From the moment the Jewish People stood at the foot of Mount Sinai ready to receive the Torah, they were given a mission of holiness [Shemot 19:6]: “You shall be for me a Kingdom of Priests (Kohanim) and a holy nation”. In the portion of Kedoshim, the Torah gets down to the nitty-gritties of how to implement their mission. The portion begins with an overarching directive [Vayikra 19:2]: “You shall be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy.” The Torah then continues with a rapid burst of commandments – fifty one of them, to be exact – of every shape and size: commandments between man and his fellow man and commandments between man and G-d, commandments relating to agriculture, to our parents and to forbidden sexual relations, dos as well as don’ts. It seems fair to conclude that holiness is tightly coupled with these commandments.
In the middle of the list of commandments, the Torah momentarily digresses [Vayikra 20:7]: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am your G-d.” Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, who lived in Israel in the sixteenth century, is bothered by this verse:
- What is the difference between self-sanctification (the reflexive “vehitkadishtem”) and simply “being holy” (“vih’yitem kedoshim”)?
- Why does the verse end with the words “for I am your G-d” and not with something more in line with holiness, such as “for I, your G-d, am holy”, similar to the conclusion of the first verse in the portion?
- The very next verse does indeed conclude in such a fashion [Vayikra 20:8]: “You shall faithfully observe My laws: I, G-d, make you holy”. What is the difference between the two verses? Further, the two verses do not even appear in the same aliya – they are not read by the same person. While the mechanics of the separation of Torah reading into seven aliyot is fuzzy, it is nearly universally agreed that an aliya should conclude at the end of a thought. Why wasn’t the conclusion of the aliya delayed by one verse to include both exhortations to be holy?
Rabbi Alsheikh answers his questions in a somewhat lengthy and intricate fashion. We will attempt to address his questions using a twenty-first century approach. First, though, we must go back in time by one thousand years. What is “holiness”? What does the Torah mean when it begins the portion with the exhortation to “Be holy”? This question is a source of disagreement between the medieval commentators. Perhaps the most famous interpretation is proposed by the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century. The Ramban explains that the Torah expects a Jew not only to live within well-defined boundaries but it wants him to behave in a certain manner from within those boundaries. For instance, the Torah forbids eating cheeseburgers but it permits eating pulled brisket sliders from Char Bar. This does not mean that a person should spend his entire day gorging himself on brisket sliders, no matter how tasty they might be. The Ramban refers to this kind of behaviour as “Naval bir’shut haTorah”, or “[Being] repulsive from within the boundaries of the Torah”. The Ramban is making a critical point here: Holiness is not attained via some recipe in a cookbook. Holiness is attained not necessarily by a set of actions that a person performs, but, rather, by how he lives his daily routine. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the former Rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and of the town of Efrat in Israel, calls the Ramban’s holiness a “meta-halachic concept”. Rabbi Riskin writes, “Holiness refers to a G-d-like personality, a person who strives to dedicate himself/herself to lofty goals of compassionate and moral conduct. Self-restraint and proper balance between extremes are necessary prerequisites for a worthy human-divine relationship”.
With this medieval background in hand, we now return to the twenty-first century. A recent Gallup survey revealed a shocking transformation of the religious nature of the American public. From 1935 until the end of the twentieth century, the percentage of Americans who held membership to a church, synagogue, or mosque was more or less constant at around 70%. Since the year 2000, however, this number has plummeted to 47%. In other words, in only one generation, church membership dropped by nearly a third. At the same time, rather unsurprisingly, more and more Americans, when asked about their religion on surveys, are checking the box labelled “None”, rising from two percent in 1935 to twenty percent in 2021. What is surprising is that despite only about twenty percent of Americans attending a house of worship on a weekly basis, almost forty percent consider themselves to be “very religious”. What is happening here?
Tara Isabella Burton, in a recently published a book called “Strange Rites – New Religions for a Godless World”, posits that a large number of Americans are very interested in Rabbi Riskin’s holiness – they possess “lofty goals of compassionate and moral conduct”. What has changed in the last twenty years is the way in which they endeavour to achieve these goals: They have jettisoned institutional religion for personalized avenues of spiritual growth. The same people who would never consider eating kosher are pedantically following the Paleo Diet that spurns grain, salt and processed sugar for lean meat and fresh fruit. The same people who stopped attending synagogue services religiously attend yoga classes daily at 6:00 AM. Rites that were once relegated to the backward world of paganism, including witchcraft, are becoming accepted and prevalent, especially among the cultural elite. Burton writes, “[The] idea that religion should be personal, not social, is encoded in our nation’s DNA”. The “Nones” – those who claim to be a member of no religion – have reached an inevitable conclusion: “We have not merely the inalienable right but the moral responsibility to take care of ourselves first before directing any attention to others. We have to listen to ourselves, to behave authentically, in tune with what our intuition dictates.”
The source of dissonance between holiness as defined by the “Nones” and holiness as defined by the Torah lies in the ultimate goal of holiness, which, in turn, defines the path to holiness. The goal of the Jew is to cling to G-d. A person attains closeness to G-d by nullifying his own will before G-d’s Divine Will. Nullification of the human will is accomplished by accepting G-d’s authority, which is accomplished by abiding by His commandments. The goal of the “Nones”, on the other hand, is to be true to one’s self. This goal is accomplished via unfettered self-expression in which every avenue is equally legitimate. A person’s own will is paramount and all else is nullified before it.
Returning to the Torah’s commandment to “sanctify yourselves and be holy”, I suggest that “self-sanctification” represents the human desire for holiness and “being holy” represents holiness emanating from G-d. The Torah wants us to merge these two forces by channelling our own innate thirst for holiness in a way that is mandated by G-d. The reason that we must strive for holiness is not because “I, G-d, am Holy”, but, simply because “I am your G-d”. If our quest for holiness is not directed by G-d, we will reach not the dizzy heights of holiness, but, rather, the dark depths of profanity. The next aliya begins with a mirror image of the previous verse: “Observe My laws: I, G-d, make you holy”. If you observe My laws and only if you observe My laws, I will make you holy. Cause and effect are reversed. Accept my authority, keep my ordinances, and you will, willy-nilly, become holy. I am the cause and I am the effect. I am the start and I am the end. You are the “Nones” but I am the All.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.
 For some reason, Rabbi Alsheikh is sometimes referred to as “The Alsheikh”. This is akin to calling Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik “The Soloveitchik”.
 Another question that must be asked is why the Torah inserts these verses at all. They are nearly verbatim repetitions of the first verse of the portion. We will not address this question in this lesson.
 Only from grass-eating animals, of course
 This idea was suggested by my wife, Tova.