Light from the Sidra

Kedoshim ('Holy'). 25 April 2014. 26 Nissan 5774

Torah: Leviticus 19:1-20:27; Amos 9:7-15

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Holy is as holy does

In 1970, John Lennon was tried on charges of obscenity for exhibiting indecent drawings at a trendy avant-garde London gallery. As Lennon was being led from court, one fan declared that the former Beatle was a ‘very holy man.’ With his mane of long hair, luxuriant beard and white suit, Lennon resembled his former guru, the Hindu holy man Maharishi Mahesh Yogi but there is far more to being holy than sporting long hair and a matching beard. And there is more to holiness than working oneself into an ecstatic state while praying at the Western Wall.

Leviticus 19 is one of the great ‘holiness’ chapters of the Bible. It also stands as one of the greatest ethical chapters in the Tanakh and is strongly reflected in the moral teaching of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus and in the Letter of James (Jacob) in the New Testament. Leviticus 19 includes and expands the Ten Commandments, condensing 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’ because HASHEM their God is holy. The chapter dispels any thought that holiness for Israel was merely a matter of outward ritual purity. Holiness was to be displayed in every area of practical living, from the corners of the beard to the corners of the fields. Holiness was not something to be pursued by retreating from reality into a self-constructed ghetto. Holiness for Israel meant the transformation of everyday life by a quality of behaviour that was ‘wholly other’ from the lifestyles 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. 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 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 his nation should show the world what true holiness looks like. In other words, Israel’s holiness would reveal to the world what God is like.

And, as we know, Israel failed to sanctify the name of HASHEM. The Jewish people failed to love God with their whole being and, as a result, failed to love their fellow Jews, let alone the surrounding nations. For that reason the northern tribes and, later, Judah and Benjamin went into exile. But God’s plan for the nation had not been frustrated. From that nation the Messiah was to come who would not only bless Israel but also the Gentiles, in accordance with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.

In the Haftarah, God reminds Israel that although he brought them out of Egypt, he also brought the Philistines from Caphtor and Aram from Kir. But Israel was no better, even, than Cush. Indeed, Israel was the ‘sinful kingdom’ that would be destroyed from the face of the land. But the day would come when, according to the translation in the Targum, he would rebuild the fallen house of David so that the rest of the nations might seek him. The nation had failed to make the Gentiles seek after HASHEM but Israel’s God had not given up either on Israel or the nations.

Some twenty years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, a remarkable gathering took place in Jerusalem. Members of the burgeoning Haderekh (‘The Way’) movement, whose followers had been labelled ‘Christians’ in the Greek-speaking Syrian city of Antioch met to discuss whether the increasing number of Gentiles who had begun to believe in Jesus should be compelled to be circumcised and live as Jews.

After hearing all the arguments Jacob, the leader of the movement in Jerusalem, ruled that Gentiles should be accepted as bona-fide believers, on the basis of Amos 9:

All the multitude kept silent, and they listened to Bar Nabba and Paulos reporting what miracles and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13After they were silent, Jacob responded, ‘Men, brothers, listen to me. Shimon has explained how God first came to receive people for His name from the Gentiles. This agrees with the words of the prophets. As it is written, “After these things I will return. I will again build the tent of David, which has fallen. I will rebuild its ruins. I will set it up so that the rest of humanity may seek after the Everpresent Lord — all the Gentiles who are called by My Name, says the Everpresent Lord, who does all these things.” All God’s works are known to Him from eternity. Therefore my judgment is that we do not trouble those from among the Gentiles who turn to God, but rather we write to them that they abstain from the defilement of idols, from sexual immorality, from what is strangled, and from blood; because in every city from generations of old, Moses has those who proclaim him, being read in the meetingplaces [synagogues] every Shabbat.’ (Acts of the Apostles 15:12-21)

How times have changed! I’m a Gentile follower of the Jewish Messiah and I am grateful to the God of Israel for including me among his people, even though I’m not a Jew. And it grieves me that although the big issue 2,000 years ago was whether Gentiles could follow the Messiah without becoming Jews, the question today is whether Jews can believe in their own Messiah without becoming Gentiles!

In Jesus, God rebuilt ‘the fallen house of David so that I and the rest of the nations might seek him.’ History proves the wisdom of the decision of those Torah-observant Jews who met in Jerusalem in 49 CE. Since that time the nations have been seeking and finding the God of Israel and his Messiah. They are becoming his holy people and are learning to love their neighbours – including their Jewish neighbours – as they love themselves. How tragic, then, that Gentiles have become more like Israel should be while the Jewish people, through rejecting their Messiah, have become more like the nations.

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