K’doshim: An Evolution in Understanding Holiness

Once there was a small town, where every person grew a different kind of vegetable in their garden. For a long time, each person only ate what they grew. But there was a problem. Eventually, the person who grew carrots got sick of carrots. And the person who grew peppers got sick of peppers. The person who grew zucchini got sick of zucchini. And the person who grew tomatoes got sick of tomatoes.

A town-hall meeting was called to discuss the problem. At first, it was suggested that a system of trading could be implemented, but since not everyone grew their produce in the same proportions, there was a concern that some people would be able to trade for more than others. Everyone wanted the solution to be a fair one.

Finally, the best cook in town offered to make a soup that everyone could share. Each person who contributed an ingredient would be able to partake of the final product. The soup was delicious! There were tomatoes and potatoes; carrots, peas and beans; zucchini and peppers and celery and onions and MORE!

The townspeople knew they had found the solution. No longer would they each eat only one kind of produce. From now on they would share with one another so that each and every meal would be complete.


Twenty years ago, I became a Bat Mitzvah. The Torah portion that week was Parashat K’doshim, also known as the Holiness Code. Back then, I didn’t really comprehend how central the parasha was – literally and figuratively. Not only does K’doshim mark the physical middle of the Torah, but its contents – rules and regulations for how to conduct oneself in holy ways – are central to our Jewish understanding of what it means to be holy.

What I did understand about my Bat Mitzvah portion, and what made me proud to read from it, was the clear sense of social-justice being promoted by many of the commandments contained there, right in the very middle of the scroll. Cantor Stuart Binder writes, “The parasha is essentially a set of instructions on how to be holy. It begins with respect for our parents and our God and then proceeds to laws governing our relationship with our fellow human beings.” I loved, and still do, the wisdom of these laws, which seem both dignified and obvious.

And I’m not alone.

Parashat K’doshim is a favorite for many Jews. Roslyn Roucher, a Jewish educator in Milwaukee, writes that it is, “filled with laws that we Reform Jews readily and willingly strive to keep: Do not hate your brother in your heart; do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind; love your neighbor as yourself.”

What I didn’t realize at the time – mainly because I only studied the 17 verses that had been chosen for me to read – was that, as Roucher points out, “the parashah also contains other laws that we struggle with and even reject as Reform Jews,” including the verse that is commonly understood (or should I say misunderstood) as a prohibition against homosexuality.

But K’doshim remains a favorite, despite its challenging sections containing laws that we disagree with, laws that seem outdated, and laws that just plain don’t seem to make much sense. Year after year, the powerful message of fair treatment of others outshines the verses that keep us scratching our heads.

Another thing I did not notice about the parasha 20 years ago, is that unlike many sections of Torah, where Moses is instructed to “speak to the Children of Israel”, here, in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 1, Moses is told to, “speak to the whole Israelite community.” Nehama Leibowitz, a famous Torah scholar, teaches that this change reflects the idea that, “even the highest and noblest principles of Judaism can be attained by any Jew, provided he [or she] makes the necessary effort. These laws were not for the select few,” Leibowitz writes. “People should not say that such standards of conduct (are) only for (one) of exceptional piety…The appeal “You shall be holy” concern(s) all of them.”

And thus, it concerns all of us.

Another way to understand why Moses addresses “the whole Israelite community”, also translated as “the full assembly of Israel”, was explained by the 19th century rabbi, Chaim Sofer, who wrote, “Be not holy merely in the privacy of your home and ashamed of your faith in public. Be not, as the assimilationists put it, ‘a Jew at home and a man outside.’ Be holy, ‘in full assembly,’ in public, out in the open, in society.

Among your own people or in the midst of strangers, wherever you may find yourself, never be ashamed of your character and sanctity as a Jew.”

These words, though written some 200 years ago, still ring true for us today. Often we shy away from identifying our values as “Jewish values”, claiming that they are universal. After all, isn’t “love your neighbor as yourself,” just another way of saying, “Do unto others as you would have done to you,” the well-known verse from the Christian Bible? Or, for that matter, isn’t it the same as the Native American prayer which says, “Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins”? And isn’t it the same as when Socrates wrote, “Conduct yourself toward your parents as you would have them conduct themselves toward you”?

