Does Modernity Believe in Holiness?
When I was a teen-ager and first began studying Humash using the Soncino Humash, that excellent work of Anglo-Jewish mid-century apologetics, it emphasized, quite correctly, the high moral values of Leviticus 19, the heart of Kedoshim, stressing, as I recall, the meeting points between it and Western values.
But today, half a century and much of a lifetime later, I find myself wondering. Are the values of Kedoshim and those of Western secular, liberal society the same? Or does Parashat Kedoshim in fact illustrate in most blatant form the point at which I’ve been hinting all this year—namely, the contrast, the deep difference, between the biblical world-view and that of modernity? It boils down to the following question: Does modernity believe in the capacity of human being to achieve what we call kedushah (“holiness”) or even, in secular terms, a decent, ethical life?
In recent years I have been hearing more and more voices—specifically among educated, intellectually sophisticated people—stating that the human being is a biological animal: a highly sophisticated and intelligent animal, capable of all kinds of complex activities far beyond the capacity of even the most advanced primates, but an animal nevertheless. As such, he is conditioned by his instincts, his society, his drives, the “hard-wiring” of his brain and his nervous system—in brief, much like the beasts, he is bereft of any innate, inborn tendency to transcend his own needs, desires, and impulses.
Thus, for example, when a middle-aged man leaves the wife of his youth—who is now similarly middle-aged—for a “sexy young thing,” this may be seen as regrettable, but is in some sense understandable and expected: he is merely acting upon his own instinct to reproduce his genes as much as possible, and the nubile young woman is at this point clearly a better reproducer than his aging wife.
Of course, the Torah and Judaism are well aware of the role of instincts and impulses and what might be called the lower, more earthly desires—but when they lead a person to unethical behavior, he is expected to resist them. Life is conceived as an ongoing struggle between good and bad impulses, between the quest for holiness, for an elevated, moral life, on the one hand, and the impulse towards personal pleasure and gratification, the “path of least resistance”—what we call the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Impulse—on the other. And these values, in a world in which there is a God, are not merely moralistic phrases, but are seen as real, as binding imperatives.
As against that, what I have called the modern view, in which man is essentially a biological being, sees survival—of the individual, of the species, of the particular genes underlying the sexual and reproductive impulse—as the basic motivating factor. This being so, not only religious values, but also moral values—such things as altruism, generosity, caring for those less fortunate, responsibility for the community, etc.—are seen as either nonexistent, or as requiring special explanation to make sense. Let me make myself clear: I do not claim that modernity is without ethical concerns, but that at a certain level they are not an integral part of the underlying axioms of what I have called the biological view of man.
Turning now to the internal religious context: what exactly do we mean by “you shall be holy”? Is holiness simply the sum total of observance of the mitzvot (a position articulated in contemporary times, most notably, by the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz), or is it something beyond that? This, I think, lies at the heart of the controversy between Rashi and, in a slightly different way, Ibn Ezra, Sforno and others, and Ramban. Rashi reads “you shall be holy” in terms of refraining from that which is forbidden, particularly the forbidden sexual liaisons mentioned in the preceding chapter of the Torah (היו פרושים מן האיסור ומן העריות), whereas Ramban insists that it most go beyond that. The Torah, he says, would not give the command, “You shall be holy,” merely in order to repeat what it has already said; hence, it must allude to something else. His motto here is קדש עצמך במותר לך—“Sanctify yourself in that which is permitted you.” That is to say, overindulgence in such physical pleasures as food and sex, even where they are permitted as such—e.g. eating kosher food in a gluttonous way, or constant indulgence in sex with one’s own wife or wives—is seen as unholy behavior. Holiness might be defined as an orientation towards spiritual values as the center of ones life, while fulfilling one’s physical needs in moderation; rather, one seeks opportunities to engage in mitzvot and good deeds of loving-kindness and caring towards others, as well as studying Torah and the pursuit of wisdom. If Ramban were alive today, he might be critical, not only of indulgence in the gross physical pleasures he mentions, but also of the excessive pursuit of entertainment and other leisure activities which serve no constructive purpose.
While studying this passage with a friend, he noted that his wife regularly receives a glossy-paper Orthodox family magazine, whose pages are filled with articles extolling the religious virtues of piety, of strict observance, and of modesty in fewmale dress, but at the same time it was filled with advertisements for expensive luxury goods—glatt kosher restaurants, cruises to the Caribbean and elsewhere, expensive ritual objects and so on. Is this the holiness we are commanded to pursue? In other words, piety combined with an opulent, upper-middle-class economic standard, somehow seems a contradiction in terms.
Correction and Addition
In our most recent issue, “Last Days of Pesah,” sent out recently, I referred to the 2nd day of Hol ha-Moed as Rav Soloveitchik’s twentieth yahrzeit. An alert reader noted that the Rav in fact died in 1993, making this his 21st yahrzeit rather than his 20th. My thanks for the correction.
A brief postscript to my piece on Shir ha-Shirim: I concluded my essay by referring to the ambiguities of love between man and woman. But if we read Shir ha-Shirim, inter alia, as a parable of the human-Divine relationship, the same may be said thereof. God is “Close to all who call upon Him in truth,” but at times He is felt to be very, very distant. This coming week we observe Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. What better example is there of Deus Absconditus than God’s behavior, or rather seeming absence, during the Holocaust. In similar fashion, man may at times be filled with religious passion, the desire for devekut, for mystical union with God, or at least for some degree of real kavanah, of theocentric focus, in prayer—but, unless he is an extraordinary theocentric mystic, there will surely be many a moment in life when he is occupied with “his own business,” and his thoughts and actions are very far indeed from God…