I am currently working on a presentation for this coming Sunday, on how “natural” versus “man-made” items are valued in Jewish tradition and thus too mentally distracted to think a lot about atonement, forbidden sexual relationships, and holiness, the major themes this week. The comments below are cobbled together from 2012, 2013, and 2015.
This week, we read a not overly long double Torah portion, Acharei Mot (“after the death of,” referring to Aaron’s sons) and Kedoshim (“holy”). They present both ritual and behavioral expectations of the Israelites and make it clear both are required. Acharei Mot (Lev. 16:1-18:30) deals with the atonement rituals of Yom Kippur, including how Aaron can safely enter the Holy of Holies; ritual purification; and forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest. It includes sacrifices, blood sprinkling, the equation blood=life, and driving a scapegoat into the wilderness. Appropriately, most of Acharei Mot is read at the morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur.
While Acharei Mot largely deals with expiation for past misdeeds, Kedoshim (Lev. 19:1-20:27) prescribes how to behave from now on. Kedoshim immediately gets to its point (19:1): “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The rest of the portion tells us how, and Ch. 19 is the core of the Holiness Code, Ch. 17-27. Some laws are puzzling, like a law against rounding the corners of one’s beard. Easier for us to accept are commands like helping the needy, being fair and honest, using honest weights and measures, not taking advantage (e.g., by insulting the deaf or putting a literal or figurative stumbling block in front of the blind), respecting the aged, and loving the stranger as yourself. So we get an idea of what being holy entails, but holiness per se is not explicitly defined.
We read in Lev. 20:26, “You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.” Generally, in Judaism, we say something or someone is holy when it or s/he is set apart because it is special, distinguished in a positive manner (as opposed to the punishment of karet, being cut off from the people). Thus, the holy Sabbath (“Shabbat kodesh”) is set apart from the rest of the week, and a wife is set apart from other women in the part of the marriage service called “kiddushin”. Other interpretations of holiness focus on restraint: in terms of forbidden sexual relationships (Maimonides) or more generally in terms of personal conduct (Rashi, Nachmanides)
Marc Gary (Exec. Vice Chancellor of JTS) wrote in “A Holy Tongue – Kedushah and the Ethics of Speech,” “Modern society has little patience for the concept of kedushah because holiness insists on the importance of distinctions and separateness… (T)he notion of kedushah appears countercultural in today’s society, elevating distinctiveness over universalism.” However, given the recent global decline in universalism, I’d say that is no longer the case.
You may have noticed my recent fascination with Purity and Danger by Mary T. Douglas. From pp. 54-55: “Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order. Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy. Incest and adultery (Lev. XVIII, 6–20) are against holiness, in the simple sense of right order.…Then follows in chapter XIX another list of actions which are contrary to holiness. Developing the idea of holiness as order, not confusion, this list upholds rectitude and straight-dealing as holy, and contradiction and double-dealing as against holiness. …To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind.” This wholeness is what we are to aspire to as part of being made in the image of God.
The essence of holiness is not simply “I have set you apart,” but “I have set you apart to be Mine (20:26).” “You are holy” means not only that you have been set apart (distinguished) because you have behaved in a manner conducive to holiness, but with the intent that you will continue to do so in accordance with the concept of Imitatio Dei, imitation of God.
As the rabbi began his lecture on repentance, he asked the class, “What must we do before we can expect forgiveness from sin?”
After a long silence, one of the men in attendance raised his hand and said:
Remember that old song, “I’m my own grandpa”? It’s sung by Ray Stevens on youtube, and the family tree is helpfully built, branch by branch, as the song progresses. Here is the result:
Murphy, a Dishonest Lawyer…
Murphy, a dishonest lawyer, bribed one of his client’s jurors to hold out for a charge of manslaughter, fearing the murder charge being brought by the state. The jury was out for days before returning with the verdict:
Later, as Murphy paid off the corrupt juror, he asked him if he had a hard time convincing the other jurors to see things his way.
“Boy, did I!” said the juror. “They kept voting to acquit!
Jokes and Lessons from the Professions (selected, and I left out the lessons)
The Teacher The answer to the problem was “log(1+x).” A student copied the answer from the student next to him, but didn’t want to make it obvious that he was cheating, so he changed the answer slightly, to “timber(1+x).”
The Businessman A young businessman had just started his own firm. He rented a beautiful office and had it lavishly furnished. One day, while he was sitting at his office desk, he saw a man come into the outer office. Wanting to impress the stranger, he picked up his phone and pretended he had a big deal working. After some time, he hung up and asked the visitor, “Can I help you?” “Yeah, I’ve come to activate your phone lines,” the man replied.
The Bus Driver An elderly lady boarded a bus and asked the bus driver to excuse her as she had forgotten to bring along her pensioner’s pass. “I am sorry, ma’am,” the bus driver said, “but you will have to pay the full fare without your pass.” The lady got extremely angry and she shouted, “You go to Hell!” A rather timid man at the back of the bus pleaded, “Lady, is it okay if I get off first at the next stop before the driver takes you to your destination?”
Quotes about Wholeness
You are all things. Denying, rejecting, judging or hiding from any aspect of your total being creates pain and results in a lack of wholeness. Joy Page
That’s why people listen to music or look at paintings. To get in touch with that wholeness. Corita Kent
We live in a fractured world. I’ve always seen it as my role as an artist to attempt to make wholeness. Anish Kapoor
Individuality is only possible if it unfolds from wholeness. David Bohm