however, does preface the above two verses with the following: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth. But I will not utterly destroy the House of Yaakov, says the Lord.” (Ibid. 9:8)

While this is a promise that a remnant of Israel will survive, there is no assurance that they will be in any way protected beyond basic survival, or be able to make a claim on the land, or anything else, if they do not observe the commandments of the Torah and live up to high moral standards.

The other two haftarot carry a very similar message: When the People of Israel behave in evil ways; when Jerusalem “sheds blood in its midst”; when the people “disdain father and mother”; “oppress the stranger”; when men “violate menstruating women, or their own sisters and daughters-in-law; when they “greedily take interest,” then “I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you throughout the lands; I will eradicate the uncleanness from you. You will be profaned in the eyes of the nations and you will know that I am the Lord.” (Yechezkel 22: 3-16)

These haftarot are clearly a protest against all those who claim that the nation of Israel is inherently holy and consequently allow themselves to lower their standards of behavior or permit themselves to deviate from morality. What makes the People of Israel separate and unique is nothing other than the result of their undivided commitment to live a life of holy deeds.

When contemplating the re-establishment of the State of Israel after nearly 2000 years of exile, no Jew should believe that the land is guaranteed to remain theirs forever. It could easily be taken away, as it has been in the past. If its inhabitants do not behave properly, or hide behind the claim that they are observant or moral while in fact they are fighting each other and disobeying the ethical dictates of God, the Book of Amos makes it clear that the State of Israel will not endure.

Whether or not we are living in the days of the dawn of redemption is still unclear and may quite well be wishful thinking – certainly if we do not live up to the demands that are placed on us.

While it is surely true that we have built a remarkable country, with a great number of charity organizations (many of which are run by members of the Haredi community), unparalleled in all of the world; and while there are countless other activities and projects that foster and express abundant love amongst the residents of Israel, there is far too much strife, small-mindedness, distrust, and corruption. How is it, for example, that the State of Israel bitterly fails to look after its Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in abject poverty?

It is even possible that the State of Israel’s establishment was indeed the beginning of the redemption but that we forfeited that merit due to some of the aforementioned failures.

Only when we get our act together may the beginning of redemption once again return.

No army, international body, or cries of “Never Again” will be of help, unless we know and act on our responsibilities.

* * *

* For an excellent discussion on this issue: Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991) and his They Too Are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 2016) Hebrew. See also: David Hartman, Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000).

* * *

Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo

* * *

In loving memory of my dearest parents and parents-in-law z”l

Dr. and Mrs. Barth-Goudeket (Yirmiyahu ben Yakov Shulim and Miryam bat Yitschak HaCohen) and Dr. & Mrs. Halperin-Mendlin (Chaim Yakov ben Yitzchak and Miryam Sarah bat Avraham)

Also, in honor of 50 years of valued friendship with Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

— Ruben Michael Barth, Washington D.C