10th May 2019 Kedoshim • Rev Dr Isaac Levy • Copy of a sermon from the early 1960’s • Could any command affecting life and conduct be more puzzling than this? Surely the first question which comes to mind is how does one achieve this state of holiness? What does it demand of us? What is holiness, and when such a command is addressed to a whole people, how much more does it expect of us? One man may be able to live a holy life, if we understand the meaning of that term, but how can it be expected of a whole people! Is it therefore to be understood as a command which affects one’s social life, or does it apply only to the religious aspect of life which in itself ought to be something personal and individual?
When one attempts to delve into the meaning of this passage one feels that one is enveloped in a mass of questions and problems, for one seeks definition and precise meaning. And we are not alone in this perplexity, for it would appear that the rabbis of old were just as puzzled. The measure of their perplexity is reflected in the various interpretations which are found in the midrash. I therefore propose this morning to present these various interpretations to you in order that we may seek enlightenment on this thorny problem.
The oldest midrash in our possession states that the meaning of the injunction kedoshim tiheyu is perushim tiheyu “you shall be holy” means “ye shall be separated” – you must be distinct, set apart, a barrier must be erected between you and that which is unclean, unwholesome and profane. The basis of this explanation is to be found in the proximity of our context to that of the previous chapters which deals with various forms of immorality. To attain holiness is therefore meant, according to this interpretation, to impose upon oneself that form of personal discipline which alienates the indecencies mentioned in former chapters.
Another midrash sees the command to holiness reflected in its emphasis upon its binding force on the whole community of Israel. It notes that this chapter nineteen of Leviticus makes cryptic references to the same injunctions as are contained in the ten commandments, for if one looks closely at this chapter a close similarity is in the two sets of injunctions. Holiness, therefore, would appear to be sought and obtained in that kind of life which the ten commandments sought to inspire.
A third interpretation sees holiness reflected mainly in the life which one lives in society, rather than in the kind of discipline which the individual imposes upon himself. The author of this interpretation, therefore, commences his exposition with a citation from Isaiah “the Lord of hosts will be exalted in justice'” holiness therefore is attained through social justice and is reflected not in oneself and one’s own personal life, but in our attitude to our fellows.
What light do these interpretations cast on our problem? How do they affect us and ease our perplexity? One thing is surely certain. We are dealing here with a question which is essentially religious. One cannot think in terms of holiness other than within the sphere of purest religion. Here is an injunction which seeks to direct how life should be lived and should be experienced, how religion shall be applied and what can and should be achieved through the medium of religion. This is religion at its best and highest. This is not religion subjected to the malpractices of man, not religion debased because it is labeled for preferential purposes, or for the perpetration of acts which, though labeled religious, are in fact the very negation of everything that is the highest of human endeavours.
Religion if it is to mean anything and if it is to make its impact on humanity, is that form of personal discipline which directs its adherence to a clean, healthy, moral, decent personal and social life. Its purpose is to raise man not to degrade him, to refine him not to besmirch him. It calls into being the highest elements within man not his baser instincts.
It is for this reason that the rabbis of old saw in this command to live a holy life various aspects of life all of which raise man to the required heights which he should strive to attain. Their first reaction was to negate man’s baser instincts. Holiness was the negation of immorality, and by this was meant not only that form of immorality which affects the relations between the sexes, it affects everything that we understand by variety. An act is immoral when its performance is based on unwholesome motives. An act is immoral when it is designed to debase another human being. An act is immoral even when it is clothed in constitutional terms but is, in fact, based on an untruth. An act is immoral when it purports to be expressed in the name of religion that is in fact based on personal motives. When religion is expressed in such terms it is defamed. It is profanation of everything that is holy.
The second reaction of the rabbis of old was to re-establish the claims of the ten commandments. This was true holiness to them. These commandments as all know, were twofold in character. They demanded loyalty to God and respect due to man. The approach to God in Judaism is best achieved by one’s attitude to man. One cannot claim to show one’s love of God without displaying one’s love of man. This very chapter says so in the clearest terms-“Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of my neighbour, I am the Lord.” One should not stand by and idly look on as a man’s life blood is being shed, or when his very existence is at stake. And do nothing to defend him. If one does then one denies the God who is the author of this ethical principle. “thou shalt not hate that brother in thy heart but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, I am the Lord.” Baseless hatred, the denial of rights to any man, is denial of God. This is indisputable. God and men are, as it were, the two sides of the coin. To deface one is to deface the other. Yet there are those in our community who have permitted their blind hatred to reach such proportions that the right of a man to his place in communal life is denied. And still they speak in the name of religion and call on God to witness their actions, as though they alone have the right to speak in the name of the religion which we hold dear. By no stretch of the imagination can we regard this as true religion, nor does it satisfy the claims of our Judaism. We cannot speak in terms of the love of our neighbour and the great ethical teachings of Judaism and in the same breath deny their validity in the specific context. The love of one’s fellow man cannot be equated with the hatred displayed towards him. The Ten Commandments which, according to our sages, are the means of achieving that stated holiness which the Torah demands of us.
The third reaction on the part of our sages sees holiness achieved through the medium of justice. Justice says scripture, is one of the foundations on which the divine throne is established. To obtain grace, we must display to our fellows that very justice which we seek for ourselves. One cannot claim that religion is the exaltation of the divine justice and at the same time denying that same justice to our fellow man.
At this moment a rabbi and scholar is being judged, or worse, he is declared guilty, and the facts of this case not known to the majority of those who have condemned him. A smokescreen has been thrown around the case in order that those who wish to see him punished may prevent the community from ascertaining the whole truth. Alas in this instance, the injustice is being perpetrated in the name of religion. A sad reflection, indeed, on our faith and on those who claim to be its proponents.
It is indeed in deepest sorrow and with the most profound distress that I speak in this manner, but I do so not only because I am a personal friend of Louis Jacobs that because I have been in this controversy from the day Dr Jacobs was invited to leave his synagogue to become a tutor at Jew’s college. But this must be said. You first must express the truth as we see it. So each of us must, in the Reading of scripture, see the lessons which are conveyed.
In this respect I can say with the assurance that I am guided by the spirit of the sages of old whose expression of thought is to be found within the body of our literature. In presenting their thoughts I feel that I am listening to the voice of the wise men of old addressing itself to us in this unhappy generation. The call of the Torah is “be you holy,” the call of the sages directs us to the means of achieving it. If we would only incline our ears to that call and achieve the wisdom to appreciate the deeper meaning of that command. Were we to do so we would, whilst there is still time, succeed in re-establishing a community on firm foundations which would give us the right to call ourselves Am kadosh , A holy people. But if we fail to take heed, then may heaven protect us against the consequences. We shall become a community divided against itself, deflected from our true purpose, and we shall go down in history as a generation which suffered so much at the hands of oppressors from without but who were incapable of joining forces from within. One of the causes for the destruction of the temple said the rabbis was Sinat Chinam, causeless hatred. Let that not be repeated in our time