And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.
What is holy?
This week’s Torah portion is called Kedoshim, or the holy ones. Unlike most Torah portions, Kedoshim is symmetrical, with a beginning, middle and end that appears seamless and deals with one question: How do we become holy?
The great commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, quotes the Midrash with a simple answer: “Separate from illicit relations and sin. For in every place where you find a fence to guard against illicit relations, you find holiness.”
The Torah illustrates what is meant by illicit relations that make the difference between the holy and unholy. To break it down in modern terms, these commandments are about how man must respect woman. One doesn’t consort with a married woman; neither with parents, siblings, close relatives, same sex, or beasts. The wives of siblings are also off-limits. One cannot exploit the closeness of a family unit to fulfill basic urges.
There’s more: Women regardless of familial ties are not to be exploited. You cannot buy a sex kitten; you cannot use women — even with their consent — for casual relations. A man and a woman come together for marriage and family. Anything else turns this union into something unholy and shameful.
Jewish marriage operates by consent of the woman. For about two weeks a month, she is in her menstrual period. Her husband cannot touch her. For the next two weeks, the Torah urges them to build their love and family.
Compare that to the so-called liberal West. In many countries, including Israel, marriage is no longer the norm; rather abortion, a means to avoid the burden of children. A man is given the legal right to replace the woman as a mother for children they can never bear. Trafficking of women — actually sexual slavery — has become commonplace. Sure there are laws. But there are also bribes.
Rabbi Shabtai Bass lived in the 17th Century in the central Polish city of Kalisz. He left the city after the antisemitic rampages that killed many including his parents and resettled in Prague and finally Germany. His explanation of Rashi goes beyond the literal, saying that separation means being actively Jewish rather than simply being removed from gentiles. Being holy doesn’t mean acting holy, muttering incantations or posturing as an ascetic. Instead, the rabbi cites the wearing fringes or phylacteries — commandments extremely easy to perform yet identify the person as Jewish.
“But in sitting and doing nothing, this is not recognized as ‘separation.'”
The Torah’s first example of holiness is not separation from illicit relations. It is about respect for parents. Again, the mother is the focus. Loving a mother is easy, but the Torah demands that we “fear” their mother, providing her with respect and genuine attention. It is easy to fear your father, but the Torah wants the same for a mother, selected to bring you into the world.
Usually, listening to parents involves little dissonance. Their advice is sound and their concern is sincere. But what if a parent preaches against God and His commandments? What if the parent asks for something that violates the Torah? Now, the child is torn between respect for parents and respect for God.
Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God.
Being holy means treating your fellow man with respect: whether dealing honestly in business, judicial or social issues. It means paying a worker his full salary on time. It means not belittling anybody, even when he is unaware of what is being said. And it means not giving bad advice to somebody who depends on you. How would anybody know? God knows.
Following God’s ways has never been easy. Rabbi Bass opened a publishing house in Dyhernfurth, a then-German town near the Polish border, and devoted himself to Jewish books. It took him years to obtain permission from local authorities and with success came jealousy. He was forced to leave his home; his printing press was burned down and in 1712 a church leader had him arrested on charges of incitement. The Jesuits were in the forefront and demanded that the sale of Jewish books be prohibited. The worst was Franz Kolb, a Hebrew teacher at the University of Prague, who insisted that the books printed by the rabbi were against Christianity and Christians. Bass died several years later.
Although holiness exacts a price, the alternative is far more costly. At the end of Kedoshim, the Torah summarizes all of the restrictions and concludes “Do not go in the ways of the gentile…”You are to remain separate and follow only God’s ways.”
Rashi explains there is no middle ground. One cannot say, “I will follow the Jews and the gentiles. I will simply take what I like from each.” That is the mantra of the assimilationists.
The Torah does not see life as a smorgasbord. It is about decisions.
“If you are separate from them,” Rashi quotes God as saying, “then you are mine. If not, you belong to Nebuchadnezzar [the king who destroyed the first Jewish Temple] and his friends.”