Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 1-37

By Dr. Barry Blum

May 5, 2008 – 28 Nisan 5768

“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 God, am holy.”

Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, produced and published by The Jewish Publication Society for the Rabbinical Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, gives that translation of Parshah Kedoshim and then continues with the following.

This parshah, one of the richest and most exalted in the Torah, begins with the words “you shall be holy” (k’doshim tihyu). The term holiness may be applied to God, to good people, to a book, to a period of time, or to an animal offered as a sacrifice. To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary. To be holy is to rise or partake in some measure of the special qualities of God, the source of holiness. Hirsh: “When a morally free human being has complete dominion over one’s own energies an inclinations and the temptations associated with them, and places them at the service of God’s will.” For Buber, holiness is found not in the rising above the level of one’s neighbors but in relationships, in human beings recognizing the latent divinity of other people, even as God recognizes the latent divinity in each of us.

The laws of holiness cut across all categories of life. They deal with ritual, with business ethics, with proper behavior toward the poor and the afflicted, and with family relationships.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe: “If God made it, He made it for holiness.”

Buber: Judaism divides life into the holy and the not-yet-holy.

Rambam warns against the person who manages to lead an unworthy life without technically breaking any of the Torah’s rules. Such a person is called “a scoundrel within the bounds of Torah.”

The command: “You shall be holy” is phrased in the plural. Holiness is most easily achieved in the context of a community. It is difficult for a person to live a life of holiness without others. When Jewish communities have been at their best, the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. Ordinary people achieved an extraordinary measure of sanctity in their daily lives.

Heschel: “Judaism is an attempt to prove than in order to be a man, you have to be more than a man, that in order to be a people, you have to be more than a people. Israel is made to be a holy people.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, offered these comments entitled “Ritual and Ethics: A Holy Blend”.

Only through the combination of ritual and ethics can Judaism fully express itself.

In any five-book anthology, the third book always forms the center of that collection. So it is that Va-Yikra (Leviticus) is the center of the Torah. At the center of Va-Yikra is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code. This parshah is central in more than just location. A pinnacle of spirit and morality, it embodies the high water mark of all religious writing, in any period.

What makes Kedoshim uniquely magnificent is its insistence on a maximal Judaism–one which demands much, teaches even more, and which creates a completely new orientation in the hearts of those who try to take it seriously.

Kedoshim does not tailor Judaism to fit the personalities or ideologies of any particular group of Jews. Instead, it posits a lofty set of standards and then challenges the Jews of every age to rise up to match its high ideals and exalted holiness. It asks of us all to grow beyond our own comfortable conventions, our own sleepy standards, to confront our evasion of excellence.

There are some Jews for whom Judaism is primarily a set of behavior. What matters, for them, is whether or not a Jew performs the required behavior (ritual) in the proper manner. Such people measure “religious Jews” by the number of homes they won’t eat in or by the punctilious performance of ritual deeds.

Yet another group of Jews see Judaism exclusively as a form of social action. Ethics, for them, is the sum and total of any “living” Judaism. Marching against injustice, petitioning Congress and writing letters to the editor–this forms the entirety of what is important in being Jewish. Either of these approaches to Judaism may be right, but neither of them captures the totality of Kedoshim.

Both of these philosophies of Judaism (“Judaism is doing the proper rituals,” or “Judaism is being a good person”) contain an important insight, but both of them reflect only a caricature of the fullness of Judaism as it is developed in the Torah and by the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash.

At core, this portion demonstrates the indivisibility of ritual and ethics. Without seeing any difference, the Torah speaks about paying a laborer his wages promptly, observing Shabbat, honoring parents, not forming idols, the proper mode of sacrifice, and leaving food available for the poor. In this purposeful jumble of ritual and ethical injunctions, the Torah offers only a single justification: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What a staggering claim!

A maximal Jew practices rituals that are rooted in ethics, and acts on an ethical system that finds expression and reinforcement through ritual. Ethical rigor and ritual profundity–that is the Jewish definition of holiness. By blending those two strands, we create a tapestry stronger and more enduring than either individual thread alone.

