Archive for Kedoshim

Kedoshim: Love and Justice

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot- Kedoshim

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:18)

Greetings from the relatively calm Hudson Valley.

As I write this, the city of Boston is on lock-down as the police search for one of the suspects in Monday’s terrible Boston Marathon bombing. The images from the Bay State greatly sadden me, if for no other reason than I recognize some of the areas now filled with armed police. (I lived in the Boston area for several years before coming to Poughkeepsie.)  It’s almost impossible for me to understand how a soul can be twisted and deformed to the point of terrorism. Leaving a homemade bomb in the middle of families and bystanders is an act beyond moral comprehension or ability to imagine.

Violence and cruelty have always been part of the human experience, but they are not the whole of the human experience. Love is also definitive of humanity; one need only think of the utterly brave and selfless responders (both professionals and ordinary folks) who rushed towards the explosions in Boston and Texas, ready to give of themselves to save and comfort the injured and frightened. We read in this week’s Torah portion that an aspect of kedusha, or holiness, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Rabbi Joe Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis pointed out earlier this week, our “neighbor” may be the person nearby who all of a sudden needs our love and compassion, though we have never met before.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah, but its application requires effort and reflection. The Torah Temimah, an anthology of rabbinic references to Torah verses, notes two separate texts from the Talmud where “love your neighbor” is used to clarify that the execution of criminals is to be done in the swiftest way possible. In other words, love does not set aside the demands of justice, but guides us in the application of justice. This, to me, is quite profound: the Talmud recognize that even a criminal deserving of death is, in a very real sense, our neighbor, and not exempted from our moral obligations and sensibilities. We do not call for bloody retribution, but for justice, tempered not by mercy, as such, but by a concern for retaining our own humanity in the face of cruelty and murder.

If the Boston bomber is taken alive, let him be tried and punished fairly, precisely to show him, the world and ourselves we are never who our enemies say we are. Love- for the stranger, the neighbor and even the one deserving of severe punishment- will be our redemption, and is, I believe, stronger than any bomb or weapon. The love demanded by the Torah is neither foolish nor naive; it is, instead, our light and guidance in navigating a sometimes cruel and painful world.

With prayers for a Shabbat of healing and hope,




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Kedoshim: Rise Up

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. . . . . (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:32) 

Shalom again, after our Passover break!

This week we read the Torah portion Kedoshim by itself- usually it’s doubled up with its preceding portion, Acharei MotKedoshim has both ethical and ritual laws, including some of the most beautiful principles of Judaism, among which is the verse quoted above, which teaches us to respect, in word and deed, our elders. In our youth oriented media culture, that itself is an important ethical norm, but the ancient rabbis go deeper than manners in understanding this commandment. 

First, we note how the verse above, like many of the verses in this Torah portion, has the phrase “I am the Lord” [ani Adonai] appended to it. There are various interpretations of this phrase, and its variants, attached to different verses, but in this case, at least one ancient source understands this as God saying, as it were : “You shall rise before the aged and show deference do the old, and fear the Holy One, as I, the Holy One, have also done.”

 More explicitly, this midrash* imagines that God is saying: I mention Myself because I was the first to do the mitzvah of rising before an elder. This refers back to Avraham, who was visited by three angels in his tent as he was recovering from his circumcision. 

Now, on the one hand, this is a wildly inventive midrash, if for no other reason than our notion of mitzvah as “commandment” in the sense of having a “commander” is quite altered by imagining that the commander observes the same mitzvot that we do. Leaving those theological issues aside, however, we can still take this image another way: thinking of the Holy One “rising” before Avraham, as it were, also imagines that the most exalted One is also the most humble One. The philosophers posit God as the First Cause, or the Ground of Being, but for the ancient rabbis, God was the One who exemplified the path of humility, care, compassion and fierce commitment to justice. 

To put it another way: in a consumer culture, we value people by what they produce, we notice people by what they consume, and we’re always looking for the next big thing. Torah turns that on its head: we value people because of what they might teach, and revere those who came before. When the rabbis imagine God rising before Avraham, they imagine a world in which we, too, see all people as made in the Divine Image, and must act accordingly. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


*This text is from the Jerusalem Talmud, but I found it in the anthology called Torah Temimah. 

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Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim: Imitation and Integrity

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Achrei-Mot/ Kedoshim

This week’s double portion has three distinct themes (and a few other laws mixed in): first, the laws of Yom Kippur. Second, laws of sex and family life. Third, ethical and social principles. The parsha ends by returning to the topic of sex and family life.

