“Judaism’s Radical Notion of Holiness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the most profound statements in the Torah is found in the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim.

The Torah in Leviticus 19:2, states that G-d said to Moses to speak to the entire people of Israel and to say to them: “Kedoshim tee’yoo, kee kah’dosh ah’nee Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem.” You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.

Parashat Kedoshim is a watershed parasha, containing 51 Mitzvot. The fact that a single Torah portion can contain such a large number of commandments, is in itself an extraordinary testimony to the centrality of the parasha.

In parashat Kedoshim we are taught that the idea of holiness applies to every aspect of human life. It impacts on religious rituals, business ethics, proper behavior toward other people, especially the poor and the afflicted. Perhaps more than any other parasha, it was parashat Kedoshim that set the tone for Jewish life. It is, arguably, the source of many of the revolutionary concepts that Judaism shared with humanity over the millennia, which have become an essential part of what is known today as “Western Culture.”

As we have previously argued (Kedoshim 5760-2000), human beings have the astonishing capacity to rationalize virtually every illicit type of behavior. By declaring that all behavior between “consenting adults” is acceptable–prostitution, pornography, adultery, and other dubious behaviors–these behaviors have been stealthily transformed into socially acceptable behaviors. This kind of thinking is not new. It was not unusual for ancient Greek philosophers to argue that the “man-boy” sexual relationship that was commonly practiced was a superior form of human love, even though it was hardly a relationship between consenting adults.

It is only when we assert that a human being is “holy,” and a reflection of Divine holiness, that these seemingly powerful rational and convincing arguments collapse. While it is true that in some relationships between consenting adults there does not appear to be a third innocent party who suffers, nevertheless, a human being who is created in G-d’s image is holy. We may not take advantage of a prostitute, or a porn-performer, even though they think that their activities are to their own benefit, because they too are created in the Divine image and are a reflection of the Divine. Once the idea of the reflection of the Divine is eliminated, then most behaviors become acceptable.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) states, citing the Torat Cohanim (Halachic Midrash on Leviticus), “Kedoshim tee’yoo–peh’roo’shim tee’yoo,” “You shall be holy” means that you shall be “separate.” A Jew is to be on a different spiritual plane from others. Those who seek to live exalted moral lives must separate themselves from the evil influences that reduce them, both as Jews and as human beings. They must constantly pursue goodness and aspire to greater morality.

The philosophers Martin Buber (1878-1965, Austrian born Jewish philosopher) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929, German born Jewish philosopher) speak of the “holy” and the “not yet holy.” Everything and everyone has the potential to be holy, if they truly work at it.

The great Rabbi Kook (Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) proclaimed: “Hah’yah’shahn yit’chah’daysh, v’hah’chah’dash yit’kah’daysh.” That which is old shall be renewed, and that which is new, shall be made holy.

The tendency of many today is to always look upon that which is old, as primitive and meaningless, and that which is new, as promising and exciting. We can, Rabbi Kook argues, make the old exciting and relevant, but we must make certain that the new and attractive ideas do not lead us into false temptation. We must always make certain that that which is new, novel and celebrated, is made holy.

Nachmanides condemns those people who work within the letter of the law, but manipulate the law to become “nah’vahl bir’shoot ha’Torah,” degenerate within the parameters of the Torah. The Torah expects more of a Jew than mere obedience to the letter of the law. The Torah expects Jews to become an exalted people, and a holy nation.

The rabbis of the Talmud speak of the person who is “toh’vayl v’sheh’retz b’yah’doh,” one who goes to the Mikvah to declare and demonstrate his purity, but is holding on to the defiling creature while he is in the waters of purification. How sad it is to see those who have the outer trappings of piety, but refuse to give up the inner defilement within them. Unfortunately, the inner defilement often winds up as the controlling force of their lives and being.

It is only when people are holy, that time, and home and relationships become holy.

This is the exhortation of G-d to His people Israel. It is also a powerful message for all of humankind.

In the closing verses of this week’s parasha, Leviticus 20:26, G-d calls out to His people: “Vee’h’yee’tehm lee kedoshim, kee kah’dohsh ah’nee Hashem.” And you shall be holy to Me because I, your L-rd, am holy.

This is the ultimate human challenge–and the ultimate human calling.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 24th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 25th and 26th.

For more info see NJOP’s website www.njop.org.

Chag Kasher V’samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.