“The Revolutionary Idea of Holiness’”
(Revised and updated from Kedoshim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, we encounter a revolutionary word and concept, which the Torah introduced to civilization. In Leviticus 19:1-2, we read: וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , And G-d spoke to Moses saying: 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 to adequately translate the Hebrew word קָדוֹשׁkadosh. For those who truly seek to understand its profound inner meanings, learning Biblical Hebrew would be a wonderful first step–-since, as I have often pointed out, studying Torah in 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. Its essence 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 the community’s midst. Vengeance and bearing a grudge 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, Leviticus 19:29, אַל תְּחַלֵּל אֶת בִּתְּךָ לְהַזְנוֹתָהּ, וְלֹא תִזְנֶה הָאָרֶץ, וּמָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ זִמָּה , Do not profane your daughter, to make her a harlot, lest the land become lewd, and the land become filled with depravity. As we have often noted, 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 and a sense of justice, let alone a sense of kedushah—holiness.

It was in this environment, that the Jews were called upon to live an exalted life, not to allow themselves to be influenced, and, certainly 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 even child sacrifice. In fact, the primary figures in the worship of the idolatrous cults at the temples were known as קְדֵשׁוֹתk’day’shoht, ironically, women dedicated to the cult of holy prostitution.

In this ancient milieu, the Torah called out against the sexual exploitation of women 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 a much older 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 marriageable 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, and that immoral behavior leads to the destruction of the land. The Torah depicts the land as if it is human, and 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 is one significant final point that this particular Torah portion underscores. In the early 1970s, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote an important book entitled “Whatever Became of Sin.” A popular song at that time, sung by Debbie Boone, was “You Light Up My Life,” in which one of the lines was, “How could it be wrong, if it feels so right?”

Let’s face it, we humans have a very highly developed set of defense mechanisms that are frequently employed to justify even our most outrageous behavior. Over the decades, “Do your own thing,” became the virtual mantra of contemporary life, provided there were no “innocent victims.” As a result, two consenting adults may do whatever they please. While the 1970s was a time when everything and anything was subject to rationalization and justification–despite the short-lived return to the so-called “family values,” a good part of those values remains with us today.

Unfortunately, contemporary social philosophers have labored assiduously to justify many undesirable practices. Two high profile contemporary rationalizations are the arguments used to justify pornography and prostitution-–after all, consenting adults should be permitted to do whatever they please. In fact, it is argued, pornography and prostitution very much fit in with contemporary capitalist 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, in the general marketplace of ideas, there are really no effective rational arguments against prostitution and pornography, except perhaps to say that it leads to crime. This is why proponents argue that it’s time to legalize prostitution and pornography, and eliminate all motives for criminality. Indeed, opponents are hard-put to rebut these arguments.

The Torah, however, rejects both these practices by introducing the 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, 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 kedusha, we homo sapiens are, in effect, reduced to mere animals, to limbs, heads, arms, legs and genitalia. Within the context of holiness, as set forth in the Torah, humans are regarded to be 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 best. This is Torah in its most exalted. It is to reach this exalted state that must be our greatest aspiration.

May you be blessed.