Kedoshim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parasha is a list of behaviours that are either holy or not holy. These laws are both ethical and religious, and sometimes both, as in the prohibitions against certain kinds of incest. Other famous laws in this section include the prohibition against putting a “stumbling block” before the blind, and the commandment to “love your fellow human as yourself.” Israel is commanded to be holy just as Israel’s God is Holy.


“God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to the entire Israelite community, and say to them: “You must be holy, for I, Y-H your God am Holy.” ‘ ” (Leviticus 19:1-2)


Holiness is understood here as related to, or as a function of, Israel’s relationship with God. Note also its inclusiveness; holiness is something that is every Israelite’s responsibility and potential.


The verses quoted above set off a lively discussion among the classic commentators, who want to know what holiness is, where it comes from, why every single Israelite is commanded to strive for it, and why God’s Holiness is the concept that introduces this whole section of Torah.

Rashi thinks that kadosh, which we translate as “holy,” means “separate,” and he sees this verse as the link between the previous parasha, which details sexual prohibitions, and this one. Thus, for Rashi, the crucial idea is that holiness is achieved by separating oneself from sexual immorality- he says (based on an earlier midrashic comment) that these following verses are so important that a big part of the Torah “hangs” on them, which is why every single Israelite had to be instructed and included.

Ramban on the other hand, sees kedusha, or holiness, in more general terms. As I understand his comments, he agrees with Rashi that holiness is linked to the idea of separation. However, he thinks that the issue here is not separating from sin- after all, you wouldn’t need a separate verse to tell you that!- but separating from things that are not “sinful,” per se, but bad in excess. Just as God embodies everything that is good and worthy, so we too should strive for an overall worthiness of character. Ramban gives the example of someone who can have sex with a permitted partner, or eat permitted foods- but does so in a way that bespeaks immaturity and coarseness of character.

This person (in Ramban’s example)- who does not live in a “holy” way, but isn’t an evil person either- is unenlightened or unspiritual, just living a kind of mere physical existence without awareness of spiritual virtues. Thus, for Ramban, this verse in the Torah is telling us to live our lives as gracefully and as consciously as we can- not just going through the motions of religious rituals and rules but striving for spiritual awareness and refinement of character.

The Or HaChaim (R. Chaim Ben Attar, an 18th century Moroccan commentator) writes a long exposition of this verse, most of which is similar to Ramban’s approach. Yet at the end of his comments, he offers an entirely different interpretation, based on the Zohar: “kedoshim ti’hiyu” [be holy!] is an invitation to become like the angels, who are called “kedoshim,” or “holy beings.” According to this midrash, before the Israelites built the Mishkan, [portable Sanctuary], the angels used to create a “dwelling place” for God in the heavens- but now that the Israelites have created such a “dwelling place,” they are like the Heavenly Hosts, with God’s Presence at the centre of their assembly.

I don’t think this midrash is proposing that that God literally “dwelled” in any one place; I read this as metaphoric language describing human spiritual potential. It is our “job,” as it were, to make God’s Presence felt in this world- when we do that, we ourselves become holy beings. We can either have God’s Presence in the centre of our “camp,” or we can have something else.

All the commentators agree on one idea: holiness is a function of how we act in the world.

This point was articulated beautifully by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, one of the great Jewish preachers of our age. R. Greenberg sees holiness as linked to all of the ethical principles in this entire section of Leviticus. Thus he writes:

Holiness. . . is accessible to all. Nor is holiness achieved by turning one’s back on society and the world. It is achieved in the midst of daily living. Holiness is not something apart from life, it is a part of life.

The Bible then proceeds to teach us that holiness is not an abstract or mystical idea; it is meant to be a principle which regulates our daily lives. How is holiness attained? By honoring parents, observing the Sabbath, doing kindness to the needy, paying wages promptly, dealing honestly in business, refraining from talebearing, loving one’s neighbor, showing cordiality to the stranger, and acting justly.

Holiness is the crucial dimension of daily living.

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