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Parashat Kedoshim – 5779

May 9, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Kedoshim
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

This week’s sidra begins with the Divine command directed to the Children of Israel to be holy (kedoshim tih’yu) “for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). In Hebrew, the root meaning of kadosh is separate. This prompts us to ask what is the nature of this holiness or separation that God requires of us and how do we achieve it?

At first glance one might respond to these questions by saying: “Look further in the text.” Indeed the very first commandment that follows is the obligation to fear one’s father and mother. This is followed in the same verse by the instruction to observe the Sabbath. The next verse warns us against idolatrous practices. This is followed by some specific instructions regarding the offering of sacrifices. And many more specific halakhot follow in the ensuing verses and chapters without an appearance of any sense of a unifying directive or theme. It’s as if the Torah is telling us to keep all the mitzvot without distinction between moral laws and ritual ones or between laws that impact on others and those that are just between people and God, etc. In other words, you got to do ’em all if you want to be holy like God is.

One obvious problem with such an approach is that the connection the Torah draws between God’s holiness and our obligation to be holy because God is holy, what we might call imitatio dei, seems flawed, for certainly the Lord has no father or mother to fear, no gods to worship, no sacrifices to offer, etc. (the only law mentioned above that we might say applies to both God and Israel, at least in theory, is to keep the Sabbath). Thus, the need to find some other explanation to connect our holiness with that of the Almighty which does not rely on simply equating holiness with observance of the commandments enumerated in our parashah.

Logically, the only way to compare the holiness of humankind with that of God is through the principle of mutatis mutandis, i.e., we have to acknowledge that there are two realms, and God’s holiness works within the realm of divinity while ours operates in the physical world. God’s holiness is distinct from anything we might associate with divine beings and certainly with the so-called gods of ancient times. The Almighty is holy for God is separate from any physical limitations and does not, as the heathen gods most certainly did, engage in eating, drinking, fornicating, frolicking, etc. And of course the elements of Justice and Mercy, which were lacking in pagan deities, applies to the true Divine.

For human beings, though, who live in a physical world and must engage in physical activities to survive, our holiness is expressed through limitations on those physical activities. These physical activities can be divided roughly into two groups: those that deal with our relationships with others (bein adam le’haveiro) and those that are of a more ritual nature (bein adam la’Makom). The former might be referred to as morality laws and the latter as religious laws, with the proviso that the distinctions between the two are not always hard and fast.

The key then to understanding the connection that the Torah draws between our holiness and that of the Almighty is not through a mutual observance of the mitzvot, which makes no sense, but through the process of separation and distinction (what we might call havdalah). As God is separate and different, loftier and more spiritual than any other divinity, distinctive in God’s adherence to justice and mercy, so too we as Jews are bidden to be separate from other nations and similarly live a moral life and practice limitation of our mundane physical activities in the manner that the Torah prescribes and proscribes. We may not eat everything that others do, we cannot work every day of the week as others do, we are not allowed to cohabit with any man or woman we choose even if there is mutual consent, as others might do, etc.

Having defined holiness in this way, how do we achieve it? Among the classic early parshanim (Torah commentators) two approaches stand out which are widely quoted, that of Rashi and that of Nahmanides (Ramban). Rashi (to Lev. 19:2) equates holiness with “separation from forbidden sexual contact” (perushim min ha-arayot). He quotes various verses that suggest that wherever the Torah builds “a fence” around forbidden sexual practices it connects it with God’s holiness. Thus, for example, he cites the prohibition for a kohen to marry a prostitute “for he is holy to his God” (Lev. 21:7). Other similar verses are also cited, all of them dealing with sexual impropriety.

Rashi’s approach is prima facie quite difficult, for we find elsewhere that mention of God’s holiness is also juxtaposed to other laws that have nothing to do with sexuality. At the end of parashat Shemini, for example, that deals with species of animals that are forbidden to us, the Torah explains the reason — “for I am the Lord your God and you shall make yourselves holy and you shall be holy for I am holy …” (Lev. 11:43-44). We see then that our quest for holiness – because God is holy — is not tied only to avoidance of carnal improprieties.

What probably prompted Rashi in our parashah to focus on sexuality in his definition of holiness is the parashah’s juxtaposition to the end of Aharei Mot, where the Torah lists many of the forbidden sexual unions, most of which are of an incestuous nature. Interestingly, the reason the Torah gives for outlawing those unions is that they are an abomination – and they are the reason that the Canaanites, the current inhabitants of the Promised Land, are being “spit out” of the land. We, in turn, are being warned to keep those laws of sexual morality so that we don’t meet the same fate as the Canaanites. No mention is made in Aharei Mot that adherence to those laws will contribute to our holiness. Along comes the Torah in our parashah, according to Rashi, and adjures us that we need to observe those laws not only in order that we don’t get expelled from our land, but also to achieve the level of holiness that God demands of us.

Perhaps the reason the Torah held off on mentioning the element of holiness in the previous Torah portion is in order not to imply that the Canaanites were driven out of the land because they were not holy enough. Indeed, the nations of the world are never held to account by God for a lack of holiness. They are required only to practice morality, as defined by the seven Noahide Laws, which include sexual morality. Only the Jewish nation is held to a higher standard. For us, just being moral is not enough; we must rise to the level of holiness. We are a nation of priests, who are referred to countless times as being (or required to be) holy. And how do we achieve that level of holiness – through careful adherence to the laws of the Torah, which includes the laws that govern ethical behavior as well as the ritual laws, especially (but not exclusively) laws of sexual morality. Holiness then follows from adherence to the laws of the Torah.

In contrast to Rashi, however, Nahmanides (to Lev. 19:2) suggests that the instruction that “you be holy” goes beyond separation through adherence to the laws of the Torah. Instead, it is a kind of subjective supererogatory principle that bids us to practice limitation even within the limits that the Torah permits. For example, a person may spend one’s whole day eating kosher food and/or engaging in sexual activity with his/her spouse. In other words, one may very well live the life of a hedonist within the letter of the Law. Such an individual is called by Ramban a naval bir’shut ha-Torah (a sybarite with the permission of the Torah). One who overindulges in a permitted physical pleasure may not be lacking in morality or in strict obedience to any particular law, but he/she would certainly be in violation of the Torah’s requirement that we be a holy people.

In summation, the two classical approaches discussed above agree that the key to holiness is   achieved through “separation.” According to Rashi that separation is achieved by adhering to the laws of the Torah, which defines what is permitted and what is forbidden, especially in the realm of sexual activity, but not exclusively, as we have demonstrated. For Nachmanides, holiness requires separation not only from what the Torah proscribes, but also  from behavior that is technically permitted but involves excessive physical indulgence.
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.