Ritual requires ethics to root it in the human condition, to force it to express human needs and to channel urges, to serve human growth and to foster insight. Ethics requires ritual to lend substance to lofty ideals, to remind, on a regular basis, of ethical commitments already made, and to create a community of shared values and high standards. Ritual without ethics becomes cruel. Ethics without ritual becomes hollow.

One of Judaism’s central insights is to fuse ritual and ethics into a single blazing light–the mitzvah (commandment)–and then to reorient that new composite creation–holiness–to reflect the very nature of God. Our standard is no longer tailored to concede our own imperfections or to cater to our mendacity.

Ethics alone make man the measure of all things. Ritual alone surrenders the intellect to the power of unregulated passion. As many people have perished from emotion unleashed as from an unfeeling mind. The two need each other to teach restraint, balance, and compassion. By blending ritual and ethics, we shift the focus from our perspective to God’s. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” 

Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky presented this essay entitled, “The Six Million Kedoshim, Why we refer to those who perished in the Holocaust as ‘kedoshim’.

The “Kadosh” Paradox

No passages written about the Holocaust weigh so heavily on the heart of the religious Jew as those that see “no point, no faith, no Divine inspiration…” in the death of the Six Million. We admire those who preserved their faith under the worst of circumstances. Indeed, we view the individual who is a moser nefesh — who risks his very life — to be mekadesh shem shomayim (sanctify God’s name) as someone whose concept of life transcends the flesh and blood of a this-world existence.

Thus, we revere the Jews of the Middle Ages — spiritual giants and simple Jew alike — who chose the stake over the cross; in their death we catch a glimpse of eternal life. Regardless of the nature of their previous life, their choice at the moment of truth branded each as a kadosh, one who died sanctifying God’s Name, and for all time their act is a beacon of inspiration.

But what about the Holocaust? What choices were the victims given? What merit could they have earned with death? Why do we call them all kedoshim, when so many of them had been vehemently anti-religious?

I will not read the rest of Rabbi Lopiansky’s essay now which attempts to answer the question about the Holocaust, “Why?” I believe there is no answer that might be derived from purely religious contemplation, especially any answer that even comes close to seeing it as God’s punishment of the Jews for unworthy behavior.

I do believe there are answers that can be derived from the study of sociology, psychology, economics and history, which can explain the rise of Hitler. Such conditions as mass hysteria, the use of propaganda (managing the media) to cater to the very basest of human emotions like greed and jealousy, of appeal to stupidity, the abuse of patriotism, and the observation that that mass behavior tends to devolve to the lowest denominators rather than to rise to the highest ideals, all if this can be used to explain the “how” of Hitler’s rise to power.

For now, I prefer to focus our attention on the link between the concept of kedoshim and the memory of the six million and see what there is that can inspire us.

Those of you who have heard me speak before may have noticed that I do not, in general, insist on the belief in God as a necessary prerequisite to being or doing anything Jewish. People will ask, do you believe in God? The easiest way to answer is to say yes, especially when you are seen as a leader in the Jewish community. It is more complicated to try to define what might be meant by belief in God. Is it oneness, universality, an old man with a beard sitting upon a throne, is it a being from another planet or galaxy or even another universe who may have come to earth in the distant past and mated with early earthlings as Immanuel Velikovsky, a respected psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was born in Russia and later moved to Israel, suggested in his 1950 book “Worlds in Collision.”? Is it possible to appreciate that it doesn’t matter which of the above may be true, or that all may be true, just as quantum physics teaches us that multiple realities may co-exist?

Whatever the answer to that conundrum, I seek to be able to put together Kedoshim, Holiness and the Holocaust, with or without any insistence on God or on there not being a God. Let’s see where this takes us. If it’s true, then it will be true.

I believe that being holy is a holy act whether or not there is a God, because striving for holiness is right, and righteous, and beneficial to the seeker, and to the seeker’s friends and tribe and nation and to all of civilization. I believe that holiness is its own reward.

I also do not believe that not being holy is automatically bad. And contrary to some rabbinic discourse, I believe that being holy is, or can be, normal and ordinary.

What is being holy? The closest description is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, and to not do unto others as you would not have then do unto you. But as Jews, we have a glorious heritage of brilliant minds that have been able to take us much further than this simple explanation. Our Torah is filled with wisdom that can help to lead us towards holiness, including holy belief and holy behavior. Our parshah, Kedoshim, paraphrases many of the Ten Commandments that are there to remind us what we might want to expect of ourselves to do and not do to others and thus to ourselves. Being holy requires that you be thoughtful about your own existence.

