Kedoshim: Holiness

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:2).

Holiness, it transpires,
is not living hermit-like
in the rarefied air
of a mountain peak,
filling up days
in meditation and prayer,
spending nights seeking God
in the star-sprinkled sky.
It’s transcending the messiness,
the turmoil of our lives;
quelling impatience
with the people we love;
opening hearts
to the needy, the other;
sowing sparks of light
in every mundane hour.

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS on this Parashah ponders the nature of holiness, and cites Martin Buber (among others) who says that holiness is found not in rising above the level of one’s neighbours but in relationships, in human beings recognising the latent divinity of other people, even as God recognises the latent divinity in each of us. He adds that Judaism does not divide life into the holy and the profane but into the holy and the not-yet-holy. The Etz Hayim quotes Louis Finkelstein who writes similarly, “Judaism is a way of life that endeavours to transform virtually every human action into a means of communion with God.”
The Etz Hayim points out that the laws of holiness detailed in Kedoshim cut across all categories of life: ritual; business ethics; proper behaviour towards the poor and afflicted; and family relations.

On the phrase, “Daber el kol adat benei Yisrael – speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel…” Rashi teaches that the addition of the words “kol adat – all the congregation ” teaches us that this section was proclaimed in full assembly because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it (Sifre Vayikra Rabbah 24). Based on Rashi’s teaching, the Hatam Sofer comments that the Torah is not demanding the holiness of isolation and monasticism, but holiness in the community – he says, “Be holy by being in the congregation and involved with other people.”
On the same comment of Rashi, the Sefat Emet teaches that holiness, as evidenced by God’s presence in the camp, is gained by unity among the people. The Kotsker Rebbe on the same teaching says that only by the power of the whole, can the individual be holy – he cannot do it alone.

On the phrase, “You shall be holy…” the Vurker Rebbe asks, “How can it be demanded of a mere mortal that he reach the level of holiness?” And he responds, “The intention is not that he should reach the level of the angels above – that level he will not achieve. All that he has been commanded is to be holy on the level at which he [already] is. You shall be holy in whatever situation you find yourself. Sanctify yourself and go up a little bit.”
Rabbi Yisrael of Salant* points out that generally, a holy person is associated with awe-inspiring greatness in Torah while in this Parashah, the criteria for holiness seem to be related to prohibitions against stealing, lying, obstructing justice etc. He says holiness is dependent on these. He adds that where the verse continues, “…for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” – [God is telling us] – I am in Heaven, as it were, the Holy One, and if I demand from you holiness, My intention is in earthly matters: commerce; work; and relationships with fellow creatures.

In a blogpost on Kedoshim in 2011,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser notes that holiness is not a supernatural aspiration but a commandment which is detailed in the form of some very practical actions. He says, “There is nothing in the prescription about ascending bodily into heaven or hearing God’s voice in our heads. There is nothing about voluntary withdrawal from the world of material things. The Torah’s vision of holiness is one in which we elevate an ordinary life, not one in which we try to escape it.”


*Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) (1810-1883) was born in Zagare, Lithuania, the son of the Rabbi of the town, and later the Av Beth Din in Goldingen and Telz. As a boy, he studied with Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Braude of Salant and later with Rabbi Yosef Zundel of Salant, himself a disciple of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin. Rabbi Zundel exerted a deep influence on the development of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s character; he stressed religious self-improvement (musar), which Rabbi Yisrael Salanter later developed into a complete method and popularized. He was a famed Rosh Yeshiva and Talmudist (he is known as one of the first people to try to translate the Talmud into another language although he died before he could finish this immense project). However, he is best-known for fathering the Musar movement developed in 19th century Orthodox Eastern Europe, particularly among the Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term musar is from the book of Proverbs (1:2) and means “instruction”, “discipline”, or “conduct”. The term was used by the Musar movement to refer to disciplined efforts to further ethical and spiritual development. The study of Musar is a part of the study of Jewish ethics.

He is best known for stressing that the inter-personal laws of the Torah bear as much weight as Divine obligations. He taught that adhering to the ritual aspects of Judaism without developing one’s relationships with others and oneself was an unpardonable parody. There are many anecdotal stories about him addressing this moral equation.

He had an outreach philosophy and was the first major East European rabbi to move to Western Europe, where the Orthodox considered religious standards to be lower. He was considered one of the most eminent Orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century because of his broad Talmudic scholarship, and his deep piety.
He lived for periods in Memel, Königsberg and Berlin and devoted the last decades of his life to strengthening Orthodox Jewish life in Germany and Prussia. Towards the end of his life, he was called to Paris to organize a community among the many Russian Jewish immigrants, and he remained there for two years.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter died in 1883 in Königsberg, then part of Germany. For many years, the exact location of his grave was unknown. Following a lengthy investigation, in 2007 the grave was located in Königsberg.


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