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The Holiness of the Whole – Parshot Tazria-Metzora, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5774

There are times when it can be frustrating and challenging to have to condense all one’s ideas and information into three or four sides about topics and issues that could really take a book to explore

This week I find myself faced with exactly this challenge and knowing that I will never be able to do justice to this topic in just a short discussion made me think twice about exploring it. Nonetheless I think it is a theme that deserves to be addressed and so forgive me if we are unable to do full justice to the complexity and intricacies of this subject. My approach is to look at it from a more holistic and philosophical approach as opposed to a strictly Halakhic one.

Sefer Vayikra is a book that deals principally with elements of holiness. The term ‘holiness’, is a term that features as a central tenet of most religions. Something that is sacred is deemed to be religious and something that is profane is usually related to the secular. Holiness is a term that denotes a certain element of separateness, perhaps a realm above. Holiness is a very difficult term for it means such different things to different people. I do believe that much of the extremism in Judaism can be attributed to the fact that our definition of holiness is not authentic to the biblical term, but rather has been deeply influenced by the way other religions define it. I believe in the same way that the term holiness is used in Christian theology to denote a separateness and higher realm, which probably has its roots in the Platonic ideal of the world of forms, Judaism has adopted this theology of ‘holiness’ and not only applied it to a view of our great ancestors, but also to a certain theological creed as well, which I believe is alien to Judaism. Of course the topic of kedusha is vast and multifaceted, and to appreciate its depth is way beyond the scope of this piece. I do think, however, one can begin to see what the term Kedusha implied in its original intent from various Parshiot in Vayikra, in particular the ones we will read over the next few weeks-Tazria, Mezora, Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

What these Parshiot imply is that Kedusha is not just some lofty aspiration of the few, but rather the very nitty gritty of life lived by the whole. To be Kadosh, is to be constantly aware. It means to constantly be aware of what is pure and impure, not just purity as defined through ritualistic activity, but in an ethical and moral realm too. The fact that Holiness in the Torah is allied to everything from sexual conduct to working the land, laws of food to rules of behaviour, suggest exactly this idea.

Rav Soloveitchik expresses this in his essay Sacred and Profane. He writes:

This interpretation of Kedusha is reflected in the halakhic code. The Halakha requires of a man a more vigilant attitude in regards to kedusha than to chol. Laws like טומאה, היסח הדעת, פיגול, נותר and many others that affect only the sacred not the profane, indicate the Halakhic view that Kedusha can be easily corrupted. Kedusha intrinsicates shmira, continual and total awareness and diligence lest man fall from his high estate.[1]

There are two debates about Kedusha amongst both ancient and contemporary religious authorities that I feel illustrate the tension and complexity in defining kedusha. The first features at the start of Parshat Kedoshim where we are told:

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ:  כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.  ג אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy. 3 Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father, and ye shall keep My Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.[2]

Rashi here understands the command to be Holy as separating oneself from sin. Employing the tool of juxtaposition of themes, Rashi notes that Parshat Achrei Mot speaks predominantly about forbidden sexual relationships and then immediately follows into Parshat Kedoshim. Hence there must be a link between refraining an controlling our sexual desire with holiness. Man is to emulate God by being separate with specific attention to sexuality.

“You shall be holy” means that you shall separate yourselves from forbidden sexual relationships and from transgression, for wherever there is a boundary concerning sexuality there is holiness…[3]

Rashi view of Holiness is often the one which people quote most often ‘to be Holy means to be separate’. It is however, a limited view, one that focuses on only one element of kedusha.

Ramban extends the notion of holiness, seeing it as more than simply separating oneself from sin and simply leading a ‘Halakhic Lifestyle’, since one can do that and still be a vile person. For Ramban Kedusha is not just about separating oneself and keeping to the strict dictates of Halakha but rather going beyond the law, being a ethical, moral good person.

In my opinion this ‘separateness’ does not mean to separate from sexual immorality as Rashi teaches, rather this separateness is noted many places in the Talmud, as its writers are called ‘separate’. The point is that the Torah has warned us against immorality and forbidden foods, but it permits sexual relations between man and wife, and the eating of certain kinds of meat and wine. Since this is so, a person could think that it is permitted to be passionately addicted to intercourse with his wife, or many wives, and be ‘among those who guzzle wine or glut themselves on meat’ (Proverbs 23:20) and speak freely of all profanities, since this is not explicitly forbidden. The result is that he will become a scoundrel within the permissible realm of Torah [naval bi-reshut ha-Torah]. Therefore, after listing the specific conduct that is forbidden, the Torah continues with a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted.

For Ramban holiness is far more than self control and separating oneself from sin. Ramban views Kedusha in much broader terms, as an existential state of being. Performing God’s purpose for us in this world is not just through the dictates of law but also through the spirit of being.