Greetings on a beautiful spring day!

The portion Kedoshim begins with the general injunction to be “holy,” or kadosh:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy, , , ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:1)

This verse has mountains of commentary heaped upon it, which we’ll climb another time, but for now it’s enough to note that some see the idea of “holiness” as related to separation from sin and the practices of the nations that surrounded ancient Israel. This reading is supported by a passage towards the end of the next chapter:

“You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. . . . You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” (Vayikra 20:23-26)

Verse 23, above, about not “following the practices” of other nations, was interpreted by the ancient rabbis as a general principle that Jews should not adopt or copy the cultural or religious practices of other nations. That’s why some groups of Jews adopt distinctive dress, for example- adopting modern styles might be seen as following a foreign culture.

Most of us- at least, the likely readers of this commentary- consciously choose to “live in two civilizations,” to quote Mordecai Kaplan, and we’re perfectly comfortable dressing, talking, working, singing and going about our daily lives as Americans, Canadians, etc. Yet it’s equally true that most committed Jews have a notion of Jewish authenticity, or at least a vague sense that not every Jewish practice is adaptable to changing cultural norms. A funny example from last December occurred when we somehow ended up with a few (kosher) Christmas cookies mixed in with the cakes at the Shabbat oneg [refreshments]. Even though they came from the bakery that I myself supervise, quite a few congregants had the emotional reaction that Christmas cookies (little stars with silver sprinkles) just can’t be kosher and don’t belong on a synagogue table.

Scholars and historians write books upon books discussing how Judaism adapts- or rejects- input from the general culture- it’s not a simple subject. Yet it’s worth considering that many of the practices most familiar to North American Jews- especially relating to clergy and synagogue services- are direct and conscious adoptions of non-Jewish customs. These include special robes for clergy; the leading role that rabbis play in worship; standing for the Shma; and choirs and instruments during religious services. I bring up these examples neither to advocate nor condemn, but merely to point out that what’s “traditional” to one congregation may be seen as distastefully inauthentic in another. Not every innovation works to further basic Jewish ideals, and Judaism has to be something that connects Jews to our history as well as Jews in other cultures- yet who among us objects to singing Adon Olam to the “traditional melody,” which was once a German beer-hall song?

I offer no simple resolution, but instead an opportunity to learn more; one cannot determine one’s own criteria for Jewish authenticity without information on the background and meaning of prayers and practices. A Judaism which is not somehow set apart is not Judaism; a Judaism which is only set apart has no ability to engage and raise up the culture around it. In between those extremes we try to discern a balance between tradition and change, which is not a Conservative slogan but the perpetual endeavor of our people.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- I started thinking about this issue a few weeks ago, during Pesach, when I adapted an old Southern folk melody to a piece of Hallel [the Psalms of praise sung during holidays]. If you want to hear Jerry Garcia sing The Sweet Sunny South, click the link; if you want to hear how I adapted it to pitchu li, sha’arey tzedek. . . (Ps. 118), you’ll have to come to our minyan on Rosh Hodesh or another holiday.

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Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: What is Truly Ours

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim

We read a double Torah portion this week, Acharei-Mot/ Kedoshim, and there are
different haftarot assigned to the portions depending on whether you read them
together or separately. Not only that, but there are different traditions for
the haftarah in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities; today we’re discussing
the reading from the book of Amos, from the Ashkenazi custom.

The prophet Amos is an early prophet, who spoke harsh words against both the
Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, condemning their religious and moral
sins while also proclaiming an eventual renewal of the united monarchy. That
time will be a time of great blessing; the prophet says that the land will be so
blessed that the “mountains shall drip wine:”

” When the plowman shall meet the reaper,
And the treader of grapes
Him who holds the [bag of] seed;
When the mountains shall drip wine
And all the hills shall wave [with grain].

I will restore My people Israel.
They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine;
They shall till gardens and eat their fruits.” [Amos 9:13-14]

It’s a consoling image for a divided people, and yet the images of vineyards and
fields overflowing with their harvest brings to mind mitzvot, commandments, from
the Torah portion, regarding agricultural bounty:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the
edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick
your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave
them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” [Vayikra/Leviticus

These mitzvot, of leaving the edges of the fields and the gleanings [these are
called peah, the corners, and leket, the gleanings], teach us a powerful
perspective: when we are blessed with enough, some of what we think is “ours” is
really only entrusted to our stewardship for sharing with others. In our
society, so many have so much, and yet the action of leaving for others teaches
us powerful lessons about spiritual fulfillment, which is not found in having
more than one needs but in acts of service to God through giving to others.

