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Israel-Gaza War 5784: Kedoshim – What Does It Mean To Be Holy?

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, repeats multiple times: Be holy, for I Hashem your G-d am holy. But what exactly does it mean to be holy? We use the word, but if a curious alien were to visit Earth and ask us how to define “holy,” what would we say?

There is one well-known verse in Kedoshim that is central to not only Judaism but other world religions, as well as the ethics of those professing no religion. Perhaps it gives us a clue to what is holy.

V’ahavta l’reakha camokha—“and love your fellow [often translated “neighbor”] as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18)

Or, as the great rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”

In the current war, Israel has rained vast destruction on Gaza and many civilians have died along with fighters. Does this commandment mean that Israel should not make war on Gaza? Gazans are Israel’s neighbors.

Our sages say love is demonstrated by how we act, and we are under no obligation to love those who do not treat us in loving ways. What Hamas and many Gazan civilians did on October 7th was not, to put it mildly, neighborly. But why not ignore that and follow the commandment to love them anyway, or at least refrain from harming them? Does their bad behavior cancel our obligation? Many innocents have died along with the guilty during this war.

The commandment is to love our fellows as ourselves, not better than ourselves. Hamas having promised to repeat October 7th again and again, Israel would be loving Gazans better than Israelis if it did not press the war to destroy the terror group. To sacrifice Israeli lives, whether military or civilian, by valuing the lives of our enemies more than our own, is not fulfilling this commandment, but perverting it. In addition, Israel endangers its soldiers by warning ahead of time when and where they will attack, and risks letting Hamas fighters evacuate along with civilians. Israel is doing more than it is obligated to, and it is a great shame on its critics that they do not recognize this.

There are many more commandments in Kedoshim, not as well known, instructing us how to be holy. Some are ethical: honoring one’s parents, loving one’s fellow as oneself, dealing honestly with others, not oppressing the stranger, along with prohibitions on certain sexual practices and on child sacrifice.

Some seem to have no relation to morality: not interbreeding animals or plants, not mixing wool and linen in clothing, and not eating certain foods. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks of two kinds of holiness: holiness practiced in human relationships, and holiness in making distinctions.

We have seen how G-d made distinctions in creation, separating out its elements, and now the children of Israel are directed to keep unlike things separate, to distinguish between pure and impure foods, pure and impure sexual relationships and acts. The Torah freely mixes distinction holiness with ethical holiness; evidently both are important. It is easy to see why harming others is the antithesis of being holy. But how does distinction bring holiness?

And it is not only plants and animals that are not to be intermixed. The Israelites are to be distinct from other peoples. Not only through such practices as keeping kosher or not worshipping the gods of others, but to some degree being separate from other peoples and having their own land.

“You shall inherit their land…I am Hashem your G-d who has separated you from the peoples.” ( Lev. 20:24)

Many have suggested a binational state as the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since October 7th, the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” has become a regular feature at demonstrations all over the world, as has, “We don’t want no two states! We want all of ’48!” While these chants doesn’t always imply genocide (a lot depends on who is saying them), they always means that Jews will no longer have their own country.

As well as a binational state, people often claim there is a “right of return” for the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced out as combatants or sympathizers during past wars, only to languish in limbo as other Arab countries refused them citizenship. Both a binational state and the right of return would mean an end to the only Jewish country in the world.

During the week of Passover, Naomi Klein, a Canadian Jew, declared: “It [Zionism] is a false idol…Our Judaism cannot be contained by an ethnostate, for our Judaism is internationalist by nature.” She seems to feel that it is a problem for Jews to have a state when the Palestinians don’t want them to. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Jews to give up their country and become “internationalists.” Oddly, she has nothing to say about Palestinians wanting their own state.

Yet it is clear from multiple passages in the Torah, including the one quoted above, as well as in the Haggadah, that Hashem brought us out of Egypt to be a free people in our own land, Israel. But why? After all, He could have just freed us from Egyptian slavery and, dayenu, it would have been enough.

But at Sinai, G-d made a covenant with us: He would be our G-d and we would be His people, and He would bring us into the land he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Exodus 6:7-8) In another Torah portion, we are told that Israel is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6)

It seems that sharing a language, history, and culture are not enough; having a land is optimum for becoming and staying a people. And, while individuals can be holy, being a light unto the nations is best accomplished by a united group. If we Jews were assimilated into other peoples, this would dim or blot out our light entirely.

Other peoples have forged their own unique cultures in their own land. The Irish are one example. Thomas Cahill’s books, How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews, describe how these two unique peoples contributed much to the wider world. Indeed, today Israel gives to the world in countless ways, exporting drip-irrigation technology, being first on the scene of natural disasters around the world to rescue and heal, creating cutting-edge medical technology and procedures, and treating patients from around the world, including Palestinians.

And the Palestinians? It is possible they may yet someday be a people, distinct from Jordanians or Syrians, with a unique culture and contributions to the world, in their own land. But they will first have to give up defining themselves only in opposition to another group of people, with their primary goal to destroy them. Holiness is not only distinctiveness. It requires moral behavior as well.

May the day soon come when Israel has neighbors who love them as themselves and whom Israel can love in return, bringing both peace and holiness to this part of the world.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.