Being Holy and Being a Jew | Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

Recently a former student of mine who I am particularly fond of wrote me a letter asking my opinion about a discussion she had with other Jewish friends. The discussion was about conversion to Judaism and whether or not belief in God was mandatory for the candidate to be accepted by the Beit Din to become a Jew. Some felt that as long as the Jew by Choice followed the rules (mitzvot), led a Jewish life, and did not practice another religion, he/she could become Jewish. Others felt that faith and practice were inseparable and that belief in the God of the Jewish People was a pillar of being a Jew. Some said: “Doing is more important than believing”; others said “Jews are in covenant with God – we are in relationship with God – and that is why we do the mitzvot, we choose God and God chooses us”. What was I to say? Had I already written this D’var Torah on our portion of the week, “Kedoshim”, I would have sent it to my former student as my reply. This is the background to the following comments about one of the most compelling of our weekly Torah readings.

Most of the Book of Leviticus is concerned with the meaning of Holy – Kadosh in Hebrew. Our portion Kedoshim begins with the clarion call which echoes throughout eternity: “You shall be Holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am Holy”. God is Holy and therefore God’s people, the Jewish people, are commanded to be Holy as well. But how can mere mortals, (of flesh and blood as the rabbis describe mortals in contrast to God) become like God – who created the heavens and the earth, who is all powerful, all knowing and all present?

At one and the same time, Jews are challenged to be like God, yet we are repeatedly told by our tradition that God is one (singular and unique), transcendent and personal, and beyond the comprehension of us humans. When Moses asks God at the scene of the burning bush (Exodus 3: 13-15) what is the name of this God who has sent Moses to free the Israelites from slavery, God answers: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (loosely translated: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”), clearly indicating an ambiguity which seems an intentional attempt to remove any certainty about who or what God is. The key message we learn from our Biblical tradition about God is that: God is (God exists), God is One, and God’s existence as One is unrelated to whether or not humans can understand what that means. Each member of our People/Family must come to understand for himself/herself, the ultimate meaning of God’s existence.

But our Jewish tradition does not abandon us in our search for meaning about God’s existence. While tradition does not provide a handbook explanation about how to believe in God or precisely what to believe about God, or even something as “simple” as how to conceive of God (remember, we are actually commanded not to make any image of God), our tradition does teach us that our actions can aspire to be like God’s actions, or God-like. And this is the beginning of our understanding of God as taught in the Torah portion Kedoshim.

The portion Kedoshim is replete with actions which seem to explain what being Holy really means, what being God-like really means. Leviticus 19:11-18 captures the specific actions we are told to follow: we must not steal or deal deceitfully with one another (11); we must pay our workers immediately (13); we must not insult the deaf or place obstacles in the path of the blind (14); we must not favor the poor or rich in rendering judgments (15); and perhaps one of the most well-known injunctions ever to be required of us: we must love our fellow (whether this implies fellow Israelite or any fellow is a matter of interpretation) as our self (18).

We can learn from Kedoshim a different theology; a theology my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis has called Predicate Theology. In Predicate Theology, we understand God, not as a subject (the one who acts) but as a predicate, (the action which is God-like). Instead of saying: God feeds the hungry, we say: Feeding the hungry is God-like. Instead of God frees the captive, Freeing the captive is God-like. Clothing the naked is God-like. Bringing peace to the world is God-like. Being Holy is God-like. Performing mitzvot (actions) are opportunities for humans to become God-like, to become Holy.

Is doing more important than believing? According to Predicate Theology, they are one and the same. When one fulfills Jewish teachings (mitzvot) one is acting in a God-like way. In Jewish tradition, we are not commanded to believe in God (God exists with or without our belief). However, we are commanded to act like God: to bring holiness to the world, to bring comfort and hope to the world, to perfect the world in the way of God (Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shadai).

When I sit on a Beit Din to interview a candidate for conversion, I do not ask the question: “Do you believe in God?” I might ask the question: “What are the different ways our Jewish Tradition understands the meaning of God?” I do believe that every candidate for conversion, as well as every Jew for that matter, should reflect on God’s presence in our tradition, should grapple with the ambiguities implicit in “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh”. This reflection and grappling may or may not lead to conclusions. But conclusions about the nature of God are not necessarily the goal of Jewish living. The goal of Jewish living is to be holy and bring holiness-Godliness to the world.

About the Author:

Rabbi Joel Oseran is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism. 


The above was previously published as #163 in our Torah from Around the World series.

More About: