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April 27, 1984 - Image 35

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-04-27

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

FIND IT

L
IN THE

Friday, April 27, 1984

35

CALL H.M.H.F.

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Parsha Kedoshim

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Torah reading focuses on holiness

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BY DAVID KRAEMER

Special to The Jewish News

You should be holy be-
cause I, the Lord your God,
am holy."
We are commanded to be
holy, and so holiness, like
all commands, demands
definition. But the very
weightiness of the term holy
makes definition difficult.
All religious cultures,
Judaism being only one
among them, define a realm
of holiness. Yet, because the
term is shared, its unique
Jewish aspect is lost. What
does it mean to be Jewishly
holy?
A particular difficulty in
discovering the Jewish
meaning of holiness is its
connection to the divine. We
are to be holy because God is
holy. But we cannot be like
God. God is wholly non-
human, wholly other.
"Holy," therefore, must
mean two things — one
when describing God and
one when describing hu-
mans.
It will not be helpful to
confuse these usages; they
must be distinguished. Still,
by limiting our exploration
to the human realm, we rec-
ognize that any definition
must be incomplete.
To begin again: What is
unique about Jewish holi-
ness? It is striking that the
pre-eminent medieval
Torah commentator, Rashi,
reads the command "You
should be holy" as referring
to the long section that pre-
cedes it, a section that lists
prohibited sexual relation-
ships. What could have
motivated Rashi to do so,
when the clear sense of the
text indicates that "You
should be holy" introduces
the magnificent compila-
tion of laws that follows?
Nachmanides, a later
medieval, disputes Rashi's
reading, following the sim-
ple meaning of the text. But
in a more important sense
he agrees with Rashi, dec-
laring that the holiness
inherent in prohibiting cer-
tain sexual relations can be
extended to all realms of
human existence. So what is
present in the former that
can be extended to the lat-
ter?
The answer, stated
bluntly, is limitation
through prohibition. Holi-
ness, in the Jewish context,
incurs prohibition and is de-
fined by it. How is this man-
ifest? Moses was not to ap-
proach the burning bush
without first removing his
shoes because the ground
upon which he was standing
was holy. The people of Is-

David Kraemer is assistant
professor of Talmud and
rabbinics at the Jewish
Theological Seminary of
. America.

rael were not to approach
Mount Sinai because it was
holy.
The greater the holiness,
moreover, the greater the
prohibition. The Holy of
Holies — the most holy of
places — could be ap-
proached only once a year,
by the High Priest, in a con-
dition of supreme purity.
"Separation," which is
often applied to explain
"holiness" in the Torah, is
not an adequate definition.
We describe, in the Hav-
dalah service at the end of
the Sabbath, the separation
of the holy and the profane.
But both sides of this di-
vision are permitted.
We live in profane time,
after all, six days a week.
The Sabbath, on the other
hand, is rendered holy, in
part, because of the many
prohibitions that it entails.
Holiness and prohibition
are absolutely inseparable.
This would explain
Maimonides' seemingly
idiosyncratic classification
in his monumental law
code, the Mishneh Torah.
There, the book he chooses
to call "The Book of Holi-
ness" includes two basic
categories of law: "Prohib-
ited Sexual Relations" and
"Prohibited Foods" (the
third section, "Laws of
Slaughtering," is effectively
part of the second).

Leviticus
19:1-20:27.
Amos 9:7-15.

Tosafot (medieval com-
mentators on the Talmud),
too, adopted this definition.
Asking whether a woman
could address to a man the
formula of betrothal "Be-
hold, you are hallowed unto
me," they answered in the
negative. Since according to
Biblical law, a man,
through marriage, is not
prohibited from taking
other wives, the term "hal-
low" is inappropriate in con-
text. Again, holiness and
prohibition are inseparable.
Finally, this understand-
ing provides insight into the

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well-known Talmudic di-
rective: "Hallow yourself
even in that which is per-
mitted to you." As
Nachmanides, in the
above-mentioned commen-
tary, explains, one could do
many things that are never-
theless permitted by the
Torah and still be base and
despicable. One could be a
glutton, or a drunkard, or
even a somewhat kinky
sex-maniac, and still not
transgress. It is this that the
above directive is intended
to ameliorate.
Hallow yourself— that is,
quite simply, restrict your-

self, make it prohibited to
you — even though accord-
ing to the strict letter of the
law it might be permitted.
Certainly, this is only one
part of what it means to be
holy. But it is an essential
part, and a distinctly
Jewish part. It is one that,
in the modern world, has
often been denied. Yet by
denying, we deny the
uniquely Jewish soul of the
holy. Holiness, perhaps,
transcends all definition,
for it is itself the very act of
definition.

Copyright 1984, National
Havurah Committee

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