Can We Taste the Holy?
By Robert Tornberg
The word kadosh is usually translated as “holy,” as in the Holy Land, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Ark, and the High Holy Days. Three times a day, in the K’dushah part of the Amidah, the standing prayer, we say “Holy, Holy, Holy is Adonai Tz’vaot,” which is one of God’s names (Isaiah 6:3). Shabbat is also called Shabbat Kodesh – the holy Sabbath. The prayer we say to sanctify wine on Friday evening is theKiddush, a word directly related to kadosh, “holy.” And this week’s Torah portion is called K’doshim, the plural of kadosh. Maybe we can translate it as “holinesses.”
Clearly, the word kadosh – holy – appears over and over again in our tradition. It is my experience that it flows easily from our lips as we use some of the common phrases mentioned above. And yet, what does this common word actually mean when we say it? Do we think about its meaning? Do we understand its implications? Are we even conscious of using it when we say, for instance, “High Holy Days?” I would argue that many of us are not. I would further suggest that this word has some vague sense of mystery, a mystical quality that we just can’t put our fingers on. We know it is important in religion, in Judaism, but we are somehow complacent about its elusive quality.
I do believe, however, that this week’s parashah opens the doors to a real understanding of what the word “holy” can mean for us. Not only is this portion named K’doshim, but scholars have included it in a section of Leviticus that begins with chapter 17 (read the week before Pesach this year) and continues to the end of the Book of Leviticus. They have entitled it the “Holiness Code.” Unlike the first half of the book, it is not primarily about sacrifices and priests (undoubtedly also related to holiness); it catalogues various commandments about how regular people should live.
Our chapters this week are set in the center of the Torah, and are the most well-known part of the Holiness Code. In Reform tradition, they form the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The portion begins with the words “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them” (Leviticus 19:1-2). So, it is clear that what follows is meant for all of the Israelites – not just the priests, not just the leaders, not just the men, not just the adults. Everyone was to be addressed!
So what are the words that are so important that everyone must hear them? Here is what follows: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
What an inspiring message. I should be like God. I should be holy because God is holy. But, what does that mean? Doesn’t that just take me back to the questions I already asked about what it means to be holy?
Actually, our most illustrious biblical commentators were equally puzzled over what it means to be holy. Rashi1 argued that being holy means to “keep yourselves apart from the forbidden sexual relationships, even from the thought of transgressions.” In a lengthy rebuttal of Rashi’s opinion, Nachmanides2 concludes that ” . . . it is in fact the essence of the text to insist that we keep ourselves clear, pure, and separate from the mass of humanity.” Taking a slightly different perspective, Gersonides3 held that ” . . . you must keep yourselves apart from the material world to the extent you can.” In this, he suggested, you will resemble God Who is free of materiality. Sforno4, coming from a direction quite different than his colleagues, suggests that this phrase sums up the state of being of the people who have followed all the laws of ritual purity that preceded our parashah in Sh’mini, Tazria, M’tzora, and Acharei Mot.
With all of these conflicting positions, I am not sure that we are further along in our quest to understand what being holy is than when we began. There is one commentator, however, that gave a seemingly very simple explanation. Rashbam5 said, “Because there are so many commandments in this section, they are introduced by an exhortation to the Israelites to make themselves holy and observe them.”
When I read the words of Rashbam it began to make sense to me. What follows our somewhat confusing sentence about being holy is an extensive list of commandments, some of which I will summarize here. We are told to revere our parents, keep Shabbat, not turn to idols, take care of the poor, and not steal, lie, or profane God’s name. There are warnings about defrauding people, abusing those with disabilities, and treating strangers badly, and we are instructed to pay workers immediately after their work is completed. We cannot eat the fruit of a tree until it is four years old and we should not eat blood. There are many laws about sexual relations included here as well. But perhaps the most famous rule in this part of Leviticus is “Love your fellow [sometimes translated as “neighbor”] as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). These are just a sampling of the commandments included following the words “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.”
I would argue, and I think that Rashbam would agree, that these laws provide us with a clear definition of the word “holy,” at least for human beings. In short, if we want to be holy like God is holy, we can certainly understand this parashah as a guide to achieving that status. Observe these commandments and you will be holy!
Are Rashbam and I right and the others misguided? Is holiness really just too mysterious to comprehend? Well, the truth is, I don’t know. But what I do know is that if we read this Torah portion carefully (and I hope you will take the time to do so for I have only summarized its depth) and figure out which of these commandments can fit into our lives, our lives will be greatly enriched and maybe, just maybe, we will get a taste – and only a taste – of what being holy like God can mean.
- Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, “premier” Biblical and Talmudic commentator, France, 1040-1105
- Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman or RaMBaN, physician, scholar of Jewish law and commentator, Spain, 1194-1270
- Levi ben Gerson or RaLBaG, philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, France, 1288-1344
- Obadiah ben Jacob, physician and Bible commentator, Italy, 1470-1550.
- Samuel ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, raised sheep and grapes, Torah commentator known for being literal, France, 1083-1174
Robert Tornberg, RJE, is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools,, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.