Getting back to our haftarah, I wonder if the images above of the hills waving
with grain and the mountains dripping with wine are meant to remind the people
that such blessings are not just for individuals, but opportunities to build
powerful communities of caring and inclusion. Along with the fields and
vineyards comes the mitzvah of peah and leket, leaving for the poor; in the
Biblical mind, you can’t have the blessing without the mitzvah to share it.

In our day, even in these hard times, the Biblical linking of blessing and
obligation is no less relevant, even if our bounty takes forms other than the
produce of the field. If we are blessed, we must give, because ultimately, what
is truly ours is not our property, but the goodness we have brought forth.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Kedoshim: Honoring Wisdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Kedoshim

Kedoshim has many ethical and religious principles but one of the most
universal is respect for the elderly:

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you
shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:32)

Our friend Rashi explains that this verse seems to teach the same
thing twice but actually clarifies its application: the use of the
word “zaken” in the second clause means that we should honor the
elderly who have acquired wisdom, and not necessarily any senior
sinner. “Zaken” means both “elderly” and “beard” (not unrelated
meanings, obviously, at least, when one considers Bronze age
lifespans) but has a context in the Torah which leads Rashi to
conclude that it means those who have wisdom.

We might also take Rashi’s point in a slightly broader way: we are to
honor the elderly because they are presumed to have wisdom. This
means, in practical terms (again, according to Rashi) not sitting in
an elder’s customary place, not contradicting them or taking their
turn to speak. I don’t think Rashi means to limit the way we honor the
elderly by these examples, but rather intends them as the kinds of
behaviors which are paradigmatic of honoring.

Honoring the aged isn’t just good manners; it’s a core mitzvah of
Judaism which stands in stark contrast to the the youth obsessed
culture of contemporary America. We assume that young is “cool” and
the latest styles are worthy of the biggest news, but Judaism teaches
humility literally “in the face of” age [p’nai zaken] and the wisdom
it may impart. To put it another way, to honor the aged is to practice
the discipline of service and to train ourselves in humility,
precisely when it might be easiest to be arrogant and condescending.
It is to remind ourselves that every human being owes gratitude to
those who came before, and we are all, indeed, one human family.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Love & Imagination

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

We’re reading the double portion Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim this week, which covers a lot
of textual territory: from the Yom Kippur offerings to banning
adultery, from the most universal ethical aspirations to the rejection
of paganism, from loving one’s neighbor to rules about haircuts and
beard trims. (No, really, and they’re important ones, too.)

Among the ethical commandments taught in Kedoshim is the principle of
loving the “stranger,” or non-Israelite, who lives among the Israelite

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among
you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 19:34)

It’s a noble law, but I see two questions looming out there in our

1) How can we love the stranger as ourselves if the stranger- or
alien, or immigrant, or sojourner- is, by definition, different than
us, perhaps with different needs, perspectives, and values? What
somebody else might experience as love (a big slice of cheesecake
after a hard day, maybe) might be very different from what I would
appreciate (I hate cheesecake and would never think to offer it- it’s
a trivial example, but you get the point.)

To put it another way, “don’t do to others what is hateful to you” (as
Rabbi Hillel put it) actually requires thinking about not only what is
hateful or unpleasant for the do-er, but also about what is hateful or
unpleasant for the receiver- in other words, one needs not just
self-knowledge and generosity, but also empathy. Framed as a positive
principle, loving the stranger also requires thinking about who they
are and what they need, which may not be obvious if we only know our
own needs and preferences.

2) It’s easy to connect the need for empathy with the reminder that
the Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt; as we were
once without social status, support, or sufficient sustenance, we of
all people should act out of a deep understanding of what that feels
like. However, as in the first question, how can later generations of
Israelites, who never knew the experience of bondage in Egypt, have
the same empathy as those who did?

To me, the answer to both questions is the same: knowledge and
imagination. It takes knowledge- perhaps investigation is a better
word- to clarify how to help another person. When I was training as a
hospital chaplain, we heard fascinating lectures from teachers of
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and various streams of
Christianity on the topic of offering spiritual care to hospital
patients from the various religious traditions. Something as simple
and seemingly universal a prayer for healing could be deeply
comforting- or deeply offensive- to different people, each with
different perspectives and customs.

