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No Selective Definition of Holiness: Kedoshim

The opening of this week’s Torah portion, “You shall be holy because, I, Adonai your God, am holy, is arguably the essence of Judaism, and many other religions as well.  But, what does God mean, when God says “Kedoshim?”

There are so many definitions out there. In “The Idea of the Holy,” Rudolph Otto wrote of the “numinous” and “mysterium tremendum.” We experience God as totally other, transcendent, and evoking dread, but also as majestic and inspiring and uplifting. One of the high points of Jewish prayer is the “Kedusha,” in which we join with the angels and all creation in declaring our awe and praise of God.

In many religions, and languages, kadosh means “separate” and reserved. We find this also in the traditional Jewish concept of marriage, “kiddushin” Today many of us seek to make Jewish marriage more egalitarian, and even in ancient times the ketubah (marriage contract) guaranteed women certain rights within the context of marriage. However, when a man declared “at mekudeshet li,” he was essentially saying that the woman he was marrying belonged to him, and was reserved for him only. When we make kiddush over wine or replace the requests in the weekday amidah prayer with “kedushat hayom,” we are separating the Sabbath or holiday from the mundane.

Arguably the kedusaha we are commanded to embody in this week’s Torah portion requires that we separate ourselves from practices common in the world because God is so separate from all existence. Rashi says “This means, keep aloof from the forbidden sexual relations and wrongdoing.” However, we are also being asked to emulate God. That means that in some way God is not entirely other from us. Our sages expressed this dilemma when they said,

But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For Adonai your God is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be God. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, visits the sick, as it is written (with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision): “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 14a)

Among Max Weber’s typologies of religion, he differentiates between religions that focus on other world salvation and this worldly salvation. While Judaism traditionally believes in an afterlife, we achieve salvation through our deeds in this world. In our Torah portion, it is concretely carrying out a list of both ritual and ethical interpersonal commandments that constitutes the actualization of the command to be holy.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes that the command to be holy comes after we have had a series of Torah portions dealing with dietary laws, forbidden sexual relations, etc. in the previous six Torah portions of Leviticus, because the self restraint that comes from observing these laws is necessary to achieve the level of complete human morality embodied in the command to be holy.

However, Ibn Ezra says that “The reason this chapter follows the one dealing with prohibited sexual relations is that the Israelites should not imagine that they would remain in the land by observing only the laws dealing with the prohibited sexual relations. God informs them that there are other commandments. “

In the often very negative opinions expressed by various sections of the Israeli public towards other segments, we all too often concentrate on those commandments and values violated by others, and not looking at ourselves. There are those who see the secular left as immorally defiling themselves in sexual and other impurities and depravities. Although I embrace expanded definitions of family, and cannot accept that the Torah’s words forbidding love between those of the same gender were actually commanded by God, we cannot ignore the fact that God and Torah requires of us discipline and restraint in sexual ethics, in what we eat, etc. At the same time, we cannot define morality only by these restraints. We must also free ourselves from thinking in terms of what we “own” and learn that all the produce of “our land” is not ours, by leaving the corners of our fields and fallen sheaves for the poor and those who have come to live with us but do not own land. We must not steal, act deceitfully, lie or exploit the weaknesses of others. Our courts of law must be just. We must respect the elderly and must treat the non-Jew living among us as we treat our fellow citizens. You must not hate…

And, many commentators stress that the command to be holy is collective.

As we are about to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, it behooves us to work for a society that does not selectively choose commandments to observe or berate others for not observing our chosen commandments, but rather for a society that embraces holiness in its totality. May we create a society that is holy because it embodies Godlike qualities such as clothing the naked, caring for the sick, consoling those who feel sorrow and honoring the dead.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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