The Torah portion named Kedoshim (“holy”) begins:
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.” (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)
kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.
kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)
An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.
God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh, an alien idol, profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1
A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God and leads a different life from non-priests. He must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.
But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?
Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:
Holiness as ritual purity
The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:
Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth. Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)
vehitkadishtem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselves kedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.
Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses. The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.
The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.
The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea:
Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them. I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes you kedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.
For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity. People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state. Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.
Holiness as moral virtue
The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2 Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.
For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.
More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). 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.
“This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7
For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world. Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.
Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.
However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone. We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.
Holiness as exclusive possession
Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.
And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.
For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)
Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.
All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of “Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; behaving ethically; and excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.
Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10 In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12
But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.
What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.
The “God” of ritual purity
Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)
To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.
The “God” of moral virtue
Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.
When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.
The “God” of exclusive possession
Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible. Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.
Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.
If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!
1 Leviticus 20:3. The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.
2 Leviticus 18:1-30.
3 Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics. The other three are:
* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)
* Do not worship idols. (19:4)
* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8) This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.
4 Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.
5 Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.
6 Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.
7 Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015.
8 This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.
9 God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.
10 One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace. Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say: “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts! [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
11 Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.
12 Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.