Kedoshim: Ethical Holiness

It’s not easy to be holy.

The Torah portion called Kedoshim (“Holy”, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) begins:

And Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole assembly of Israelites, and you shall say to them: “You must be kedoshim, because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am kadosh.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ), plural kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = holy, consecrated; set apart for God; dedicated to a sacred purpose.1 (From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, make holy, consecrate, treat as sacred.)

All the Israelites must be holy, not just the priests. The first thing God asked Moses to tell the Israelites when they reached Mount Sinai was:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, you will be to me a treasure among all the peoples, since all the earth is mine. And you will become to me a kingdom of priests and a nation kadosh.” (Exodus 19:6)

Objects are holy when they are reserved for use in the religion of the God of Israel. Animals are holy when they are reserved as slaughter-offerings for God. Human beings are holy when they listen to and obey all of God’s rules. A holy nation would be a nation obedient to God. Apparently God is holy by definition.

According to the Talmud there are 613 rules in the Torah,2 although rabbis generally agree that only 271 of these can still be observed today, now that there are no more temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. Kedoshim, one of this week’s two portions,3 lists 40-50 rules (depending on how you divide them up).

Partway through Kedoshim there is a pause in the list of rules while God says:

Vehitkadishitem and you will become kedoshim, because I am Y-H-V-H your God. And you must observe my decrees and do them; I, Y-H-V-H, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)

vehitkadishitem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = and you must make yourselves holy. (A form of the verb kadash.)

mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one making you holy. (A participle form of the verb kadash.)

In other words, human holiness is a joint effort. If we observe God’s decrees and do them, God makes us holy.

Eleven of the rules in Kedoshim are about ritual and religious practices—tthree to perform properly and eight to avoid doing.4 The rest of the rules are about doing what is right in relation to other human beings—in other words, ethics. We humans must be ethical to be holy.

A few of the ethical decrees in Kedoshim, such as You must not steal (Leviticus 19:11), appear in the ethical codes of almost all cultures. Nine of the thirteen rules about when or with whom sexual intercourse is forbidden are generally observed today. (The most notable exception is the rule that, in a plain reading, declares sex between two men taboo and punishable by death.5 This rule is the subject of much discussion and reinterpretation today.)

And some of the rules are challenging for any human being to follow.

Revering parents

One of these eternally challenging rules is the first one in the list:

Each man must revere his mother and his father. (Leviticus 19:3)

As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.”6

Nevertheless, in order to be holy—or truly ethical—we must treat our parents with utmost respect, regardless of our opinions. I think I achieved this most of the time during the last year of my mother’s life, but it made me a nervous wreck.

Rescuing from death

After several more manageable rules, we get another challenging command:

You mut not stand by the blood of your fellow. (Leviticus 19:16)

Early in the Talmudic period (around 300 C.E.) Sifra established that this law means you must not avoid taking action when someone’s life is in danger. Sifra’s three examples are that you must not remain silent if you can testify on someone’s behalf; that you must rescue someone you see drowning, or attacked by robbers or a wild beast; and that you must kill any man you see pursuing someone in order to kill or rape them.7

Saving an innocent person’s life or limb is certainly a good deed. But what if you see a person with a weapon pursuing a second person, who appears to be running after a third person? Is the first person a murderer or a rescuer? What if you get it wrong?

And should you put yourself in a situation where a potential murderer might well turn on you?

Loving your fellow

Kedoshim also contains the famous dictum:

You must love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Who is your fellow (or neighbor, in some translations)—the people you are acquainted with? All Jews? All human beings on earth?

Do you need to feel loving, or is it enough to act lovingly? How do you know what a relative stranger would consider a loving action? What if you do not love yourself? (I address some of these questions in my post: Kedoshim: Love Them Anyway.)

Is it enough to follow Rabbi Hillel’s rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”8 and refrain from harming anyone? That alone would require constant attention and evaluation. Is it even possible to benefit everyone all the time, out of the goodness of your heart?

And more …

Other ethical challenges in Kedoshim include feeding the poor (Leviticus 19:10), being honest (19:11), not insulting “the deaf” (19:14), not putting a stumbling-block in front of “the blind” (19:14), not hating (19:17), and loving the immigrant as you love yourself (19:32-33).

I have to conclude that complete holiness is out of reach for most human beings. Yet I believe that to be fully human, we must stop and ponder what our ethical ideals should be, and then strive to come closer to meeting them. The ethical rules in Kedoshim are a good place to start the search for ideals, especially if we think about each rule. Is it an artifact of another culture, which we should discard today? Or is it a command we should embrace as one of our highest principles?

  1. For a fuller discussion of what makes someone holy, see my post: Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.
  2. Talmud Bavli, Tractate Makkot 23b, says there are 613 mitzvot (divine commands or rules). The most famous list detailing what they are is in Mishneh Torah by Maimonides.
  3. Since this is a short year in the Hebrew lunar calendar, this week Jews read a double portion in Leviticus: Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.
  4. To do (with some elements of refraining): Leviticus 19:5-8, 19:23-25,19:30, and 20:25. To refrain from (with some elements of doing): Leviticus 19:4, 19:19, 19:26 (2 rules), 19:27, 19:28, 19:31 & 20:27, and 20:1-6.
  5. Leviticus 20:13.
  6. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 250.
  7. Sifra, Kedoshim Chapter 4:8.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.

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