The Nature of Sanctity

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

(Rabbi Rothstein will be co-chairing a Yom Iyun on the Teachings of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Sunday April 29, 9:30am-12:30pm. Keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Speakers include Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein and Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein.)

Ramban to Kedoshim: The Nature of Sanctity

Ramban made famous the phrase “naval birshut ha-Torah, a person who acts badly, with full permission of the Torah.” He said that in his reaction to 19;2’s call to be kedoshim, a term that (like arayot, which we saw in Acharei Mot) does not translate easily or obviously.

Rashi took it to refer to staying away from prohibited sexual relationships, because the Torah mentions kedushah only, mostly, or often in connection with rules about sexuality [Ramban will go in a different direction, but I think we should notice that for Rashi, proper sexual conduct was essential to kedushah, as far as the Torah was concerned].

General Abstemiousness

Ramban notes that Torat Kohanim 1;2 phrased itself more generally, that we should be perushim, full stop (Rashi had said perushim min ha-arayot, separate ourselves from arayot). When 12;3 told us ve-hitkadishtem (make yourself kadosh, a word I am purposely leaving to Ramban to translate)…ki kadosh AniTorat Kohanim said that just as Hashem is kadosh, we should be kadosh, just as Hashem is parush (separate, a concept Ramban will clarify), so should we be.

He identifies this as an example of the Torah’s tendency to prohibit specific examples of a negative appetite or tendency, and then generalize that. Here, the Torah flat-out prohibited certain sexual relationships and foods, but left room that someone who wishes to live a life of physical pleasures could be involved in sex or food too much of the time (there’s no specific Torah law against—these are examples he gives, not me– a husband and wife spending most of their lives physically pleasuring each other, or against a man having so many wives that he needs to spend exorbitant amounts of time giving each of them their turn, or Jews spending too much time seeking out and enjoying fine wines and meats).

Such a person would be a naval birshut ha-Torah. [The term already means something different than how I have heard people use it—the naval isn’t disgusting in the colloquial sense, it’s a person who is too involved in physical pleasure, particularly of sex and food, regardless of whether s/he indulges that pleasure in ways we today would see as disgusting.] The words kedoshim tihyu came to tell us to be perushim min hamutarot, to abstain or limit our partaking of even from that which is permissible.

Sex, Wine, and Dirt—Abstemiousness in Practice

Berachot 22a says the Rabbis made certain rules to teach Torah scholars not to spend too much time with their wives, like roosters (the Talmudic word). For Ramban, the standard should be that which is necessary for maintaining the species [it’s possible he meant they should have intercourse only when intent on getting pregnant, but halachah requires a husband to ensure his wife is sexually satisfied, as Ramban noted elsewhere in this commentary. I prefer to think Ramban would have agreed that an overall healthy relationship for a couple is vital to the propagation of the species as well, and that includes a sexually satisfying relationship. His focus is that it should not become an end of its own, which leads to excess].

He singles out wine as well, that the person should be mekadesh, sanctify, himself, by limiting his wine intake. That’s why a Nazir is called kadosh, and why Noach and Lot’s drunken disasters are presented as cautionary tales [this again could be taken to mean that he would prefer people not drink wine at all; that, too, seems an excessive conclusion, since halachah prefers we use wine in various regular ways, such as at Kiddush and Havdallah. I again prefer to believe he was reacting to excess, was promoting a moderate enjoyment, where it neither becomes an end of its own nor leads to the drunkenness of Noach or Lot].

His last examples revolve around tum’ah, which he expands from technical ritual impurity to eating to excess and speaking of disgusting matters (or in disgusting ways). Ritual impurity is not prohibited by the Torah, he concedes, but Chagigah 18b says that Torah scholars stay away from the clothes of those who are not invested in halachic observance (amei ha-aretz), which he attributes to their unconcern with maintaining cleanliness, and is also another reason a Nazir is called kadosh. For speech, he notes that R. Chiyya was reported to never have engaged in sicha betelah, idle or empty conversation [I was unable to find his source for this; in Sukkah 28a, R. Eliezer says that he never engaged in a sichat chullin, which is slightly different].

Cleanliness Is Next To…

From all this, Ramban says we will come to cleanliness of hands and bodies, why Berachot 53b says that the Torah’s telling us ve-hitkadishtem (20;7 as well as earlier, in Parshat Shemini) means to wash before eating, and vi-hyitem kedoshim means to wash after (mayim acharonim), and ki kadosh refers to the oil people would put on after meals.

These are Rabbinic requirements, yet they fit the ideas of cleanliness and abstemiousness from the ordinary masses that the Torah promotes. For Ramban, in other words, kedushah means setting ourselves apart from the ordinary masses, who partake of the physical to excess, and do not develop a cleanliness of person (both ritual and in its ordinary sense) that the Torah wants.

Legislation is Not the End of the Matter

His final point is that this model of appending a general adjuration to specific prohibitions, as a way to reach for a goal in ways not laid out in detail, appears elsewhere as well. The Torah made rules about not stealing or defrauding, and then wrote (Devarim 6;18) that we should do that which is right and good; to Ramban, that means we should go beyond the law to find ways to accommodate each other. (One who adheres strictly to financial law may still fail to accomplish what the Torah wants, which is that people work harmoniously together, and resolve conflicts that do arise in ways that satisfy all parties to the extent possible).

In the case of Shabbat as well, the Torah prohibits some actions but adds a general requirement of tishbot, to refrain from work in the simple sense.

I want to stress the two sides. Ramban fully believes in halachah, in the need to assiduously and scrupulously follow every jot and tittle of what’s legislated. He wants us to know, however, that that does not summarize or complete our obligations—the Torah has overall goals we need to strive towards as well, regardless of whether halachah forces us there unalterably.

We need to be moderate (or abstemious) in our physical pleasures, we need to be clean, ritually and in its simple sense, we need to act generously and accommodatingly in business, and we need to make Shabbat a day of rest. Regardless of whether we could find ways around any or all of those. Because those who get around it technically are nevalim birshut haTorah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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