I see the argument between these two ancient commentators as being underpinned by a much larger debate that touches on definitions of kedusha and our Avodat Hashem in general. Do we see the command to be ‘Kadosh‘ as a command that ‘disengages’ us from the world and pushes us toward isolation into a higher realm, or is kedusha a command that forces us to engage in the world specifically to bring the higher realm down to earth? Is it the ‘myterium tremendium’, an impersonal, elusive metaphysical quality that is numinous in nature, or is it something that forces man to be aware, active and engaged in this world rectifying it through acts of holiness? In other words in trying to emulate God do we move down- up or up- down. Do we aim to bring ourselves up to God or to bring Godliness down to us?

The same dialectic can be seen in another debate about kedusha that is beautifully expressed in the book ‘Mevakshei Panecha’ by Rav Chaim Sabato. In it two deeply religious, yet profoundly ethical personalities engage in an open and honest discussion. Rav Lichtenstein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Rav Chaim Sabato a well known writer discuss the concept of kedusha, its definition and centrality to understanding our service of God.[4] There Rav Lichtenstein speaks about two elements of kedusha: intrinsic/inherent kedusha or extrinsic/influenced based kedusha. The underlying argument is between whether holiness/Kedusha exists in an ephemeral way as an abstract apriori concept that is neither dependent on nor related to man in any way, or as a subjective element that’s definition and existence are dependent on man’s actions.

Through a Halakhic and philosophical discussion, Rav Lichtenstein concludes that Kedusha contains both elements.   This as I have already noted is clear from looking through Sefer Vayikra which presents to us the idea of ‘holiness’ not as something that dwells only in the ritual realm, but also as a very central component of the ethical and moral realm too. It implies that holiness is not only something that is Divine, existing in and of itself, but also something that man can transform through his own actions. Something can become Holy not because of any innate holiness, but because man transfers upon it an elements of holiness. Unlike other religions that transcribe holiness to the few saintly individuals, Judaism charges all the people to be holy.

How can one be holy? In Martin Buber’s words we need to be ‘humanly holy’,[5] in other words in our very humanity, in the way we relate to others, of being constantly open and aware of the divine call to man, that is how we are holy. The command to be a nation of holy people in Parshat Kedoshim is followed by two commands, to fear your mother and father and to keep the Shabbat (see above). Both these commands can be seen in the strictly Halakhic or extremely ethical realm. Honouring parents is often categorised as an ethical command, and keeping shabbat as a ritualistic command. But they actually each contain both elements. Shabbat as a day of rest for everyone including slaves and animals is a revolutionary moral and liberal idea. Honouring your parents, even if at times we don’t feel they deserve to be may at times be viewed as anti ethical, yet it is a command we are obligated to keep, hence moving it to the ritualistic realm.[6] Both the Shabbat and honouring our parents touch on the tension between intrinsic and extrinsic holiness. We must honour our parents, if for no other reason than they are created in the image of God, and the keeping of Shabbat imbues it with holiness. The dialectical swing between the ethical and the ritualistic, the constant awareness of Godly and human holiness and the responsibility as a people to bring kedusha into our interpersonal and man- God relationships is contained through these two commands.

Another example of this dialectic is in Exodus when we are told to make the Sabbath day holy, but yet almost simultaneously we are told God sanctifies the Sabbath day.[7] In other words there exist two parallel elements to Kedusha. In the same way the people of Israel are told immediately preceding their acceptance of the Torah that they will be ‘ Kingdom of Priests and a Holy nation’[8]. The Sinaitic covenant was established on the premise that all the people are imbued with holiness because they fulfil God’s role for them in the world. It is not the mandate of a few individuals to separate themselves and travel into a transcendent sphere, rather the whole nation through engaging with the laws and sprit of Judaism in this world is to embrace holiness. In Vayikra, as we have already noted we are told: ‘You shall be Holy for I Your God am Holy’.[9] The parallel existence of Divine holiness and human holiness is the cornerstone of any Avodat Hashem. Holiness comes through amalgamating both elements of holiness that we have seen, both the innate and the extrinsically influenced. We are reminded through the command to be kadosh that our worship of God must contain both elements of awe and an ineffable sprit that cannot quite be touched or defined, but simultaneously a very grounded human element that requires an intense awareness of reality and complete responsibility for the world around us. Kedusha teaches us that this world requires us to see both the intrinsic Godliness in things, be it objects or human beings, but also to appreciate our responsibility to uncover and even sometimes create that holiness. In the classic concept of Brit – covenant, we are required to work with God to perfect reality.

