What Is Kedushah, Anyway?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Kedoshim

Agreement of Tradition and Scripture

I really should not be presenting HaKetav VeHaKabbalah’s reading of 20;19, because he focuses on female anatomy and the physical aspects of the act of sexual relations, topics I am not confident I can discuss appropriately for a venue such as this. I can’t fully resist, though, because his lengthy remarks intend to show how Rabbinic tradition, the kabbalah, matches the plain sense of the text, the ketav (giving us the name of his work, HaKetav VeHakkabalah).

I found the phrase ten times in his commentary, but this is the first time I remember seeing it. Without all the details, Yevamot 54b claimed our verse’s reference to she’ero he’era—a phrase translated along the lines of “he bared his relative’s (or his own) nakedness”—really wants to teach us about the nature of bestiality, the kind of physical act a man would have to perform to be liable for that sin.

R. Mecklenburg discusses anatomical differences between ordinary women, aylonit women (whom the Gemara thought to be physically different, not just infertile or sterile), and animals. I recognize it loses its power without the back and forth, but I bring it up to note his dedication to showing that when the Gemara uses a verse for something other than its simple meaning, he holds there is a closer connection than we would think.

It models emunat chachamim, confidence our Sages were close and careful readers of the text, and expounded that text in ways the text itself allows or even ratifies.

Laying Out the Stakes Before the Punishment

The Torah lists the prohibited sexual relationships twice, in close proximity, chapter eighteen and then again in our parsha, VaYikra chapter twenty. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks the first list announces the prohibitions, the second gives the punishment for each. They are separated by chapter nineteen, where the Torah tells us to be kedoshim, to sanctify ourselves personally, communally, and nationally.

The interruption comes to teach us why we would need to administer such harsh punishments, why these laws matter to a Torah society. Adhering to these rules, for R. Hirsch, constitutes a prerequisite for the sanctity we seek to foster. Only a nation whose sons and daughters have been born from a family ordered by the Torah’s rules for sexuality can qualify for Kedoshim tihyu, be sanctified [Note that he understands the rules to aim at producing a certain kind of child, an idea similar to Sefer HaChinuch’s view of the arayot, the sexual prohibitions].

This explains the punishments, removal of violators from society [by death or Heavenly excision], because they threaten the society’s ability to achieve what it seeks, sanctity.

[R. Hirsch adds here a piece we might not always consider, the impact on society when people flout these rules. What Westerners often insist is private conduct between consenting adults R. Hirsch sees as broader in its social ramifications.]

Defining Sanctity, Exceeding Nature

Malbim offers a path to kedushah which also explains what this sanctity is, in the first verse of chapter nineteen, where the Torah commands us to be kedoshim. We achieve it by rising about our material selves, abstaining from the material, follow our aspirations to more Godly and spiritual aspects of life. With levels: some conquer their appetite for wrongful sexuality or prohibited foods, some overcome all their material desires and pleasures of this world, until they become angelic. In his view, this is what verses mean when they speak of God as kadosh, that God has no material element or investment.

Someone who achieves this will rise above the usual way God runs the world, what we call nature, and be guided more providentially and miraculously. He attributes it to people being an olam katan (microcosm), parallel and similar to the world/universe as a whole. The person who operates solely on a spiritual track will find him/herself in a world guided supernaturally.

He argues that that is why the verse ends “for I am kadosh, I am Hashem, your Elokim.” That last Name of God, he says, signifies the direct divine Providence for the Jewish people, means to say that if we become kadosh, we will receive that direct Providence. I noticed it because I have seen others assume Elokim means the opposite, refers to God’s overall guidance of the world, where the four letter Name, Hashem, bespeaks more specific Providence.

Or, Imitatio Dei

Malbim adds another reading, Abba Shaul’s, although I’m not sure where he found it. He has Abba Shaul saying our verse teaches us the obligation to be similar to God, just as God is sanctified, separate, and exalted, the only One with true power to sustain the world, all of it going according to Hashem’s Will, a person has full power over his/her course in life, to use his/her freewill to choose a life of cultivating the kinds of traits similar to God’s.

[Abba Shaul does say this, but in Shabbat 133b, expounding zeh Keli ve-anvehu, this is my God and I will beautify Him, from the Song after the Splitting of the Sea. In the Sifra where Malbim found the first reading we saw, Abba Shaul is quoted, but only to say that God’s attendants should wait for Him. I think Malbim conflated the two, that since we know Abba Shaul believed in emulating how God is described in Tanach, his call here for “waiting for Him” must mean making ourselves more Godlike.]

Another View of Sanctity

R. David Tsvi Hoffmann doesn’t want kedushah to indicate withdrawal from the world. For support, he points out that chapter nineteen doesn’t fit easily into one overall framework, in his view because life isn’t all one thing. Kedushah means the highest level of ethical conduct, seeking to produce good, to detest evil. Only God has full kedushah, he concedes, but people are meant to strive towards it in all the various areas of life. Hence a chapter with many specific rules, in multiple frameworks, because in each, we should act with kedushah.

We move from sexuality, whose parameters gave R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg a chance to highlight Chazal’s care with the Torah text, to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s reminder of sexual morality’s role as a  prerequisite for the kedushah of chapter nineteen, followed by three views of the nature of that kedushah, rising above the material world, emulating God through our actions in the material world, or “just” being our most ethical selves in all our actions. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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