Saturday, May 10, 2008

Kedoshim (Mitzvot)

“You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy”

What does it mean to be holy? Several weeks ago (HY IX: Tazria), in discussing the concept of purity, taharah, I suggested that the notion implies the avoidance of “contamination” by contact with various negative kinds of things, and that kedushah must involve something more.

Since then, my good friend Rabbi David Greenstein sent me his English translation of the following passage from R. Shimon Shkopf, the Lithuanian Talmudic giant of the early twentieth century, which appears in the Introduction to Rav Shkopf’s magnum opus of Talmudic analysis, Sha’arei Yosher (Warsaw, 1928):

If we say that the essential meaning of the holiness that God demands of us in the commandment “You shall be holy [for I, God your Almighty, am holy]” (Lev 19:2) is to distance ourselves from permitted enjoyments, such holiness has no relationship at all to God, may He be blessed. It therefore appears to me, in my humble opinion, that this commandment incorporates the very basis and root of the purposeful goal of our lives, which is that all our service and toil should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity, that we not avail ourselves of any act or motion, benefit or enjoyment, unless it involve some aspect that is for the good of those other than ourselves… In this manner the notion of this holiness imitates the holiness of the Blessed Creator, to a small degree. For just as the act of the Holy Blessed One in the entire Creation, in addition to His sustaining the world in each and every second, is that all His actions be dedicated to the good of that which is other than Himself, so too is it His will, may He be blessed, that our actions always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity and not to one’s own benefit. (But compare Maimonides, Hilkhot Tum’at Okhlin 16.12).

To elaborate and explicate this idea somewhat, it seems to me that there are two distinct aspects of kedushah. The one is indeed associated with perishut, with withdrawal from the world, from the enjoyment or pursuit of pleasures, if not actual asceticism. Indeed, the root meaning of the verb קדש relates to separation, limitation, boundaries. Hence, Temple property and sacrifices set aside to be offered on the altar are described as sanctified, kadosh. Similarly, a married woman is described as mekudeshet, as “set aside” for one specific man. (The double standard implied here is a vexing problem, but one that will concern us another time.) In that sense, kedushah belongs to the same semantic field as taharah, purity, being concerned with the avoidance of certain negative acts, objects, obstacles, etc. This is the source of the commonly-held view, according to which personal holiness is defined in primarily theocentric, world-transcending terms.

But if this were all, as R. Shimon Shkopf notes, it would be illogical to speak of God as being holy—for if, by His nature, He constantly gives life to the entire cosmos, is concerned with every being therein, how can we speak of Him as withdrawing or separating Himself therefrom? Rather, there is a second aspect as well: kadosh in the sense of being dedicated, separated from something else for a distinct purpose: the essence of kedushah is then the purpose for which this separation occurs. In this sense, the command to be holy as God is holy relates primarily to a positive goal: imitating God’s giving nature, the fulness of His generosity, His love, His outpouring of blessing and plentitude to the world.

We arrive at a similar conclusion if we take a totally different approach as well. The opening verse of the parashah—“you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2)—may be read, not as a command standing by itself, but as a general heading or introduction to what follows. The meaning of kedushah is thus inferred by the totality of the diverse mitzvot, the overall gestalt, of the chapter as an entirety. What then stands out most of all is the call for menshlichkeit, for human decency, caring, responsibility, involvement with others.

Israeli scholar Yair Eldan, in a study related to this chapter, describes the entire section from vv. 9-18 as constituting:

A social framework that is… quite impressive from the ethical viewpoint… First, the construction of a just social system that imposes obligations enabling all of the individuals in society to live therein—not to steal, not to delay paying wages to workers, concern for the livelihood of the poor, and protecting the vital interests of those with limitations (i.e., not placing a stumbling bloc before the blind or cursing the deaf, in the broadest sense of the word)…. The phrase, “but you shall fear your God,” is a warning that God will see the forbidden act even if its victim cannot do so….

On a second and higher level, [in the bloc of verses from vv. 16-18], the Torah imposes obligations whose aim is… the direct shaping of thoughts, beliefs and opinions.… The dominant component in these commandments is the element of outlook or attitude rather than that of action (whether active or passive). This section enumerates the prohibitions against going about as a talebearer; against standing by over blood; the commandment not to hate one’s neighbor in one’s heart; the obligation to rebuke ones neighbor; the prohibition against holding a grudge or taking revenge; and the commandment to love ones neighbor as oneself.…

The underlying thread connecting all these mitzvot with one another is the creation of desired relationships among the individuals composing society. These relationships redefine, not only the relationships among the different individuals, but also, and primarily, the feelings and emotions of each individual towards the other. This principle is known in Jewish culture as the principle of mutual responsibility of Jews toward one another: “All Israel are responsible for one another.” The first and most important meaning of this principle is in the area of thought and apprehension: it creates or points toward a relation that imposes an obligation not to speak gossip that are likely to harm another person, not to hate him, not to bear a grudge or to take vengeance upon him and, finally, to love him. The prohibition against standing over against the blood thus fits within this framework. The silent picture created by the Torah, of a person standing in a pool of his neighbor’s blood—an image that imposes ethical responsibility upon the one who stands over the blood, a responsibility that cannot be divided into two or more points-of-view because of the sparseness of the picture and its silence—is itself a creation of the mutual relation…. The thunderous silence of the picture imposes ethical responsibility upon the one standing over, and thus creates an unbreakable connection between one person and the other.


Post a Comment

<< Home