“You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)
This is how Parashat Kedoshim begins, and it concludes echoing the same theme from the beginning: “You shall be holy to Me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples, to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). In between these verses appear no less than fifty one commandments – counted in rapid succession and in order which is seemingly random.
In this context of “holiness”, it would be reasonable to expect these commandments to deal with worship or other distinctive spiritual matters. However, a scan of the commandments included in this Torah portion reveals that the majority of them (at least 33), deal primarily with social matters such as:
- Social Welfare – “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:10).
- Workers’ Rights – “The wages of a hired laborer shall not remain with you until the morning” (Leviticus 19:13).
- Protecting the Dignity of the Weak and Defenseless – “You shall not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14)
These simple acts of humanity appear among other discussions on ethical commerce and the purity of the judicial system.
Reading the commandments in this context, one might infer that the concept of “holiness” in the Bible is different than what it means for us today. In the Biblical context, living with God, walking the path of the divine, reaching out to the transcendent, are all examined in the way we encounter the other. Worship of God is not the main goal and not the major enabler of a life of holiness. A life of holiness can be achieved by meeting with the other. In other words, holiness is not achieved by leaving the social life; rather it is acquired by living in the midst and with others.
We are told, therefore, to strive to holiness through being a member and a partner in a holy congregation. “You shall be holy” doesn’t mean to live separately in a protected and secluded manner. Rather it involves living as a part of a community which cares for the other, respects the other, and which does not accept revenge and resentment. This is the meaning of the sanctity of Israel and human beings.
If the Kedoshim Torah portion in general, and chapter 19 in particular, commands us to care for the other, one commandment stands out as the overarching theme: “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord”.
This command is the most well-known, popular and quoted Biblical verse in our Reform movement. There is no verse or commandment which is repeated more often than “Love your neighbor as yourself” throughout our prayer books and publications. This is not surprising because we are proud that our movement has always placed great importance in the relationships between people. Relationships are the most important – be it on the religious or social scale.
It is in the daily application of this commandment that one finds trouble. When trying to look at what all this means on a personal level, one may admit that although this verse is beautiful and inspiring, and although it enables a bridge between Judaism and Christianity (it is the most quoted verse by Jesus, mentioned eight times in the New Testament), it also raises an immense moral challenge.
Looking at our own lives – in a Jewish congregation, in Israel and worldwide – our lives do not always follow word for word the commandments and the message of Kedoshim. We are great with preparing and presenting beautiful sermons from the Bimah, and singing ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ in our synagogues. However, in real life, we commonly do not love our neighbors. And we definitely do not treat them the way we preach about Kedoshah.
Take for example Israel and its neighbors, or ourselves and our neighbors or colleagues: Do we really love our neighbors? Do we even want to love them?
How can one then find a way to live this commandment, or strive to live a holy life with this seemingly impossible standard?
One of the greatest and wisest rabbis, Hillel the Elder, offers a solution: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn”. In this, Hillel has offered a new perspective on this commandment and verse from the Torah – and by doing that has taught us a very important lesson. The true holiness is not achieved by the effort to love our neighbors or friends the same as we love ourselves. The true code of ethics and the worship of God are in trying to achieve to the extent which we as human beings are able to do. Do not do to your neighbor what you would not like done to yourself; this includes all of our neighbors, every human being, whether in our building or neighborhood, our friends and our colleagues, and above all, it includes the people we really do not even like, let alone love.
So, enough talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Let us try instead to act at least half of as righteously as we talk and by that begin the road to “Kedoshah”.
About the author: Rabbi David is the head of Adult Education, the B’nei Mitzvah Training Program at The Temple, and the Caring Committee. He is the Religious & Hebrew School Rabbinic Liaison, as well as the 7/8th Grade Hebrew Teacher in The Temple’s Religious School. Rabbi David created and teaches in the Temple Scholars program and is the Rabbinic Liaison to Chavurat Shalom.
Before coming to Louisville, Rabbi David served for four years as Executive Director for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Reform Movement in Israel). With a staff of more than twenty, he represented the IMPJ internationally, in contacts with the Israeli government and in all other matters. He also served on the boards of the Council of Reform Rabbis, the Joint Conversion Institute — where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis teach together more than 2,000 people — and at the Israel Religious Action Center.
Prior to that, Rabbi David held positions as rabbi for Har-El Congregation, the first Reform congregation in Israel; as Director for the Progressive Beit Midrash; as Director of the Education and Culture Department for Beit Shmuel; and Executive Director and Educational Director of Hamdat, the Association for the Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture in Israel.
A founding member of Kibbutz Lotan, the second Reform Kibbutz in Israel, Rabbi David has dual American and Israeli citizenship. For four years, he served in the paratroopers unit of the Israel Defense Forces.
Rabbi David has edited three books: Baruch She’assani Isha (Praised be the One Who Made Me a Woman) about the women in Judaism from biblical times to the present, The War of Gog and Magog: The Jewish Messianic Idea, and Who is a Jew in Our Times?. He wrote about the portion “Be-ha’alotekha” for the book Opening the Week. He has also published articles in scholarly journals.
Rabbi David is married to Yaala Ariel-Joel. They are the parents of Haggai.
The above formerly appeared as #113 in our Torah from Around the World series.