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Parshat Kedoshim: On Antisemitism, Spinoza, Holiness and the Modern Days of Awe

Many people have been pondering the connection between the woke movement in America and fundamentalist Islam. How have they made such natural allies sharing a platform that espouses the ancient virus of antisemitism? One answer is that they share a unified agenda in their battle against ‘otherness’ that both radical liberalism and fundamental Islam seek to dissolve. ‘Wokeism’ is the descendent of radical postmodernism, whose philosophy encourages deconstruction of anything absolute and the blurring of boundaries. For postmodernism boundaries, which create identity, are shunned – hence a people who cling tight to their identity and nationhood will be seen to be pariah’s. The agenda of radical Islam is to create the caliphate in which all people are united in 'oneness' under Shariah law which naturally negates ‘otherness’. But since the time of Avraham, Jews have represented the paradigm of ‘otherness’. Our first ancestor was named ‘Avraham Ha’ Ivri’ – Abraham the ‘other’ – from the word מעבר – on the other side. In almost every culture and every era Jews have stood as the counter-voice, the counter-culture. We have spoken truth to power and have been a moral compass in a corrupt world. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, Avraham was chosen to teach the world the ‘Dignity of Difference’.


I want to travel with you back a few centuries to speak for a moment about one of Judaism’s most notorious heretics, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza.

Besides for Spinoza's infamous denial of a transcendent Deity, and being the father of Biblical criticism, Spinoza also denied the essential uniqueness of the Jewish people. There is much we can thank Spinoza for. He gave back to the world what the Greek philosophers first introduced and in the interim centuries had been lost - the freedom of enquiry, autonomy from authoritative or coercive bodies, the inquisitive mind and all the enriching positivity of modernity. But he also believed that the Jewish people has passed their 'sell-by date' and it was high time they integrated into the universal brotherhood of man.[1] It would be interesting to know what he would make of modern-day Israel, whether he would revise his original assumptions about the Jewish people.  

I will not deny that there are times I feel it would be easier to live in a Spinozian universe.  It would be more peaceful, less challenging, and certainly less violent than the world we live in today.  But it would also be less meaningful, beautiful, passionate, empowering and overwhelmingly rewarding than our current reality.  If I looked at every child in the way I looked at my own, it would be unnatural and worrying.  If I looked at every religion and nation in the way I looked at mine, we may have a universal brotherhood of man, but we would not have the rich and diverse tapestry that makes life interesting and harbours a unique sense of belonging to a particular story.

Central to the human experience is the need to belong. But belonging to ‘something’ means I do not belong to something else. It requires an identity and identity demands boundaries. The act of identity formation requires a person to define who they are and what they are. If the boundaries remain fluid identity is weak. Boundaries can be exclusive and excluding but they DON’T need to be. In fact, every relationship DEMANDS boundaries. It would be very hard to have a meaningful, productive, and flourishing relationship without boundaries. So individual identity and relational identity flourishes through boundary formation. And whilst boundary formation can exclude it does not by definition need to do so in a negative way.


This is all extremely important in arriving at the final stage of our journey this week. Parshat Kedoshim.  In the last seven months we have tragically experienced death and tragedy on an unprecedented level since the Holocaust. We often hear that the soldiers and victims of terror died al kiddush hashem and we listen to the ancient prayer of ‘kaddish’ cried at thousands of fresh graves. The idea of the ‘holy’ sits at the very heart of the book of Vayikra and in particular our Parsha – Kedoshim. But what does it mean and how does it relate to today?

Kedusha often translates as ‘holiness’, however a more accurate translation would be ‘separate’. A study of the book of Vaykira will readily reveal that ‘kedusha’ has more to do with separation through boundaries than the classic version of what today we would call ‘holiness’. In fact, many of the laws are concerned with the nitty gritty acts of living IN THIS world, rather than a manifesto on ethereal realms of spiritual ecstasy. The book of Bereshit is about universal morality and the general contours of connection between humankind. However soon enough we see that mankind refuses to respect the ‘other’ even in their sameness; brother kills brother, violence reaches a societal high in the time of Noach and for Bavel, unity and oneness turns into coercion and compliance.  An ideal human existence that balances the universal and particular has failed. Relationships require boundaries.  Thus, as we saw earlier God showcases respecting the other in their otherness through the pedagogical tool of ‘choosing’ Avraham - of separating him from the rest of mankind.  Sefer Vayikra is the climax if you like of this educational lesson.  It describes a particular people, chosen for a particular task, being given particular laws to enable them to achieve their particular goal – which is ultimately meant to bring a universal peace. It also provides us with the boundaries necessary to navigate our relationship to the Divine.

We need the laws of Vayikra to create a 'holy' nation, separate, unique, different. A nation that shares certain values and practises, that holds a unique story and narrative, but that engages in a conversation with those that do not share in that narrative.   Vayikra is the nitty gritty law, the day to day dictates that create a normative system for a people inside or outside their national homeland to foster a relationship with God and fulfil his mission in the world.

For Spinoza, these archaic boundaries of the ‘holy’ held no significance in a modern world; ceremonial/ritual law served simply as a way on enforcing human compliance to an authoritative regime which in his ‘new world’ was no longer necessary. Boundaries were unnecessary, identity was free, humans were universal. The ‘holy’; the ‘separate’ was an anathema to Spinoza’s worldview.

