(206) 527-9399

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim; A Holiness Code for Tomorrow

Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

This week’s Torah portion marks the beginning of what is known as the Holiness Code which will span the rest of Leviticus. This Holiness Code is a code of conduct, a guide that seeks to define a powerful spiritual practice, a way of being and acting in the world for the Jewish people. This all-important text begins with:

I am the Eternal One your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their traditions… You shall observe my decrees and regulations, through the practice of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal One.[Lev. 18:2-5]

This sets the tone for creating a Holiness Code that sets apart, that distinguishes the Jewish people from its Canaanite neighbors. In the early years of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan this made perfect sense. All of us too, in our formative years, have spent much energy shaping our unique identity by defining who we were based on what we were not; differentiating ourselves from the social norms, and adopting behaviors antithetical to those in place (see parents for details.) No wonder that the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, also means “separate.” In the formative years of the Jewish people, such a Holiness Code solidified a specific Jewish identity through unique practices that were antithetical, as well, to those in place in Canaan. Three thousand years later, however, does the Holiness Code and the Halacha as its offshoot still serve this purpose, or has it evolved to embody something else? In other words, should post-modern Jewish identity still be tied to a Holiness Code?

In our days, many see these biblical verses as God denouncing assimilation. They argue that the Jewish people are in danger of disappearing for having too readily adopted the culture and practices of their host nations. Abnegating the teachings of the Torah — the precepts and values of our tradition, the practices that make us unique and, therefore, separate — they claim, threatens our very survival. There are deep truths in their argument. In many aspects, the culture in which we live is far from being holy; it is violent, hyper-sexual, unjust, and altogether values-confused in many ways. We might, indeed, be better off sticking to our time-honored traditions, our Holiness Code, in order to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual compass. But does that mean that we, as Jews, are to remain stuck at a reactive teenage level of consciousness in order to continue defining our sense of identity in this global world?

Let’s be honest though, there is a plurality of ways to express one’s Jewish identity in the 21st century. In truth, there has always been a plurality of ways. While many preach the myth of the once-upon-a-time “one way” everyone was Jewish, this has never been the case in our 3000 year history. Perhaps, in our days, we have taken this pluralism a little too far, however, and our Judaism has become individualistic to the extreme — each of us picking and choosing from the Holiness Code what works best for our lifestyle but without being consistent with that either. Is what’s left still Judaism then, or have we hollowed it out so much that it is no longer recognizable as such?

The answer to these questions, I suspect, lies in the middle. Not in the rejection of modernity as a threat to Jewish survival and, consequently, a fearful withdrawal into the rigid container of the ancient Holiness Code. Not in the rejection of this Holiness Code altogether as irrelevant and passé and, consequently, cutting ourselves off from our Judaic heritage which for generations has gifted us a spiritual practice that has helped us live more ethical, loving, compassionate, values-centered lives. No; our day calls for a re-interpretation of our Holiness Code, of our Halacha, in a way that would make it relevant to our post-modern global lives. And not just “relevant,” but essential to it. A spiritual discipline that would help bring balance to the multidimensionality of our exponentially complex global lives. Perhaps, contrary to the original Holiness Code of Leviticus — which sat out to separate the Israelites from their neighbors in a reactive way — this Holiness Code of tomorrow would set out to redefine an evolving Jewish spiritual practice that would proactively contribute to uniting the nations of the world as one diverse human race on one precious and fragile planet. And on that day, kadosh, the Hebrew word for holiness would no longer be understood as “separate,” rather it would have to rise to a loftier meaning: that of “integrated.”