While the first half of the eighth century BCE in Northern Israel may not strike you as the most obvious time or place to begin a sermon defining a life of holiness, for reasons which I will make clear, it is the necessary chronological and geographical foundation upon which any Jewish discussion of k’dushah, holiness, must be situated.
According to biblical scholars, the first half of the eighth century BCE was both the best of times and the worst of times for ancient Israel. The Israelite kingdom, long since divided into two entities – Israel in the north and Judah in the south – was experiencing a period of unprecedented economic, political, and military prosperity, what the great Bible scholar Martin Noth called “a kind of Golden Age.” The defeat of Israel’s northern neighbor in 796 BCE and the expansion of Israel’s trade relationship with Phoenicia in the south resulted in a period of power and prestige comparable only to the legendary kingdom of David. The monarchies of King Jeroboam II in the north and King Uzziah in the south were each strong and lived at peace with each other. The borders of the joint kingdom, as described in the book of Kings, extended to the south, north, and east, “from the entrance of Hamath as far south as the Sea of the Aravah.” (2 Kings 14:25) – a territorial expansion matched only by King Solomon. The literary evidence, the archeological evidence, all testify to the prosperity of the era. It was the best of times for ancient Israel. As the expression goes, life was good.
Except, of course, for those for whom life was not good, those for whom it was really, really bad – the worst of times. As a professor of mine at the University of Chicago, Israel Knohl, explains, despite – or perhaps, precisely because of – the unprecedented prosperity, a series of social and economic gaps began to develop in ancient Israel’s society. As a nouveau riche class of landowners emerged, an entire segment of the population lost their claim to their land, forced to sell or be evicted from their ancestral plots in order to subsist, and creating a world of haves and have nots. The rich grew richer, and the poor grew poorer, and those who were positioned to fix the social polarization were disinclined to do so for fear of losing power. The priests of the time, the most famous being Amaziah, were beholden to those in power and delimited their sphere of concern to ritual matters. It was in this context that the moral voice of the prophet arose. There had been local prophets before – Nathan, Deborah, Hulda, Elijah, and Elisha, to name but a few. But these new prophets, the ones we call classical prophets – Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and others – brought with them a call for morality, for justice, and for righteousness. They saw the inequities of their day and they called the leaders and the nation to account. These are the ancient prophetic voices from whom modern-day prophets of social reform from David Ben Gurion to Martin Luther King draw. The words of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24). The words of Isaiah: “Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (1:16-17) For these prophets, a life of k’dushah meant a life in pursuit of justice, a life filled with acts of compassion, tzedakah, and righteousness. For these prophets, morality, not ritual, was at the core of holy living.
To appreciate the revolutionary role of these prophets, you need to appreciate that before them, a life of k’dushah as defined by the priests was understood to be achieved by way of meticulous attention to cultic law and ritual observance. The observance of sacred time: keeping the sabbath and the festival calendar. The observance of sacred space: from the burning bush to Mount Sinai to the Temple in Jerusalem, there were certain places people could and could not enter. The observance of sacred rituals: offering sacrifices, keeping a kosher diet, adhering to the commandments. These were the ways to articulate a life of k’dushah. The eighth-century prophets were revolutionary because they shifted the emphasis away from ritual towards morality. What God wants, what God really, really wants, as preached by the prophet Micah, was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord (6:8). Morality, not ritual observance, is what defines a life of holiness.
And it is here that the conflict between priest and prophet, cult and morality, emerged. According to the prophets, the problem was not just that people needed to pay attention to the afflictions of the downtrodden. The problem was that those very priests who laid claim to living a life of k’dushah were the very people turning a blind eye toward, or even worse, enabling the injustices afflicting society. The priests and their devotees adhered to the laws of the sabbath, kept the fasts of our people, and offered the prescribed sacrifices at the proper place and time. Yet not only did their insular observances blind them to the sufferings of humanity, but they would cynically point to their observances as a shield to protect themselves from the accusation that their behavior was anything other than holy. The prophet Amos describes those who sat at home observing the sabbath eagerly awaiting its conclusion so that once Shabbat was over, they could return to cheating the poor. Those who reclined on their ivory beds by the altar lying on garments taken in pledge from the needy. Those who drank in the House of God wine purchased with funds from fines imposed on the destitute. (8:5-6, 2:8, 6:3). “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” exclaims Isaiah, adding, “Your new moon and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing. . . Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” (1:11-15). Was a life of k’dushah to be defined by ritual or by righteousness? As Shalom Spiegel explained in his famous address on the conflict between the prophet Amos and the priest Amaziah, this was the fault line, the debate, that defined eighth-century religious life in Israel.
All of that is a very, very long way to introduce our Torah reading and its definition of a life of holiness. Our Torah reading is called K’doshim. Its first command: k’doshim tihiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai eloheikhem, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2) An aspirational opening declaration if there ever was one, an appeal to be like God in our behavior, the headline to what everyone from bnei mitzvah students to Bible scholars call “the Holiness Code.” How does the Torah define holiness? Through ritual or righteousness? Does it side with priest or prophet? We know about the sacred sabbaths and seasons, the sacred spaces and places, the rituals and laws. We hear the cry of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, the prophetic call to build a just society. Which is it? What is the definition of a life of k’dushah?