Sefer Vayikra outlines the template for becoming a holy people. It shows us that holiness can exist in three realms, time, space and man. It places emphasis not just on the ritual elements of religion, that are often associated with holiness which sometimes defy definition[10] but also on the social and ethical realm, that must also be infused with holiness. It breaks with the common understanding of holiness that separates man from anything profane, calling for a lonely isolated existence filled with purity and worship, and instead calls for engagement with the world and its elements. It mandates the people to become holy not by seeking an existence within an ephemeral realm, but rather by living the day to day life and uncovering the holiness that lies within. It elevates man to his highest potential by teaching him to live a life of awareness rather than a mundane, oblivious and un-meaningful one.

I think that many of the ills of Judaism have come as a result of the notion of kedusha being distorted or misunderstood. The arrogant assumption that we are ‘better’ intrinsically than any other people, is due to the idea we posses intrinsic holiness, not given to anyone else.[11] It detracts from the dual nature of kedusha, stressing only one element and ignoring the other. For one to say that holiness only exists when one completely separates oneself from the world leads to a certain false and arrogant piety. The belief in only an intrinsic holiness has lead to the ‘idolization’ of ‘tzadikkim’, the belief that we can never criticise our ‘holy’ forefathers and the men of the Tanach. This emphasis on only one component of kedusha makes us seem much closer to our Christian counterparts and their ‘saints’, than the Judaism of the Bible. It has also led in recent history to an extremism in defending the ‘holiness’ of the land at all costs. It is based on a ‘Platonic’ vision of reality that is not allied in any way to Judaism. An emphasis on the other side of the scale, as embodied in Kantian ethics of the categorical imperative that emphasises man’s centrality in any ethical thinking, suggests that holiness is only something man can create. It has led to a renewed humanismwith an emphasis on man’s will and his own ‘Godly’ powers. At best this will lead to extreme humanism, at worst to a society that kills those not ‘holy’ enough by their own definition to live amongst them.

By allowing a balance between the two and existing in the creative tension of innate and extrinsic holiness, man will learn both to respect the divine spark of holiness in each individual and equally elevate reality by bringing God’s kedusha down to earth through a conscious engagement with the world. As we read in Psalms 115 – הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לה’, וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי אָדָם The heavens are for God and the earth was given to man. Whilst we want to be Kadosh like God it does not mean we must aim for the heavens to become angels, it means we must become holy men who elevate reality by bringing Godliness down to earth.

Rabbi Sacks expresses this idea beautifully by employing the imagery of Yaakov’s dream:

The holy is where we enter the ideal; the good is how we make it real. Long ago alone at night, Jacob dreamed a dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, and of angels ascending and descending, Life is that ladder, for earth cannot be mended without a glimpse of heaven, nor heaven live for humankind without a home on earth.[12]

May we, as humankind and the Jewish people, achieve the ‘unachievable’, creating an ‘ideal’ world in the reality of our universe through instilling sparks of holiness to the mundane. For if we can do that we will have achieved God’s mandate for us to be a ‘ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש- A kingdom of Priests and a Holy nation’.

[1] Rav J.B Soloveitchik: Sacred and Profane: A yahrtzeit shi’ur in memory of R. Soloveitchik’s father 1945 p8

[2] Vayikra 19

[3] Vayikra 19:2 Rashi Commentary

[4]מבקשי פניך: Chaim Sabato chapter 6 pg. 109

[5] Martin Buber Hasidism and Modern Man p94. ‘In the messianic world, all shall be holy. In Hasidism…the profane is regarded only as a preliminary stage of the holy; it is the not yet hallowed. But human life is destined to be hallowed in all its natural that is, its created, structure. … The true hallowing of a man is the hallowing of the human in hm. Therefore, the Biblical command, “Holy men shall you be unto me” has received Hasidic interpretation thus, “Humanly holy shall you be unto me.” Basing himself on Chassidic thought most especially the Kotzker Rebbe, Buber expresses this idea many times throughout his thinking. His belief is that the quest for holiness takes place in the mundane sphere of daily life. For Hassidim the quest for a meeting with God entails a continual openness and expectation of holiness within ordinary existence.

[6]For a more detailed discussion of the relationship between the holy and the good see Jonathan Sacks: To Heal a Fractured World. Chapter 12

[7] Exodus 20:8 and 11

[8] Shemot 19:5-6

[9] Vayikra 19:1

[10] Kedusha in some contexts such as God being Kadosh defy rational logic or explanation. They are what Heschel describes as ‘ineffable’ – beyond understanding, indescribable, only to be experienced. That is the element of Kedusha that is innate, belongs to the transcendent realm.

[11] Even though Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explicitly states this in the Kuzari, there were many of his contemporaries such as the Rambam, Saadia Gaon and Joseph Albo who disagree adamantly with this statement.

[12] Jonathan Sacks: To Heal a Fractured World p 173

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