Parashat Kedoshim: What does it mean to be holy?

Every person in the community has the ability to attain this exalted status of holiness.

May 2, 2019 11:17
Parashat Kedoshim: What does it mean to be holy?

WE MUST access our internal compass... to intuit how to perform mitzvot in a way that is ‘pleasing in the eyes of God.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, opens with God speaking to Moses and commanding that he address the entire Israelite community with the following message:

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

We, who are created in the image of God are now commanded to put into practice our likeness with God by actively pursuing holiness. This seems to be an essential part of our covenantal relationship with God since the portion ends with a similar exhortation:

“You shall be holy to me for I, God, am holy and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine”

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary explains, “Throughout the Torah, we are given rules and statutes that tell us what to do. Here we are told what to be.”

But how do we define holiness and what does it mean to be holy?

Many interpreters have struggled to define the properties of holiness. Is it a mitzvah in its own right? Maimonides thinks it is not. Nachmanides thinks it is. Is it a particular set of mitzvot? Rashi defines it as narrowly and specifically relating to sexually ethical behavior as codified in chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus. Most everyone else think it is a call for something greater than the particular.

All agree that there are guidelines that clarify who is to seek holiness and when, where and how it can be accessed. First, the verse addresses the entire community of Israel. Every person in the community has the ability to attain this exalted status of holiness. It is this ability that allows us to develop the Divine within us through our actions. Secondly, the time and place to seek holiness is everywhere and at all times. The primary examples in this chapter, but also in the chapters before and after the exhortation, include eating only from specific animals; honoring parents; keeping Shabbat; not falsifying weights and measures; leaving gleanings for the poor to collect; spurning idolatry; respect for elders; sexual ethics; and many more. In other words, everything we do and everyone we connect with in our personal and professional lives has the potential to bring us into contact with the elusive holiness that we are commanded to seek.

NACHMANIDES, WHO thinks there is a commandment to be holy, recognizes that holiness goes beyond the permitted and prohibited. He makes the extraordinary claim that meticulous observance of the mitzvot can still be compatible with boorishness, noting that it is possible to be a “boor with the permission of the Torah”; this, of course, must be avoided at all costs by transcending the particular actions and turning them into something beyond the letter of the law. The mitzvot provide boundaries and guidelines, but they do not in and of themselves translate to holiness.

To build on what Nachmanides is saying, we must access our internal compass, created in the image of God, to intuit how to perform mitzvot in a way that is “pleasing in the eyes of God.” In the end, we need to nurture within ourselves the use of the mitzvot and the distinctions or value judgments that observing mitzvot forces us to make.

I would like to conclude with a story I found in a book titled Double Jeopardy, Gender and the Holocaust by Judith Tydor Baumel, that illustrates the ability of human beings to continuously make moral and humane choices by seeking holiness even in the most unholy of places.

A group of 10 women, between the ages of 16 and 26, met and formed a sub-community in the Plaszow labor camp in 1943. They were almost all religious women, many of whom had graduated from the Beth Jacob teacher seminaries in Poland. Their belief that human decency and moral responsibility to others must make up the backbone of Jewish society, translated into the pains taken to implement such behavior over two years in Plaszow, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, while also maintaining strict observance to Jewish law.

A fine example is given by Pearl Benisch, who recalled that a fellow group member, Rivka Horowitz, had been given a bowl and fine-toothed comb upon arrival to Auschwitz for treating lice.

“The bowl and fine-toothed comb… were a great blessing: they helped us fight the lice, which were the worst plague in camp. No wonder such a comb had become the greatest treasure anyone could wish for in Auschwitz. Our block, however, had only one, and it belonged to Rivka. Yet, even though it was irreplaceable and crucial to our very existence, Rivka would not withhold it from anyone who asked for it. The bowl and the little comb went from girl to girl, cleansing nearly a thousand heads in the barracks. It didn’t matter that some of the little teeth broke off in the process. It didn’t matter that it might even… be lost. The important thing was to help the girls avoid the dreaded infestation. For Rivka, this was enough, and she continued lending her life-saving comb as long as it lasted.”

What distinguished this group above and beyond many similar groups was the way that they related to others, providing care and mutual assistance beyond the boundaries of the group framework, even to strangers, throughout their years in the camps.
One of the women, Rivka Englard explained, “You can’t imagine how often we had been taught the meaning of the phrase ‘All of Israel is responsible for one another’ in our youth. Not merely in order to mouth the saying, but to carry it out in conditions such as those under which we were living… life in Plaszow and Auschwitz was a test of our willingness to sanctify God by adhering to our faith, by assisting as many Jews as possible and by remaining decent human beings.”

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.

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