Thus, part of learning to “love the stranger”- that is, caring for
those who are most in need- means learning would actually be good and
loving to the person or community receiving the care. It takes
humility to realize that we may not know how to love others
intuitively! Yet “loving the stranger as yourself” also means
activating our imaginations. I have never been a slave in Egypt, but
the Passover seder asks me to put myself in that position, through an
act of imagination, in order to fully appreciate the miracle of
liberation and freedom.

Similarly, I may not have suffered the precise problem that somebody
else has, but I can try to imagine what the other person is going
through, and act accordingly to relieve suffering, indignities, or
privation. Of course, “loving the stranger”- or anybody else- is not
only a matter of helping them or caring for them when there is a
problem. I only focus here on that base-line level of caring because
to me, that’s what the verse suggests in context.

One negative stereotype of religion is that it’s all about following
rules, as if piety were somehow a matter of programming behavioral
algorithms. In our verse, the Torah requires us to act out of empathy
for those who are not like us, which in turn requires imagination,
humility, and curiosity- three qualities which defy all notions of
simple rule-following. On the contrary, one can’t “love the stranger
as yourself” without creativity and openness to the unexpected. To
love the stranger means expanding the vision of our hearts, and in
doing so, finding our truest humanity.

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Kedoshim: Community and Humanity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Achre Mot/Kedoshim

It’s a beautiful and sunny Friday morning, so perhaps it’s appropriate
to look at a law pertaining to green and growing things in this week’s
Torah portion. We’re in a double parsha, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, both of
which have lots of different laws (some of which are beautiful, and
some of which require some interpretive struggle) pertaining to family
life, agriculture, sexuality, ethics, and ritual. One of my favorite
mitzvot- also mentioned in next week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah
called “peah,” or “corners,” meaning the commandment to leave a corner
of one’s fields unharvested so the poor can come and collect a bit of

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the
way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your
harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen
fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the
stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:9-10)

There is so much ethical teaching in these few verses; I’ve written
about Peah before, and there are many wonderful commentaries about the
different aspects of the mitzvah. This week, I just want to point out
two words, in verse 9: “the poor and the stranger.” In Hebrew, the
word used for the poor person is “oni,” which you may remember from
Pesach a few weeks ago: matzah is called “lechem oni,” or “bread of
poverty, poor person’s bread.” The word for “stranger” is “ger,” which
in modern usage means a convert to Judaism, but in Biblical Hebrew
means somebody who lives among you but is not of your tribe- perhaps
compared today to the “alien” or non-citizen who is a resident, but
doesn’t have full rights of citizenship.

The mitzvah is to leave the corners of our fields- that is, share our
material and other resources- with both the “ger” and the “oni,” which
Rabbi Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1100’s), along with other commentaries, clearly
spells out as the “poor person” who is of the tribe of Israel, AND the
“ger” or non-Israelite who lived in Israelite areas. In other words,
our moral concern is both for members of the “family” of the people
Israel and for those who are not of our people. We are both a people,
with special concern for the poor, sick, and dispossessed of our
community, and we are human beings, sharing a common destiny with
every soul created in the Divine Image.

Perhaps it’s a paradox to say that our moral concerns must be both
particular and universal, but to me, what this and other verses point
to is the simple fact that no community can take care of the whole
world, just as no human being can take care of everybody else’s
family. We have ties with some people that are thicker than others,
and if every community organized itself such that their own poor and
needy were taken care of, there would be far fewer people who felt
helpless and alienated from sources of material and spiritual support.
As one of my teachers put it: “find your corner of the world, and make
it holy.”

On the other hand- there are always people who fall through the
cracks, and if we restricted our moral concern to those who are part
of our own community, we would lose the opportunity to recognize that
all people are made in the Divine Image, and thus compassion extended
universally is also a chance to find God in places where we might not
otherwise be. The Torah tells us to take care of the poor of our
people, but also tells us to take care of the stranger, because we
were strangers in Egypt, and we of all peoples know the experience of
needing compassion from those who are not exactly like us.

So what’s the answer? How do we focus our giving and social action?

