“You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord am Holy”
A commentary on the first sentence of the Torah portion that might literally be translated as Holies or Holy Ones.
A friend of mine and loyal reader of these pages, Rabbi David Greenstein of Montclair New Jersey, was disconcerted by a remark I made a few weeks ago (Metzora, Supplement II) in which I stated that “Holiness is somehow connected in Jewish thought and in halakhic thought with separation, with making distinctions, drawing boundaries.” He argued, citing Sha’arei Yosher by R. Shimon Shkopf (a major Lithuanian Talmudist of the late 19th and early 20th century, who developed a philosophy of the underlying principles of Jewish law), that the holiness demanded of us is not “to distance ourselves from permitted enjoyments… but that the purposeful goal of our lives [is that] all our service and toil should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity, that we not avail ourselves of any act or movement, benefit or enjoyment unless it have some aspect that is for the benefit of those other than ourselves.”
Whether intentionally or not, my friend raised the same question as is implied by a well-know midrash on the first verse of this week’s parasha, which warns against confusing Divine holiness and human holiness. In Leviticus Rabbah 24.9 we read:
אמר ר’ שמעון בן לקיש… “קדושים תהיו”. יכול כמוני? תלמוד לומר: “כי קדוש אני ” – קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם.
The Torah states: “You shall be holy [for I the Lord your God am holy]” (Lev 19:2). Is it possible [that you be holy] like Myself? Scripture states: “For I am holy.” My holiness is above your holiness.
God is by His very nature utterly different from human beings or, as Rudolf Otto puts it, “Wholly Other”: His holiness transcends the corporeal world, and He dwells in realms far beyond our comprehension, let alone our ability to participate therein. Hence, when the Torah speaks of human beings, or specifically Jews, as being called upon to be holy, or even to emulate God’s holiness, it refers to something utterly different in nature than God’s holiness—and it is this which Rav Shkopf, and my friend, had in mind. Our midrash does not provide any positive definition of what human holiness is, but suffices with stating the radical difference between Divine holiness and human holiness. However, from the continuation of our parashah and the laws contained in the chapter that follows this general statement, one may infer that it means caring for one’s fellow man, behaving in an ethical manner, and creating an ethical society based, not only on decent behavior, but on loving and generous attitudes towards others. (Verses 5-8, which are concerned with ritual issues of consuming the flesh of a zevah offering within a certain period of time, are a kind of exception that proves this rule, and one might well ask what these verses are doing here—but that is a question for another time.)
An interesting insight into this idea is provided by Rav Yehudah Ashlag in one of the essays in his book Matan Torah (brought to my attention by another friend, Professor Emeritus Yehuda Gellman). Ashlag speaks there of the purpose of human life generally and the reason for Creation, beginning with the statement that it is the very nature of God to give. God needs nothing for Himself; He is infinite and omnipotent, and is in any event incorporeal and without the needs of flesh and blood. Hence, his nature is to give; the Creation of the universe was, so to speak, an expression of His need to give, to have someone to love.
The human being is the exact opposite: his natural, inborn inclination is to take, to grasp, to enjoy, to pursue pleasure and happiness. An infant’s first instinct upon birth is to grasp his mother’s breast, to suck, to take what he/she needs. As a human being matures, his needs and his way of attaining that which he wants and/or needs matures and becomes more sophisticated, but his essential nature and root impulses remain the same. The object of the Torah and its mitzvot is thus to gradually change this nature, to train or teach the human being to give rather than to take, to care about others, to forego certain ego-centered pleasures or at least to make them less central—and through this to become like God. “As I am merciful, so shall you be merciful; as I am compassionate, so shall you be compassionate.”
It is for that reason that we have so many mitzvot governing the corporeal dimension of existence, and particularly the basic drives of hunger and sex: to tame and curb and limit these drives through the laws of kashrut and arayot. (Interestingly, in this book of the Humash, in which the adjective kadosh, ”holy,” appears particularly frequently, these laws specifically are summed up by the remark “you shall be holy.” See, re kashrut, Lev 11:24-25; and re arayot and the cravings of sexuality, our week’s parashah at 20:25-26, in which the laws of sexual conduct, of kashrut, and the concept of holiness are all tied together.)
An aside: in our culture the understanding of love itself is greatly corrupted in popular usage, especially by the Hollywood image of love, which emphasizes sexual love, i.e., the fascination with/desire for another person. Such love may often be as much or more a matter of taking rather than giving, albeit in sexual love there can be both pleasure–seeking and pleasure–giving, ideally in equal measure. But in any event sexual love is only one of many kinds of love among human beings. (It is worth mentioning in this connection Avot 5.16, in which a contrast is drawn between “love dependent upon a thing” and “love which is not dependent upon any thing,” the examples given being Amnon’s exploitative sexual love or desire for Tamar, and the deep camaraderie and friendship between David and Jonathan. This dictum seems to deliberately conflate the different meanings of the word love to make its point.)
In general, our culture often seems to celebrate sex and money as the sources of virtually all happiness in life. One constantly hears the cynical view that people are moved to do whatever they do for financial benefit. Even the creative person—the writer, the artist, the musician, the scholar, the thinker—is seen as driven, not by curiosity, by the simple urge/need to create, or by sheer joy in their work, but by the desire for “advancement” and, ultimately, wealth. Needless to say that all these attitudes mitigate against an orientation rooted in giving.
If I may, I would like to conclude with a striking thought from the teaching of the Dalai Lama, one of the outstanding spiritual personalities of our time. Commenting on the attempts of the Chinese Communists to suppress Tibetan culture and independence, Kyhongla Rato Rinpoché, one of his disciples, said: “We could not hate the Chinese because it was their own ignorance that motivated them to harm us. A true practitioner of religion considers his enemy to be his greatest friend, because only he can help you develop patience and compassion.” The Dalai Lama, writing of his decision to pursue a path of strict nonviolent resistance, added: “Basically everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile.”
It seems to me that, perhaps “bracketing” the specifically Buddhist idea here of the nature of suffering, the underlying spirit of these words and the understanding of love implied therein is not that distant from the Torah’s teaching in this week’s chapter: “Do not hate your brother in your heart… Do not bear a grudge or take revenge… Love your fellow as yourself”… etc.