Parashat Kedoshim

By Sanford Olshansky

In the summer of 1970, when I was 20 years old, I rear-ended another car on one of the freeways in Detroit, where I grew up. There were no injuries and the police officer who came to the scene said there was no need for an accident report. A few weeks later my father, who owned the car, was sued for much more than the amount of his insurance coverage by the driver of the car that I hit, who now claimed to have sustained serious injuries. I was required to give a deposition at the office of the other driver’s lawyer.

The driver of the other car was a middle-aged Jewish man and the partners of his law firm had obviously Jewish last names. I will never forget the huge marble fa’ade of the law office, with the partners’ names carved in letters filled with gold paint. I was accompanied to the deposition by a non-Jewish lawyer from my father’s insurance company and I was more embarrassed by the lying Jewish plaintiff and his crooked Jewish attorneys than I was by having been at fault in the accident. Years later I heard that those same lawyers had been disbarred for fraud in connection with welfare clients.

This story relates to Chapter 19 of Leviticus, part of the “Holiness Code,” in Parashat Kedoshim, which we will read this Shabbat. What is unique about this chapter is that civil, ritual and moral laws are woven together in a single code. Our rabbis say that in ancient Israel these categories of law were combined because there was no distinction between a person’s secular life and religious life. Religious principles were understood to apply to all aspects of life. According to the Torah a good life, a righteous life and a holy life are the same thing. Similarly, a good society is just and a just society is holy.

Parashat Kedoshim tells us that no matter how ritually observant the lying Jewish client and the crooked Jewish lawyers may have been, they weren’t good Jews. It teaches us that all aspects of life should be governed by rules developed from Divine principles, not only from human experience. Violations of these rules offend God, not only the people who are harmed. We have an obligation which comes from God to treat other people decently because the image of God is in every human being. God is present in our relationships with other people and we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

A congregant who attends my adult Torah study class and is familiar with some of the teachings of Biblical criticism once asked me which part of the Torah I would want him to take literally. I told him that out of the entire Torah, Chapter 19 of Leviticus is what I hoped he would take literally. I find it hard to imagine that the ancient Israelites could have developed such advanced morality and ethics without Divine inspiration.

The moral and ethical rules found in Leviticus 19 include:

  • Charity is an obligation, not a choice.
  • Don’t hold back a worker’s wages.
  • Don’t insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.
  • Don’t unduly favor the rich or the poor in a dispute.
  • Don’t profit from the blood of your fellow human being.
  • Don’t hate your relative in your heart.
  • Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge.
  • Show deference to the elderly.
  • Use honest weights and measures.
  • Be fair to the stranger, for you were once strangers and outsiders yourselves.
  • It has been said that Leviticus 19, located almost in the exact middle of the Torah scroll, could stand for the entire Pentateuch. It has even been shown that the entire Ten Commandments are echoed here. But the Holiness Code goes beyond the Ten Commandments to teach us even more specifically how to live a good and holy life.

    One of my fellow rabbinical students says that there was a time, 50 to 100 years ago, when most Jews went to synagogue or temple because they were Jewish. He says that today, many Jews go to synagogue or temple to be Jewish. The message of Parashat Kedoshim is that being Jewish doesn’t take place only within the walls of the synagogue or temple. Being Jewish is a full-time, 24/7 activity. Being Jewish is following the rules of the Torah to treat our fellow human beings decently and fairly. Being Jewish is living according to our most important commandment, also in Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which the ancient sage, Hillel, famously said could be recited, in a different formulation, while standing on one foot, to represent the entire Torah.


    Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion and serves as the rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Rishon, in Wyckoff, NJ.