You already know the answer, which is that there is no simple answer.
There are always needs than easily available resources; we must simply
give more, give wisely, and never lose sight of our ties of peoplehood
nor our shared humanity. We are linked to our people in history,
destiny, memory, spirituality, and communal interdepency, and this
makes our lives infinitely richer than they would be as solitary
individuals, cut off from our roots and our branches. Yet God is in
all souls, so Judaism directs our compassion and justice to all
people. We are part of a people, and we are part of humankind; both
are true, and both truths inform a Jewish moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- Before we get to our usual parsha related links, here’s a link to
a good story on CBS news about the new Chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school and graduate
school in New York. The article describes not only the new Chancellor
but also some of the history and challenges of the Conservative

Also, we haven’t looked at Ibn Ezra’s commentary much- here’s a biography:
Finally, as usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

and summaries and further commentary on the parshiot (double parsha) here:

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Kedoshim: Marking Ourselves for Good (warning: long!)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sukkot

This week’s parsha study is a bit too long, I suppose, and yet not
long enough, for the themes of loss and renewal are ones to
which I have given much reflection in past year. I offer this week’s
teaching to you on the occasion of the first yahrzeit of my mother,
zichrona l’vracha; the year since her passing has taught me
much Torah which I would have preferred not to learn.

With that: Kedoshim. The overall theme of the Torah portion
Kedoshim parsha might be described as spiritually centered
ethical sensitivity, including respect for one’s body:

“You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died].
You shall not incise any mark on yourselves. I am the Lord.”
(Vayikra/ Leviticus 19:28)

Most traditional and modern Torah commentators see the first
prohibition in the context of other religious traditions. Rashi, for
example, says that the Amorites cut themselves when a relative
died. Our Conservative Etz Hayyim commentary, in the historical
notes, says that “pagan priests gashed themselves as they
called upon their gods to answer their prayers.” (Cf.1 Kings

OK, so far, so good- the Torah doesn’t want the Israelites to copy
a painful or destructive religious practice from their neighbors,
and in fact this verse continues to inform a traditional Jewish
disapproval of marking or mutilating the body. (Yes, this may
include tattoos, so please see the footnotes for an internet

Yet I think there may be an understanding of this verse which
goes beyond distinguishing between Israelite and non-Israelite
religion. Picking up on Rashi’s comment that there were people
who made cuts in their bodies when a relative died, perhaps we
might ask: what does causing oneself pain have to do with grief,
and why is this so problematic from a Jewish perspective?

Emotional pain, like physical pain, can sometimes be
overwhelming, and when it is, the resulting state can be a kind of
internal numbness or emptiness. For example, on many
occasions I’ve heard people say that they couldn’t really
remember what happened at the funeral of a loved one- their
memory was bleary because they felt so shut down with grief
and loss at the time. Most people who go through such periods
experience this numbness or emptiness as a temporary state,
and soon resume their normal interactions and daily affairs.

Sometimes, when these emotions of emptiness or numbness
are profound or persistent, people may do self-destructive things
(addictions, sexual acting-out, risky behaviors, directing anger or
negativity at others) simply to feel anything at all. When one is
deeply disconnected from ordinary joy, then pain becomes a
tragic way to feel alive, as it were.

This idea- that pain is a way to feel alive when nothing else
seems to work- was expressed marvelously by the late Johnny
Cash, in his cover of the song “Hurt,” recorded in 2002. This
song, about drug addiction and grief, begins with a powerful
description of one who literally cuts himself (with a needle):

“I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real . . . ”

To me, this puts our verse in a new light: the Torah is warning us
that indeed, sometimes the pain of loss is so great that the
human heart can empty out or just shut down, and when that
happens, a person is in spiritual and physical danger. I think the
Torah’s perspective is very realistic; Judaism does not deny the
reality of loss, or attempt to gloss it over, but instead bids us to
be aware of what might happen at life’s darkest times. This kind
of loss is not limited to the death of loved ones, but we might
understand grief after death as emblematic of being
overwhelmed by emotional pain.

The question then follows: how do we apply this insight more
generally? For me, the answer lies in Judaism’s emphasis on
committing ourselves to community. Rather giving in to the
temptation of self-seclusion in painful times, Judaism invites us
to make a minyan with others, in order to draw strength from
others and receive the compassion of those further along the
path of healing.

