Archive for Kedoshim

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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