But today, in a world that agrees on very little expect for their hatred of Jewish and Israeli ‘difference’ we return to Spinoza, and to Vayikra and to the idea of ‘kedusha’. We see the beautiful faces of those that have fallen al kiddush hashem – literally translated as being ‘for being different for God’. And we are reminded of our task in this world. We are reminded of our ancestor Avraham ha’ivri’, we are reminded of our sons and daughters who have responded to the call and have taken up their arms – both literally and metaphorically – in being the defenders of the Jewish faith, of the right to be different, of the right to stand for a rich, historical, beautiful ethical and profoundly impactful identity.


And on Monday as I stand by the grave of our Moshav boy Amitai הי"ד and listen to the siren of Yom Hazikaron and reflect on our challenges and audacity over the last 76 years I may just have a little chat with my old friend Spinoza, and this is what I might say: 

“You were wrong, not because you were a bad philosopher or because your theories made no sense.  On the contrary you were one of the world's best thinkers, your philosophy was logical, rational and consistent.  You were a man convinced of the truth, seeking a way of grounding thought in universal objective categories so as to redeem mankind from the claws of religious corruption and coercion.  But Spinoza I'm afraid all the reason and logic in the world cannot account for the survival of the Jews, it is something that lies beyond all certainties of the mind. But we have survived precisely because we cling on to our particularity, to our identity, to the boundaries that make us different. We have survived because in choosing to be different and to enforce certain boundaries, however archaic they may appear, we have never let go of God or our mission. We have survived  because even though we mine the positives of every philosophical tradition – just as we did with ethical humanism and postmodernism - we are never fully convinced enough to give up the particularities of our own people, history and tradition. You were so convinced that the realm of ‘kedusha – holiness’ was a ‘thing of the past’, when in fact it is the key to our future and our fight against the virulent hatred that we once more find ourselves victims of.

Spinoza you are a philosopher, was it not easy to see that the laws of holiness hold an important theological truth – they force us to create a boundary between life and death – something that has touched death is contaminated (tumah). Judaism is a culture that promotes life. The laws of holiness are all connected to life. Because Judaism is a religion that reveres life here on earth rather than life in a world to come. Heidegger, who lived two centuries after you spoke about the idea of ‘being towards death’, the Jewish movement is instead ‘being towards life’. It is precisely in the Jewish capacity to sanctity life, to combine the holy and the good down here on earth, to fight for our place on the world stage and bring our message of tolerance and justice for ALL people in their varied and diverse guises that makes us the people of the book – the book whose notion of ‘holiness’ rests in its centre. Spinoza, you were a great mind, but not a great prophet. After all, history has proven you wrong.”


Since moving to Israel I have labelled this period between Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron – the modern days of awe.  They are the modern version of the ‘high holy days’. Their holiness is marked by commemorating those that have fallen for the sake of our future survival and those that have been murdered on the alter of Jewish hatred. These days of ‘awe’ have even greater significance for us today in our 76th year as a State. Just a mere 7 months ago we faced an unprecedented attack. It was followed by an unprecedented wave of worldwide Jew hatred.  And the challenge is far from over. We don’t know what the future brings, but let’s not look that far, we don’t know right now what tomorrow brings.

But this we do know.

We have all been awed. We have been awed by those who have unconditionally affirmed their Jewish identity even at great risk. We have been awed by the Israeli youth who have dropped everything to defend their people and their land. We have been awed by the grassroots movement and ordinary citizens in Israel and abroad who overnight turned their homes into logistical centres. We have been awed by the upswing of civility in Israel and the sheer goodness of the ordinary man on the street. We have been awed by our people resilience and audacity to just keep going despite incomprehensible suffering. We have been awed by Israeli ‘super heroes’ who have left jobs, homes, families, dusted off their uniforms and returned to the battlefields. We have been awed by Divine miracles seen when rockets from Iran are thwarted in inexplicable accuracy. We have been awed by our people’s ability to choose life despite everything and against all the odds – to continue living and SANCTIFYING life. There is nothing more Jewish than that. That’s why the laws of holiness sit at the heart of the our ancient torah narrative and that’s why our response to the Holocaust was the State of Israel – a living, thriving, beating nation who refuses to buy into victimhood and who again and again chooses life. That is the ancient message of ‘kedusha’, that is the way we fight modern day Jew hatred. Affirming our Jewish identity, nurturing our relationship with the Divine and choosing life, even when death comes knocking on our door.

Am Yisrael ‘Chai’.





[1] It is fascinating to note that in 1953 David Ben Gurion the then Prime Minister wrote an article that proposed reneging the writ of cherem against Spinoza.  For the secular Zionist movement, Spinoza was a hero.  He had 'demythologised' the land of Israel, transforming it from a land with intrinsic holiness, that must be returned t the people through in a miraculous and metaphysical fashion, to a simple piece of territory that would allow the people to live a peaceful independent undisturbed existence.  In a sense he allowed Zionism to be translated into the emerging conversation and language allied to enlightenment and nationalism.  Whether this was Spinoza original intent or not is improbable but all great thinkers lead to a plethora of interpretations.

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Very inspiring. International to note that D. Ben Gurion z’lb wanted to innul the cherrm! I think you assume your readers know. Spinoza was a lens grinder- optician. B’h

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