Light from the Sidra

Kedoshim ('Holy') 14th May 2016. 6th Iyyar 5776

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

Be holy for God is holy

A Hasidic man who was carrying more kilos than was good for him once bemoaned his portliness to me. ‘You can’t be holy if you’re fat,’ he said. What does it mean to be holy? Is there more to holiness than rocking back and forth in prayer while wearing a streimel and a black kaftan?

In 1970, John Lennon was tried on charges of obscenity for displaying indecent drawings at a London art gallery. As Lennon was being led from court, a fan declared that the former Beatle was a ‘very holy man’. With his mane of long hair and luxuriant beard, Lennon did bear a resemblance to his former guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But is there more to being holy than being thin and sporting long hair and matching beard?

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, the chapter stands as one of the great ethical chapters in the Tanakh.

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 the apostle of Jesus regarded as the very essence of the Torah: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

The Parasha takes its title from the second verse: Israel was to be holy (kedoshim) because HASHEM 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 a Jew pursued by retreating from reality into a yeshiva. Holiness for Israel meant transforming everyday life by a quality of behaviour that was ‘wholly other’ than 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 the call of Israel was part and parcel of HASHEM’s strategy of restoring creation to himself. Adam’s rebellion against God threw the cosmos out of whack. After man’s disobedience and fall, creation was no longer ‘very good’. Human beings were no longer ‘very good’, and so the restoration of creation needed to come from the top down.

Man was created in the image of God. In rebellion against HASHEM, mankind cannot be holy and therefore cannot truly reflect the image of the Creator. The divine image has to be restored, and God set Israel ‘apart’ (for that’s what holiness means) from the nations in order that the nation should show the world what the image of God looks like. Holiness is about loving him with all our being and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. John Lennon was on the right track when he wrote, ‘All You Need is Love’ but he and The Beatles broke up. And they broke up acrimoniously. You can’t love others as you love yourself unless you love God with all your heart. God is love and he expects us to show the same unconditional love to others as he shows to us. He who loves God loves others; he who loves others as he loves himself loves God.

We pay lip service to holy love and aspire to it but we fail. According to the Talmud, even though the Jewish people of the second temple era studied Torah the temple was destroyed because of ‘hatred without a cause’. The Jewish people failed to love God with their whole being. They failed to be holy and, as the Haftarah makes clear, Israel suffered exile from the land.

Israel as a society was founded on HASHEM’s covenant. Offences which threatened his covenant relationship with them were punishable. The family played a central role in the experience, preservation and transmission of Israel’s covenant relationship with HASHEM. Actions which weakened the family, either by disregard for parental authority or by deviant sexual behaviour threatened the foundation of Israel’s social system. The application of the death penalty for such offences was a solemn reminder of how seriously Israel was to regard HASHEM’s covenant with them.

Leviticus 19 deals with offences that merited the death penalty, either by judicial execution or by the intervention of God, who would ‘cut off’ 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 Torah was remarkably humane.

So where does that leave Israel today? More than 3,000 years since Moses wrote Leviticus, 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 on behalf of the nation? What if HASHEM were to become a Jew and manifest true holiness as Israel’s representative? How would the people respond to the true holiness in their midst? Would they love him or would they be so dazzled by the light they would want to extinguish it?

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