Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Walk Article


Achrei Mot-Kedoshim-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            Parshat Kedoshim begins with the exhortation to be holy.  It's an argument among those rabbis who count mitzvoth whether this statement is a separate mitzvah or a general proclamation introducing a long list of mitzvoth.  It really makes no difference.  It clearly is a goal of the Torah to make us holy, and that is just very difficult.  Holy means to be saintly, pious, devout.  How do I accomplish this extremely demanding task? Believe it or not this is actually an argument among Jewish authorities, just like everything else.  Wouldn't it be cool if just one week I started off by saying and every rabbi agrees that…  Not gonna happen.  Generally, the two major positions about being holy are positive and negative.  Do I become holy by doing certain things, or do I achieve this exalted status by refraining from certain behavior patterns?

            Until recently I preferred the positive approach.  This way of thinking appealed to me emotionally, and seemed to be supported by the context of the verses.  Right after the demand that we be holy there are a large number of mitzvoth most of which are actions which we should march out and do.  In the list are:  revere your parents, keep Shabbat, chastise your fellow, love your colleague, revere God, treat the stranger like the native, honor the sage, and, perhaps most famously, sanctify God's name.  Although there are also negative commandments in this section (like don't worship idols, don't place a stumbling block before the blind, and don't oppress the downtrodden), these positives stand out and dominate the landscape of the text and our consciousness.  So, I was very content to believe that I could be a holy transformer by doing the right things, pushing the right buttons. 

            The other team was dominated by the great commentary Rashi who based his opinion on a Midrash which in turn based itself on the previous section of the Torah, rather than the succeeding stuff.  Right before this declaration is a list of forbidden couples.  So, Rashi concludes:  Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness (Leviticus 19:2).  This didn't appeal to me.  However, I recently came across a remarkable new way of expressing the negative path to holiness.

            David Gelernter is a distinguished professor of computer sciences at Yale University.  He has received many awards, has published numerous books and is an accomplished artist, but he's, sadly, most famous for being a victim of the Unabomber in 1993.  Professor Gelernter is also a serious thinker on Jewish issues, and in 2009 published a fascinating little book named Judaism:  A Way of Being.  In this worthwhile book he suggests that there are four basic issues which must be confronted within Judaism to understand what traditional Judaism wants from us.  He calls them Separation, the point of Jewish law; Veil, getting in touch with the transcendent; Perfect asymmetry, different roles for different genders; Inward pilgrimage, reconciling a compassionate God with cruel reality.  Our concerns about holiness are covered in the section called Separation.

            Professor Gelernter explains initially that holiness is separation, but he goes much further.  Holiness is a spiritual idea; separation a physical gesture.  We use separation from the mundane and the natural to achieve holiness.  The Torah and later the Rabbis prescribe a tremendous number of mitzvoth and practices involving separation.  For example:  prohibiting crossbreeding, prohibiting the wearing of cloth from wool and linen, milk from meat, separating Shabbat and holidays from the weekdays, differentiating Jewish practices from the heathen customs, the list goes on.  According to Gelernter the Torah declares that separation is more than a theme; it is the microcosm of Judaism as a whole.  But he goes on to elucidate that separation is more then just a negative, departing from the profane, it requires great effort.  And here is where he inspired me.  Refraining from the wrong behavior or temporarily separating myself from mundane activities like my computer or cell phone on Shabbat is very hard.  He compares this effort to God separating the waters of the Red Sea.  It is a Herculean endeavor.  The triteness of Just Say No should be apparent to us all.  What I called the negative approach to holiness, requires tremendous positive energy to achieve. 

            The intellectual basis for this separation is made clear every Saturday night and at the end of every holiday.  We recite the following formula:  You have graced us with knowledge of Your Torah, and You have made the distinction (separation) between holy and mundane, light and darkness, Israel and the other nation, and between Shabbat and the six days of work.  This addition in the fourth blessing of our Shmoneh Esreh prayer after Shabbat and holidays maintains that this is the scholarly underpinning of our religion.  We philosophically assert that the ability to separate is the basic attribute of humanity.  We affirm this concept in the Neila service concluding Yom Kippur:  You have distinguished humans from animals, and we emulate God by making distinctions.  

I think that the verse in our parsha right after the command to be holy confirms this approach.  We are commanded to revere parents and guard Shabbat.  We distinguish between different people and different times.  All humans may have a soul, but we don't treat them all the same.  Every moment has infinite potential for accomplishment, but we acknowledge quality times with our friends, family, and Maker.  Our entire Halachic system establishes a hierarchy of separations meant to impose our values on the chaos around us.

Nature is always erasing our efforts to build walls and structures against the undifferentiated scenery around us.  As Robert Frost said:  Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.  It is the world itself.  We, on the other hand, are trying to achieve a life of ethical and moral choices.  To withstand the encroachments of the natural order on my life and my behavior requires me to transcend the normal, we call that being holy. 

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