Light from the Sidra


Leviticus 19:1-20:27.Haftarah Ezekial 22:1-19

In 1970, John Lennon was tried on charges of obscenity for displaying indecent drawings at a London art gallery. As John, was being led from court, one fan declared that the former Beatle was a “very holy man”. With his mane of long hair and luxuriant beard, Lennon did bear a striking resemblance to his former guru, the Maharishi Mahet Yogi. But is there more to being holy than sporting long hair and a matching beard? Is there more to holiness than rocking back and forth in prayer while wearing a streimel and a black kaftan?

Leviticus 19 is one of the great holiness chapters in the Bible. Alongside Deuteronomy 23–25, Psalm 15, Isaiah 58, Amos. 5, Micah 6–8 and Ezekiel 18, it stands as one of the greatest ethical chapters in the Tanakh. Leviticus 19 strongly influenced the moral priorities of Jesus, the apostle Paul and the Letter of James in the New Testament.

The chapter includes and expands the Ten Commandments, exposing the fundamental principle of the Torah. Leviticus condenses the Torah into what Jesus called the second great mitzvah and what Paul regarded as the very essence of the Torah: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.  

This week’s reading takes its name from the second verse: Israel was to be holy (kedoshim) because Yahweh their God was holy. The chapter dispels any thought that holiness for Israel was merely a matter of ritual purity. Holiness was to be displayed in every corner of practical life—from the corners of the beard to the corners of the fields. Holiness was not something that a Jew pursued by retreating from reality into a monastery. Holiness for Israel meant transforming everyday life by a quality of behaviour that “wholly other”  from the ways of the surrounding nations.

If the definition of holiness in Leviticus 18 and 19 makes us uneasy, we would do well to remember that God’s calling of Israel was a major part of his strategy of restoring the creation to himself. Adam’s rebellion against God threw the cosmos out of whack. Creation was no longer “very good”. Human beings were no longer “very good”, and so the restoration of creation needed to begin from the top down.

Man was created in the image of God. In rebellion against God, mankind cannot be holy and cannot therefore truly reflect the image of the Creator. The divine image had to be restored, and God set Israel apart (which is what holiness means) from the nations in order that the nation should show the world what holiness looks like. In other words, Israel’s holiness would show the world what God was like.  

The tragedy was that Israel failed. The Jewish people failed to love God with their whole being and hence failed to love their fellow Jews. As a consequence, as the Haftara makes clear, Israel suffered exile.

Israel as a society was founded on Yaweh’s covenant with them. Therefore, offences which threatened that covenant relationship were punishable in the name of the highest authority: God himself.

The family played a central role in the experience, preservation and transmission of the covenant relationship. Actions which threatened the family, either by disregard for parental authority, or by sexual deviation, threatened the covenantal foundation of Israel’s social system. The application of the death penalty to such offences, therefore, was no indication of how seriously Israel was to take the covenant with their God.

Chapter 19 deals with offences that required the death penalty, either by judicial execution or by the intervention of God, who would “cut off” (Hebrew: qarat) the offender. If we are inclined to think these punishments severe, we should bear in mind that in comparison with the brutality found in the law codes of contemporary ancient societies, the law of Israel was remarkably humane.

So where does that leave Israel today? More than 3,000 years later, the nation is no closer to exemplifying the ideals of holiness required by God. Even among the Hasidim and Haredim, true holiness is lacking. How is Israel to fulfil its calling to holiness?

What if an ideal Israelite could fulfil the laws of holiness? What if the God of Israel could himself become a Jew and manifest true holiness on behalf of the nation? How would he live and how would the people respond to true holiness in their midst?

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