In my office, I have an entire book of quotes from different religions, philosophers and historic eras, which all exemplify what contemporary ethics calls “The Golden Rule”. From Ancient Babylon to Plato, to Confucius, St. Thomas Aquinas and Muhammad; From African proverbs and Chinese proverbs; From Martin Luther and Gandhi; everyone on earth, in every age, seems to resonate with this idea.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

And it’s certainly part of why Parashat K’doshim is so popular, as it’s the portion which expresses this most universal of ideas.

Yet, Chaim Sofer’s point still lingers: Why are we so afraid to claim our values as Jewish?As values derived from Torah? 20 years ago, it would never have occurred to me that proudly proclaiming my values as Jewish would one day place me in a minority when it comes to contemporary liberal North American millennial Jews. Wasn’t proclaiming pride and commitment to Jewish values what becoming a Bat Mitzvah was all about?

But this whole discussion, stemming from just that very first verse of the portion, was unknown to me at the time. I had no idea how much Jewish thinkers from all ages have had to say about why Moses addresses the people differently than usual.

Another example:

The S’fat Emet, a 19th century text, explains that by addressing “the whole Israelite community”, the Torah is teaching us that when we are all one, we are holy. Rashi also noted that, “we can be worthy of attaining such holiness only if we merge our own personalities into the larger community and identify completely with the people of Israel. Only “in fully assembly” can we be holy.”

Just like the townspeople from our story discovered, the combination of produce – “the fully assembly”, as it were – was far better than the individual pieces.

And I think, 20 years after I first began to study this parasha, that this is the real truth of K’doshim. Not just that we are only holy when we are one, but that one holy action does not a holy person make.

It’s all about the collective; the combination of ingredients.

The introduction to the passage, “You shall be holy for I, the Eternal Your God am Holy”, is followed not by one commandment but by verse after verse detailing actions and behaviors which are necessary to live by in order to “live holy”. It is the collective weight of each of our deeds – each action, each choice, every word, thought and encounter – which determine whether or not we live up to our potential to be holy.

Cantor Stuart Binder from Princeton, New Jersey asks, “If someone were to ask you ‘Are you a holy person?’ how would you respond?”

Twenty years ago, I would have had a hard time describing myself as a holy person. Even today, in all truth, that’s language I would find uncomfortable to use as a descriptor of myself.

As Cantor Binder writes, “Most of us don’t usually think of ourselves as holy people, but in the context of this week’s parashah, the question is not only meaningful, it is also crucial … Being holy is not defined by synagogue attendance or by outward signs of piety. Nor is it a matter of ritual practice or personal attitude.” Although that’s more or less how I understood it 20 years ago, I have come to understand holiness as so much more than that. Now, I agree with Binder’s conclusion that “Holiness can be found only in our relationships with other people. It is revealed when we are just and compassionate. It is manifest when we are respectful of others and ethical in our behavior.
This week, may each of us explore what it means to be holy.

May each of us look in the mirror and say to the face that looks back at us, “you are holy,”

and then may each of us go out into the world and act as if we mean it.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s Will.


The Nazir

The Torah teaches us:

When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD … All the days of his vow of Naziriteship there shall no razor come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. All the days that he consecrateth himself unto the LORD he shall not come near to a dead body. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head. All the days of his Naziriteship he is holy unto the LORD. And if any man die very suddenly beside him, and he defile his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head in the day of his cleansing, on the seventh day shall he shave it …

Rabbis are sometimes like Nazarites. We make vows to serve God. We make sacrifices that other do not make.
Yet, we do not keep apart from our losses. There is no way to be left unscathed.
But we don’t stop being leaders. We don’t give up our vows. We lead from grief and through it. We hold one another. We hold our people. We let them hold us.
Yes, we shave our heads but not as an ending to commitment; as a recommitment. Consecration and Confirmation and Ordination all relived. Reaffirmed.
We made a vow. We exceeded it. We made another. We exceeded it.
We push beyond our wildest imaginings.
Push you. Push ourselves.
As our hair falls to the floor, one chapter ends and another begins. Our hair will grow back but we – none of us – will ever be the same.