Furthermore, if we join together in prayer, learning, and
engaging in acts of loving-kindness, as part of a spiritual
community, then we are also more likely to see beyond our own
pain to recognizing hurt in others. We can then offer our love and
support, and rediscover our own capacities for giving and
empathy; giving to others draws us out and sets us right. Pain
often makes a person focus on themselves; Judaism
challenges a person to shift that focus to the wider world. In
healing the world, we sense the possibility of healing ourselves;
in loving others, we are offered the hope of overcoming loss, and
reclaiming the gift of life.

Seen this way, “you shall not make cuts in your flesh” becomes
both a warning and an affirmation: a warning about what can
happen when we become isolated in grief, loss and pain, and
an affirmation that we need not add self-inflicted wounds to the
hurts which life will inevitably inflict. We can- with great effort,
self-awareness, the love of friends and the grace of God- choose

shabbat shalom,


PS- These thoughts about Torah are offered from a rabbi’s
perspective on grief and healing; there are times when
professional help is more appropriate than rabbinic reflections.

PPS- as usual, you can read the entire text of this week’s Torah
portion and haftarah here:

PPPS- Since I know that this verse raises the question of Jews
and tattoos, here’s a link to a good article about it, written by a
Conservative rabbi:

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Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Aharei-Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)


We have a double parsha this week. Acharei Mot means “after the death;” the Torah notes that these laws were given “after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Then the Yom Kippur service is described, including ritual purification’s and the sending of the “scapegoat” into the wilderness. Rules are given for separating meat from its blood, and other dietary laws. Finally, there is a list of forbidden sexual relationships, given in the context of a general prohibition against following the practices of other nations.

Kedoshim literally means “holy things,” and this parsha is a list of behaviors 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.


“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not completely reap the corners of the field, and do not gather the gleanings of the harvest. Do not completely glean your vineyard, nor gather all the fallen grapes, but leave them behind for the poor and the stranger- I am Adonai your God. ” (Leviticus 19:9-10)


This beautiful commandment is called peah, which means “corner.” One who is gathering their harvest leaves a portion for the poor to gather. There are two parts to this mitzvah: one is leaving some of the grain or produce just as it is for the poor to gather, and the next part is leaving some on the ground, after it is fallen, and not picking up every last bit.


If we took these verses absolutely literally, we would learn a powerful moral teaching about setting aside some of our resources to help those in need. However, we can also infer that the creation of a caring, interdependent community is a greater priority than strict property rights- for ultimately, the land belongs to God, not its human steward. We see a similar idea in the laws of the Shmitta [Sabbatical] and Yovel [Jubilee] years, described in Leviticus 25.

The 16th century Sefardic commentator Moshe Alshich notes that ascribing ownership of the land to God reduces the tensions caused by social inequality between rich and poor:

    Both farmer, stranger, and the poor are really equal before God. Just as the rich person employs laborers to cut his grain, stack his wheat, and so on, so we are all God’s laborers. [I.e., God “employs” the better-off in the job of providing for the poor.] But when performing this commandment, God describes the land as if it were “yours. . . ”

    The Torah could have continued by saying: “it shall be for the poor and the stranger.” By using the phrase “leave them behind,” the Torah emphasizes the stranger and poor person’s prior claim to these gleanings and leavings. God wants the farmer to treat the poor respectfully, not to rob them of dignity. Therefore, “leave them behind”- you are not giving a handout, but you will simply leave it, they will help themselves. “Don’t completely glean” is the fact that you do not complete the harvest, which is the signal to the poor person that he is taking what he is entitled to, not what the farmer decides to give him.

    The anonymity of the recipient- since the farmer does not know who picks his field- is what preserves the poor person’s dignity. (Adapted from R. Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated by E. Munk.)

While I cannot claim to have policy expertise in the realm of social welfare, I think that the dignity of the poor is something rarely considered in many current assistance programs. Food is not a privilege to be handed out according to the mood of the wealthy, but a right, regardless of social standing or status. The needy have a “prior claim” to a certain level of sustenance- if the better off don’t provide the “corners of their fields,” they themselves would be guilty of taking something that is not theirs by right.

This is a whole different way of looking at philanthropy- a person may indeed be generous, but up to a certain point, material things don’t really belong to us in the first place. Rather, a Jewish perspective on material goods sees such resources as being loaned to us for the privilege of bringing about good things. (Maybe that’s why they’re called “goods!”) We are all stewards on God’s land, as it were. This is not to impugn anybody’s generosity, not at all. The commandment of peah challenges us to think about the distinction between generosity- which might mean “going above and beyond”- and basic obligations, which are incumbent upon all who can meet them.

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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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