Leviticus Inward and Outward Facing Holiness
Parshat Acharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-18:30 and 19:1-20:27)
Just last week marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the modern State of Israel, and this week’s two Torah readings are often read around the time of Israel’s Independence Day. I would like to think about these two parshiot as a lens through which to view Israel’s sacred mission.
The two parshiot that comprise this week’s Torah reading, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, are often read together as they were when I celebrated becoming a Bar-Mitzvah over four decades ago. Commentators throughout the ages have grappled with the relationship between the two, given their very different content and orientation.
Acharei Mot continues the focus on priestly ritual while Kedoshim articulates a broader view of holiness that applies to the Israelite community as a whole. Perhaps, the end of Acharei Mot, which lists prohibited sexual relationships applicable to the entire people, serves as a kind of bridge between the concept of priestly holiness in the first part of Leviticus with the wider concept that characterizes the holiness that begins with parshat Kedoshim, as some have suggested.
In Exodus we are introduced to the divine aspiration that the Jewish people be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” To many classical Jewish commentators, the term holiness, Kadosh or Kedoshim, implies separation from various types of immorality, from the realm of the profane, and from the ways of certain foreign cultures. Holiness as separation can point people inward through the details of ritual, which are by nature particularistic.
The danger is that the focus on ritual distinctiveness can lead to a notion of holiness that privileges the few, —those, who like the priests, are punctilious about ritual observance. In the extreme, it can even result in an attitude of holier than Thou in which even God’s dictates become insufficient to achieve the desired holiness. This may be what led to the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two sons referenced in the beginning of Acharei Mot. Their attempt to go beyond the boundaries of God’s established ritual in an effort to make their sacrificial service even more particular emphasized priestly privilege and undermined the concept of a priestly nation.
Parshat Kedoshim suggests a different notion of holiness that extends the idea beyond the realm of ritual into the ethical dimension of human relationships. The first chapter of this portion, which serves as the introduction to the chapters known as the Holiness Code, frequently refers to one’s responsibility to respond to the needs of other human beings in society. It is a holiness that faces outward as well as inward, a holiness that recognizes the common dignity of every human created in the image of God. The frequent repetition of the phrase, “I am the Lord your God,” found in this Torah portion may underscore the need to be aware that holiness in human relationships is of ultimate significance to God. As the prophet Micah taught, “God has told you, O human, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. “
The State of Israel, as it celebrates this important milestone anniversary of its independence, will do well to consider the dual aspect of holiness that these two parshiot describe. Increasingly, the expanding religious elements of Israeli society, are cultivating an inward directed holiness that excludes many within and beyond the Jewish community. The tendency to greater punctiliousness and the holy hubris that comes with it can obscure and undermine the holiness that calls Israel to reach out to others and extend a helping hand to all those who share the dignity that derives from the divine image. Jew and Arab, citizen and refugee, traditional, liberal and secular, all deserve the holiness of justice, kindness, and humility. May these next 70 years of Israel’s existence continuously expand the holiness that is so central to the Jewish sacred mission, and may that holiness deepen and enhance human dignity in response to God’s call to “be Holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”
Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann is President of Hebrew College .
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.