Cantor Gershon Silins – 3 May 2019
Our Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins, “Adonai spoke to Moses saying, speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1) This section may originally derive from what was a kind of manual for the priests regarding the communal sacrifices. Verses 5 through 8 have that appearance, except for the insertion of the word “lirtzon’chem” in verse 5, a word whose precise meaning is ambiguous, but which changes the meaning of this text from its tight focus on the priests to something very different. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary interprets this word to mean both “be sure the sacrifice is acceptable to God on your behalf,” and “be sure that the sacrifice is offered by you willingly and with a full heart.” And the plural form emphasizes that this commandment is addressed to all Israel, not just the priests. The phrase “you shall be holy” collectively commands everyone present (and us too, who were not present but are heirs of this law) to reach for the loftiest principles of the Torah.
But what does it mean to be commanded to reach for the loftiest principles? Commandments are generally things that a person can do (or in the case of negative ones, avoid doing) fairly straightforwardly. This one seems to be something very different, an aspiration to be pursued, rather than a deed that can be fulfilled. And how would anyone know that he or she had succeeded in fulfilling it, when striving to do so is a never-ending task?
In his essay “The Uniqueness of the Jewish People,” Yeshayahu Leibowitz addresses this issue. Holiness, he says, ‘is not something that was given to the people as an abiding and an enduring possession, but is rather a demand, an assignment and a task with which they are charged – a goal toward which they are to strive eternally, without any guarantee of every attaining it. The question is not “Did God bestow holiness upon the Jewish people”? but rather, “Is the Jewish people striving toward holiness by assuming the yoke of Torah and Mitzvoth?”’ In his rebellion against Moses, Korach said, “all the congregation are holy.” (Num 16:3) This would mean that Israel is in its essence a holy people. But on Leibowitz’s account, that holiness is not a reality but rather a goal that transcends reality. The reality of the Jewish people is that they have the choice eternally to strive for holiness, which is both their task and their reward. This is a Judaism that is arduous – it means knowing that you are not a holy people, and must be in the process of reaching for, but never grasping, the goal of holiness. The Judaism of Korach is much easier (until the ground swallows you up, which is what happened to him.) For Korach, holiness is provided simply by his membership in the Jewish people. This obligates him to nothing. The danger in this, says Leibowitz, is that attaining holiness simply by being a member of the Jewish people is tantamount to some version of simple chauvinism. Leibowitz instead defines Judaism as nothing but the constant striving towards holiness, and for him that can be nothing but the strict observance of halacha, of Jewish law.
Leibowitz was a Zionist, but his Zionism was of a very different sort than those who say that the Land of Israel is somehow holy in itself. No, he says, there is no holiness in the world except by virtue of the commandments (“…who has sanctified us with commandments…”). Nothing is holy in the world, including the Land of Israel. Only God is holy. Identifying the Land of Israel, or anything other than God, as holy, is a form of pagan religiosity.
In another essay, “The Religious Significance of the State of Israel,” Leibowitz says that the State of Israel has fulfilled all the hope he had for it during his entire life. But what it represented to him was the endeavour to liberate Jews from being ruled by anyone but themselves. It never occurred to him to assign to any state, including Israel, the job of realizing values, and especially not the Jewish values of Torah and commandment. Born in 1903, Leibowitz knew the value of political independence for Jews, but he refused to confuse it with a religious meaning that somehow made the state or the land an object of worship.
Leibowitz is a challenging thinker for anyone, and particularly for progressive Jews, because for him the supreme Jewish value is following the halacha. We can, however, take his arguments seriously, while at the same time maintaining the things that make us progressive Jews. We are progressive not simply because we are not halachic, but because we are committed to the ethical framework that includes (among other things) equality, impartiality, the rule of law, democracy, freedom, human dignity, community, responsibility, inclusiveness and integrity. These are a crucial, arguably the crucial, part of what makes us Jews. Our commitment to them is as much a part of the striving for holiness as adherence to Jewish law. It is a path that is at least as arduous as Leibowitz’s path that is focused on the centrality of Jewish law, because it is not laid out clearly for us to follow; it requires our judgement as well as our determination. And that, too, must inform our stance with respect to the State of Israel. It is not a holy land – it is only its striving towards the highest human values that offers the possibility of its being sanctified. And it is up to us to express our loyalty to it, not by treating it is as holy, but by holding it to the pursuit of those values. I am not suggesting that the State of Israel is obligated to follow my (or anyone’s) ethical imperatives toward its own destruction or the death of its citizens. But the task of statehood can be done in more than one way. Insofar as the State of Israel represents not only its citizens, but also the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, I hope that it, in turn, will behave both prudently in the pursuit of the safety of its citizens, and humanely in the world in the pursuit of the values that we hold dear.
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