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Engagement, not estrangement

What does it mean to be religious? Does sanctity require self-cloistering? Or should we be part of the world and strive to bring sanctity to it?
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What does it mean to live a holy life? Kedoshim opens with the words “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י – You shall become holy because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The idea of holiness could — and has — been interpreted to mean that one should separate herself from this world, just as God is elevated above and fully separate from this world. The following verses immediately belie this approach: 

You shall not glean thy vineyard, neither shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; You shall leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.

You shall not defraud your neighbor, neither rob him: The wages of a hired person shall not abide with you all night until the morning.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

Again and again we hear the refrain, “I am the Lord.” The message is clear: God cares about what goes on in this world. God cares for the stranger and the poor, and how we treat our fellow human-being. To strive to be holy and God-like is to live a life engaged in the world and to bring to it the interpersonal and religious values of God and of the Torah. Living a life of this-worldly mitzvot brings the world closer to God and God closer to the world.

The tension between separation and sanctification comes into sharp relief at the end of the parsha. A word that repeats itself multiple times in this section is li’havdil, to separate (Lev. 20:24-25): “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from other people… [Do not eat the unclean animals] which I have separated from you as unclean….” The concluding verse is particularly powerful in this vein: “And you shall be holy unto me: For I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.” From this last verse one could understandably conclude that to be holy like God is to separate, and that we are meant to live our lives outside of the larger society.

In my mind, this is an incorrect reading of these verses. The same word–li’havdil–appears repeatedly in the story of Creation. In that story, the primary activity that God does in addition to creating, is separating: light from darkness, water from water, and water from land. These things are not good and bad, just distinct. At the end of Shabbat we make havdalah, declaring that God separates Shabbat from the weekday. The weekday is not evil. We are not meant to live Shabbat for seven days a week. Quite the opposite: “Six days thou shalt work and do all your labor.” To separate is not to reject; it is to know the difference between things, how to categorize them and how to engage them. God has separated us from the nations not as an act of casting them away, but “to be Mine,” to have a special relationship with God and a special purpose in this world.

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Holiness is not spurring and renunciation. Holiness is engaging in this world with discretion. Our task is to not embrace everything equally without using our critical faculties. To take one example: Torah is not the same as maddah, which is not the same as John LeCarre novels. Each of these has its place, but they are not the same. To sanctify the world is to bring that discernment to our lives, to follow God in the Creation of the world, in God’s identifying the distinct nature of things, each one’s function and value, and acting accordingly.

To a large degree what we are discussing here is the difference between a yeshivish-Charedi approach and a Modern Orthodox one. What does being religious in this world mean? Should we dress and speak in such a way as to keep separate and removed, lest the larger world impurify us and undermine our commitment? Does sanctity require self-cloistering? 

Or, alternatively, should we be part of the world and strive to bring sanctity to it? Should we acknowledge that the larger world presents religious challenges, but see it as our mission to engage those challenges and to use our Divinely-given intellect and power of discernment to choose and act wisely, and to thereby sanctify our lives and the world around us? 

In this regard, it is worth citing an incisive comment of Rav Moshe Feinstein. A classic proof-text that the Haredi community advances for its way of life is the Midrash which says that Bnei Yisrael were saved from Egypt because they did not change their clothes, their names, or their language. The external markers which kept them separate were the key to their identity and to their redemption.

This philosophy led someone to ask Rav Moshe Feinstein if one is required to wear Chassidic garb. Rav Moshe responded that it is totally acceptable to dress in the contemporary style of the larger society. As far as the Midrash was concerned, Rav Moshe made a simple and profound point. Such external markers were necessary at the time of the Exodus. At that time, before giving of the Torah, such markers were the only ways in which we could express our identity. Now that we have been given the Torah and mitzvot, however, our identity is lived and expressed through a life devoted to Torah and mitzvot, and not through such markers that separate us from the society around us.

Kedushah is created through sanctifying one’s life in this world, not in removing oneself from it.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Linzer is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and is the primary architect of its groundbreaking curriculum of Torah, Halakha, pastoral counseling, and professional training. Rabbi Linzer has been a leading rabbinic voice in the Modern Orthodox community for over 20 years. He hosts a number of highly popular podcasts, including Joy of Text and Iggros Moshe A to Z. He teaches regular classes in advanced Talmud, advanced Halakha and the thought of Modern Orthodoxy, and serves as a religious guide to the yeshiva’s current rabbinical students and over 130 rabbis serving in the field.
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