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24.04.2018 11:12    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  achare'mot  kedoshim  

Holiness: A Matter of Morality or Religion?

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:  You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy" (Lev. 19:1-2).

The opening verses of this week's reading, which present an extremely rare formulation in the Torah, prepare the reader for a most important subject.  Moses is commanded to gather all the people—men, women and children—and convey to them the requirement, "You shall be holy."  This is apparently the highest level of human development and the object of all the commandments.[2] In order to thoroughly understand this important verse we must distinguish between the questions that follow and deal with each one separately.

1)  What practical demands are made by this commandment?

Since holiness befits both G-d and man, it can manifest itself on a variety of levels and in a variety of forms.  The Sages (Sifra 151.2) related to the etymology of the word, interpreting kedoshim (=holy) as perushim (=set apart), that is, separated and distanced.  But the question is distancing oneself from what?  According to Rashi, this meant distancing oneself from sexual impropriety; according to Malbim, "from all the ways of the material and natural world."

More apt, in my view, is Nahmanides' interpretation that "You shall be holy" is a "general commandment," that we also set ourselves apart from that which is permitted us so that we not fall into the pit of observing the letter but not the spirit of the Torah.  Of course the concept of holiness includes not only "shunning evil" but also "doing good," that is, distancing ourselves from that which is evil and moving towards the good and the G-dly, to the point of always adhering to the ways of the Lord with all our might.[3]

2)  What is "holiness"?

The key to holiness, it turns out, lies in the nature of the commandments that immediately follow the verse quoted, most of which concern morality.  Therefore Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman summed up:  "The concept of 'holiness' means the highest level of moral perfection, aspiring only to good and spurning evil."[4] His explanation is very close to what follows from Nahmanides' understanding, because the entire matter of "making oneself holy by that which is permitted you" and of "doing the letter but not the spirit of the Torah" belongs to the realm of individual morality and virtue.  The notion of acting "better than the letter of the law," deduced by the Sages from the verse, "do what is right and good" (Deut. 6:18) and cited by Nahmanides in the same context,[5] also belongs to the realm of social morality.

However, this impression that holiness is fundamentally a moral value appears to contradict an important tradition in the philosophy of our religion, that the term "holy" represents the unique quality of religious experience and is specific to religion.  Therefore it is impermissible to transpose this term or devalue it by defining it in terms taken from other realms.[6]

In truth, there is no difficulty here; the source and root of holiness and its manifestation as the "Divine Presence" clearly is G-d, and the term "holiness" is taken from the world of religion, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has explained:[7] "The concept of holiness is rooted in the bond between man and G-d that exists in the context of actual life.  According to the Halakhah the sanctity of time and place is identical with the Divine Presence dwelling in the context of the here and now."  Accordingly, he interprets the verse from Isaiah (6:3), "Holy, holy holy!  The Lord of Hosts!" in accordance with Targum Yonathan, that the three repetitions of "holy" allude to three realms in which holiness is manifest:  holy in heaven, holy on earth, and holy in time.[8] Rabbi Soloveitchik explains:

Holiness begins in Heaven and ends in the eschatological vision of the End of Days…But the hand that connects these two notions is the concept of holiness in the Halakhah (i.e., practical instructions of the Torah).  This holiness, created by man…finds its fulfillment in observance of the proscriptions against certain sexual relations, eating specific foods, and the like.[9]

These commandments express individual morality and social morality.  That holiness which is created by man makes possible the Divine Presence over us:  "Let them make Me a sanctuary [a place of sanctity] that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).  It is interesting that even the sanctity of G-d is characterized as something moral, as evidenced by the text of the Amidahprayer on the New Year and the Day of Atonement, in the benediction of the kedushah, which begins as usual:  "Holy are You and holy is Your name," but before concluding with the words, "Holy King," inserts several prayers beseeching the Lord for universal justice, such as:  "Therefore, let fear of You,…Therefore, give honor…, and therefore may the righteous," and concludes with the deep and perplexing verse, "And the Lord of Hosts is exalted [nikdash, sanctified] by judgment [tzedakah, righteousness, charity?]" (Isa. 5:16).

Note that the most sublime prayers, expressing the hope that we may see mankind united around moral values, were composed by the prophet specifically to G-d as the Holy Deity and King, who is hallowed by moral values.

3)  How are the beginning and end of the passage (Lev. 19:2) connected?

It is clear from the context that the word ki, "for," connecting the beginning to the end, serves to give an explanation of the command, that is to say, "you shall be holy" because G-d Himself is holy.  But one can still wonder whether it serves to answer the question, why be holy?  Or, what authority stands behind the command:  why must we be holy?

According to Nahmanides, insofar as G-d is Holy, the only way of adhering to Him is to be holy.  According to Sforno, the particular force of the command is that G-d Himself is holy and therefore we must aspire to be like G-d.  Sforno adds, "Just like His intention in creating man, saying, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (Gen. 1:26)."  The creation of man in the image of G-d informs us that we are able to resemble our Creator; but our duty to be like Him stems, according to the Halakhah, from the positive commandment, "walk in His ways" (Deut. 28:9), as the Sages explain:  "Just as He is merciful, so you, too, should be merciful…just as He is called holy, so you, too, should be holy."[10] This concerns the realm of individual morality, characteristics of the soul.

Elsewhere the Sages interpret "walking in His ways" in practical terms:  just as He clothes the naked, so should you, too…,[11] which is the realm of social morality.  The main thrust of this commandment, "walk in His ways," turns out to include the instruction, "you shall be holy"—resembling G-d in His good acts by being kind and merciful, as well as upright and ethical.[12]

Thus from two different directions—analyzing the concept of holiness, on one hand, and examining the command to "walk in His ways," which includes the commandment that "you shall be holy," on the other—we reach a single conclusion:  that the concept of holiness, be it of man or of G-d, lies in the realm of moral values.

In conclusion we must ask what these general commandments add to all the specific precepts explicitly stated in the Torah?  What are we to learn from these commandments?  An answer regarding "you shall be holy" has been provided by Nahmanides.  Regarding the command to "walk in His says" Rabbi Elimelech bar Shaul writes as follows:

The special nature [of this command] is not new in the sense of introducing a new theme, rather it is an innovation in terms of direction and criterion.  The specific moral precepts look to the other, and the well-being of the other is the criterion; whereas here ("walk in His ways") the direction is more sublime and the criterion more comprehensive—to resemble the Creator.[13]

Now we return to the question with which we began:  is holiness a moral or a religious concept?  Surely we must answer that it is both in the innovative sense particular to Judaism, which from the outset has stressed the "religious nature of morality."[14] In other words, one should hold in high esteem moral values (such as righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy, etc.) because these are the "ways of the Lord," not only because the Lord wants human beings to walk in these ways but also because they are the ways in which the Lord, Himself, walks.  They are, as it were, part of G-d's "personality," even if they are beyond human understanding.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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