“The Revolutionary Idea of Holiness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat K’doshim, we encounter that magical and revolutionary word which the Torah has introduced to civilization. (Lev. 19:1-2) “Vay’da’bair HaShem el Moshe lay’mor,” and G-d spoke to Moshe saying. “Da’bair el kol adat B’nai Yisrael, v’amarta a’ley’hem, K’doshim teeh’yu kee kadosh Ani Hashem Eh’lokay’chem,” Speak unto the entire community of the children of Israel, and say unto them: You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d am holy.

There is really no way of translating the Hebrew word “kadosh.” For those who truly seek to understand its profound inner meanings, learning Hebrew would be a wonderful first step–-since, as I’ve often said, any translation is like kissing the bride through the veil. The word kadosh may be translated as holy, sacred, ethically exalted, separate, and even–balanced.

The concept of kadosh, which is a uniquely Jewish concept, is certainly one of the greatest ethical and moral contributions that the Jewish people have made to humankind. It is reflected throughout the contents of parashat Kedoshim which calls for just, humane and sensitive treatment of all people: the aged, the handicapped and the poor. The worker is to be promptly paid, and the stranger is to be loved and welcomed into our communities. Vengeance and bearing of grudges are to be condemned. Significantly, when it comes to justice, no one, not even the most exalted or the most downtrodden, is to be favored.

There is, however, one aspect of holiness that is not easily recognizable or understood. In this week’s parasha, we read the challenging verse, (Lev. 19:29), “Al t’chalel et bit’kha l’haz’notah,” Do not profane your daughter, to make her a harlot, “V’lo tiz’neh ha’aretz, u’mala ha’aretz zimah,” Lest the land become lewd, and the land become filled with depravity. As we have mentioned in the past, the ancient land of Canaan and the surrounding lands, were lands whose inhabitants practiced lewdness and depravity. It was a mighty struggle for the Jewish people to maintain a sense of balance, a sense of fairness, a sense of justice, let alone a sense of holiness. It was in this environment that the Jews were called upon to live an exalted life, not to be influenced, and not to follow the customs and practices of the local residents. Idolatry was not merely the senseless and innocent worship of sun, moon, stones or trees, it was almost always associated with unacceptable sexual perversions and child sacrifice. In fact, the primary figures in the worship of the idolatrous cults at the temples were the k’day’shot, ironically, women dedicated to the cult of holy prostitution.

In this milieu, the Torah calls out against the sexual exploitation of woman for harlotry. No man may degrade his daughter under the guise of spiritual elevation. In fact, according to Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Talmud Sanhedrin 76a, this verse also forbids a father to “violate” his daughter by giving her in marriage to an old man. Rabbi Akiva argues that in order to protect daughters from untoward temptation, fathers are obligated to arrange suitable marriages for their daughters as soon as they reach proper age.

These regulations are not to be treated lightly! The Torah boldly warns the people that the land of Israel itself is defiled by these sins, that immoral behavior leads to the destruction of the land. The Torah depicts the land as if it is human, that because the land itself is holy, it has a visceral reaction to sin and corruption. The land itself has a heart that beats and a soul that feels–and is profoundly repulsed by decadent behavior.

There’s one significant final point that this particular portion underscores. In the early 1970’s, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote an important book entitled “Whatever Became of Sin.” Around that time there was a popular song, “You Light Up My Life,” sung by Debbie Boone, in which one of the lines was “How could it be wrong, if it feels so right?” Let’s face it, we humans have very highly developed set of defense mechanisms in which we try to justify even our most grievous behavior. “Do your own thing” has virtually become the operative motto of contemporary life–that is, that two consenting adults can do whatever they please, provided there are no “innocent victims.” While the 1970s was a time when everything and anything was subject to rationalization and justification, a good part of that legacy still remains with us today–despite the so-called return to “family values.”

Our contemporary social philosophers justify many things. Two high profile contemporary rationalizations are the arguments justifying pornography and prostitution-–after all, consenting adults should be permitted to do whatever they please. In fact it very much fits in with our contemporary capitalistic economic theory and philosophy. If a woman chooses to use her own body to “work” the market, or if men and women choose to pose for pornographic pictures and others are happy to pay for their product, it’s really little more than another way for laborers to earn a living within the free enterprise system. Truth be told, there are really no cogent rational arguments against prostitution and pornography, except perhaps to say that it leads to crime, which is why proponents argue that it’s time to legalize prostitution and pornography, and eliminate a motive for criminality. Opponents are hard-put to rebut these arguments.

The Torah, however, rejects both these practices by introducing a startling and revolutionary concept called “holiness!” Unless society subscribes to the belief that a human being is “HOLY,” a reflection of the Divine, because the L-rd our G-d is Holy, there is really no limit to the extent of depravity and immorality to which a human being may sink. There is no rational or justifiable reason to deny a woman her right to earn a living through prostitution, except to say that she is a reflection of the Divine, and that human beings are holy, that the human body is sanctified, and that sexuality is a sacred gift from G-d. Clearly, absent the idea of holiness, of k’dusha, we homo sapiens are in effect reduced to animals, to legs, limbs, heads, arms and genitals. Within the context of holiness, we humans are as exalted as the angels, comparable to Divine emanations of G-d, majestic creatures whose Divine function is to promote goodness, kindness, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, charity and justice.

This is Judaism at its finest. This is Torah in its most exalted state. And it is to this exalted state that we must aspire.

May you be blessed.