We need go no further than the next verse to find our answer: Ish imo v’aviv tira·u, v’et shabtotai tishm’ru, ani Adonai eloheikhem. You shall each revere your mother and father and you shall keep My sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.” (19:3). How shall you honor God? How shall you live a life of holiness? It is not either/or, it is both! Honor the sabbath and honor your parents! The next verse commands the precise manner in which a sacrifice shall be offered, and the verse after that commands us to leave the edges of our fields for the poor. A set of ethical injunctions against defrauding our fellow, insulting the deaf, and putting a stumbling block before the blind, sits adjacent to ritual rules prohibiting the mixture of certain seeds. In the same breath and with the same authority that the text invokes a universal appeal to love your neighbor as yourself, it mandates the most obscure prohibition of wearing wool and linen. The same text that prohibits forbidden sexual relations for fear of imitating the Canaanite cult reminds us to rise before the elderly and do no wrong to the stranger. This Torah reading is not an easy one to get through because it bounces around from topic to topic, ethical and ritual, particular and universal. Most readers choose to focus on one or the other. To do so, I believe, misses the point. The point, the message of K’doshim is that it is not one or the other; it is both. To be holy is to observe ritual, and to be holy is to live righteously. To be holy is to perform distinctly Jewish acts, and to be holy is to respond to the needs of all humanity. According to Israel Knohl, the scholar I mentioned earlier, the text of K’doshim, the Holiness Code, can be dated to the eighth century BCE because it reflects the intermingling of the two strands – the priestly and prophetic – that had previously functioned independently or at odds with each other. Only here are they brought together side-by-side – cultic and ethical, ritual and moral, particular law and universal calling – unified in one code, forever affecting any future discussion of holiness.
You may or may not care about what happened in eighth-century Israel, and you may or may not care about discussions about when this or that bit of the Torah was edited and compiled. But what you must care about, if you want to have a Jewish discussion on the definition of holiness, is this Torah reading – a Torah reading which, in case you have not noticed, sits in the very center of the very middle book of the Torah – the linchpin that holds everything else together. In every age, at every stage of Jewish history the debate has existed: Shall the emphasis be on ritual or righteousness, cult or morality? It is a question that gets to the core of it all. Not just what God wants from the Jewish People, but what the world needs from the Jewish People. Do we keep our distinctiveness, following covenantal laws of calendar, cult, and culinary preference that keep us separate? Or do we follow laws that set us in dialogue with the world at large and express our covenantal commitment to a shared humanity? Is our calling to obey laws for which there may be no logical reason, like the obscure prohibitions of our Torah reading, or do we follow the laws, also in our Torah reading, that frankly everyone – Jew and non-Jew – could and should follow? Is the point of religious leadership to teach and model adherence to Jewish ritual, or to adjure people to respond to the urgent cry of a suffering humanity? Which path is more likely to secure the Jewish future? Which path reflects God’s will? There have been times in Jewish history, most recently when the Reform and Orthodox movements emerged in the 1800s, when the former placed its emphasis on universal morality and the latter on observing Jewish law, as if one or the other was the more authentic expression of Judaism. Our Torah reading would say otherwise. Our answer has been there from the very beginning: It is not and has never been one or the other – it is both.
In our own day, we hear the voice of the prophet warning us never to hide behind religious observance if in doing so we ignore the social ills of the day. We must never allow our mission to be restricted to just the sphere of religion proper. We know, that for religion to be just, for religion to be proper, we need to engage in the issues of the day, to ask the hard questions, to name the afflictions of those people who are the strangers in our midst. We need to exemplify a Torah of hesed, of compassion, to each other and to the world, and we need to fight to mend this world through small and large acts of tikkun olam.
Prophetic as our faith must be, we must also be careful never to forget our commitment to living a life of ritual observance; to keep the mitzvot, both the ones that make sense and are convenient and the ones that do not and are not. We need to live as loving, literate, engaged, and observant Jews. Being a Jew means being a good person, but it means far more than being a good person. It means living a life distinct from the rest of humanity, differentiated by calendar, commandments, and community. That is, I believe, the take-home message of our Torah reading. When the world sees, when God sees, that this people, this mamlekhet kohanim, this kingdom of priests, lives according to the commandments and also lives according to a moral code in conversation with and bespeaking a commitment toward all humanity, that is the moment that we become kadosh. It is not one or the other; it is both – and that is the point. It is hard, if not impossible, to lift the Torah by just one pole, just one of its wooden rollers. To do it properly, you need to hold fast to both poles – as a Jew and as a Jewish community.
Holy living is not easy; it is a full-time job – and not just for rabbis. It says it right there in the opening line of the Torah reading: k’doshim tihiyu, you shall be holy. Second person plural. Meaning all of you – all of us – must aspire to be holy. No one priestly class, no one band of prophets is entrusted with the ritual and moral health of our people. It is the decisions each one of us makes – thirsting for a life of mitzvot, seeking to build a world of hesed, living proudly as Jews, and serving our shared humanity as Jews – that define a life of k’dushah, in northern Israel and in North America, in the eighth century BCE and in the present century – wherever and whenever Jews seek to live lives of holiness.
Knohl, Israel. The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003)
Knohl, Israel, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995)
Spiegel, Shalom. “Amos V. Amaziah.” JTS Seminary Convocation, September 14, 1957. Printed as part of the Herbert H. and Edith A. Lehman Series of the Herbert H. Lehman Institute of Ethics, Essays in Judaism Series, No. 3. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1957)