Rabbi Artson described it in the essay I read to you: Revere your mother and father; Keep the Sabbath (an extraordinary invention for its time, that makes every individual a king or queen for a day); Do not turn to idols (remembering that the lust for money or power are forms of idol worship, not just bowing down to weird looking statues); the command to consume the offering of well-being within two days is meant to make your offerings, your gifts, your donations, timely, keep them fresh; Leaving the corners of your fields for the poor to reap means to honor and provide care and charity to those less fortunate; Do not steal; Do not swear falsely; Do not keep the wages of your worker overnight (but pay your worker promptly); Do not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich; Maintain honor in your sexual behavior.

What an amazing set of instructions to have been defined three thousand years ago! And how we continue to need to be reminded of these even today.

Do we all do all of this all of the time? No.

Did each of the six million do all of this all of the time? No.

Does anyone do all of this all of the time? No.

Do we believe that anyone can do all of this all of the time? No.

The ultimate craziness is that the six million perished whether or not any of them did any of these mitzvot any of the time. It didn’t matter to Hitler what they did, if they were good people or bad. What mattered to Hitler was that these six million always reminded him of what holy and righteous behavior was meant to be, and that upset him. It still matters to strive to do these good deeds even though six million were murdered. Because those six million were not given the chance to do these deeds for their allotted time, those are Kedoshim, those are the holy ones, those are to be remembered for their goodness, even if it was for their potential goodness.

Does this make sense? I’m not saying that some people in the camps didn’t do awful things to try to survive. I’m not saying that, if there is a heaven, there were people in the camps who surely went to heaven and there were some who might face some challenges getting into heaven. That has nothing to do with it. I’m saying that as a people, we must honor every one of the six million because they were subject to the worst fates that could befall any human beings only because they were part of a heritage that views good behavior toward one’s fellows as a principle of righteousness, as the highest form of morality. And I certainly include that doing the right things may not always be fully understandable, as the Torah also includes mitzvot which transcend our understanding, chukim (decrees), which are to obeyed simply because they are the word of God.

The Kedoshim were caused to die to honor that belief system, willingly or not. They are thus holy.

So how do we honor their holiness? Ah, that’s what’s the most important. There were and are survivors of the Holocaust. They teach us that if nothing else, their witness to that horrific episode was what sustained them. To honor the Kedoshim we must never let that horror ever recur. We must never even let anything begin to lead up to that horror. We must strive to create a world where that horror is just unthinkable. The paradox is that we must remember that it will be thinkable. There really are people in the world who would do it all again.

My personal sense is that the proper strategy to make it happen never again is to identify lies, identify persecution for persecution’s sake, recognize demagogues and megalomania, and act to remove those people from office or from power. This applies to politicians, to media leaders, to corporate executives, to all who have influence over others. If you believe that politics begins at home, then be politically active at home. Maybe start your own blog. If you believe that beginning at home means following the commandments in the Torah will lead you to be holy, then follow those commandments and make yourself holier. Whatever you choose, don’t be unconscious.

Check your reality and your behavior with your community. That’s one of the reasons Judaism emphasizes the importance of minyan. Whatever it is you’re doing, check it out. If you are a believer, but you are also inflicting your beliefs on others (rather than persuading or teaching), check that out. You don’t want to become the self-righteous leader or member of a radical sect that assassinates its enemies. You don’t want to become the self-righteous leader or member of a sect that throws stones at people who drive on Shabbat. You also don’t want to be afraid to object to your government doing wrong things to your neighborhood, or to industry doing wrong things to your government or your environment.

There is a fine line between writing a blog, or letters to the editor, and joining a conspiracy, and committing acts of civil disobedience, and committing acts that are disobedient, but important to you, but are no longer civil. Yes, this can become challenging.

But being holy demands that you take on those challenges. There were good people who did take on those challenges, who saved Holocaust victims. But there were not enough of them. And there certainly were not enough people who were willing to act before it became too late for the world. That is what must not be permitted. That is our assignment for the fulfillment of this commandment to be a holy people.

Shabbat Shalom.

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