“Kidushin, holinesses, the name for the betrothal and marriage ceremony, derives from the word Kedushah” | cc: wikipedia > Outdoor huppa in Vienna
Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman follows the interpretations of the concept of “holy.” Rabbi Engelman’s Dvar Torah for Acharei Mot – Kedoshim parashot is a fascinating search to find out why is the Torah speaking about forbidden relations. What is so frightening about sensuality and the body within the Torah
Kidushin, Holinesses, the name for the betrothal and marriage ceremony, derives from the word Kedushah. People are often to discover that at this most romantic of moments, the blessing-praising of God for “sanctifying his people Israel through Wedding and Kidushin”, opens with the words “Blessed be thou God… who commanded us regarding incestuous relations…”, as if this is intrinsic and essential to the concept of Kedushah.
These two portions are often joined, and they have a common theme, the elaborate list of prohibited relations, listed at the end ofthe first Parsha, and repeated at the end of Kedoshim in different order;the first portion lists the forbidden relationships, the second lists the punishments of transgressors.
Different Reasons for Forbidding Relations
Most cultures seem to have forbidden and taboo relationships and various reasons have been suggested to explain why specifically these are the ones the torah forbids. Maimonides, averse to sensuality, explains that the Torah prohibited the most available relationships. Rabbi S.R. Hirsh also takes the availability and proximity of relatives as the reason for their being taboo, but explains this as the Torah’s way of ensuring that people will make an effort to expand and stretch their ability to love, create new relationships, rather than relying on already existent familial affection.
Kedoshim opens with the famous words: “Speak to the whole community of the children of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for holy am I, YHVH your God” (Lev. 19:2). It’s hard to define ‘holy’ even after so much has been written on the subject, but it is, without doubt, one of the concepts without which Judaism is unthinkable. The chapter continues enumerating some of the most central of commandments: “When you reap your fields do not finish of the corner… to the poor and stranger leave them… Do not steal, do not deny, and do not lie to each other… Do not cheat your friend, and do not steal, do not keep a workers’ wages with you till morning… Do not go gossiping, do not stand over your friends blood… Do not hate your brother in your heart…Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against your people, love your friend as yourself, I am YHVH” (Lev. 19: 9-18), laws for a fair and just and good society.
Many ask what the opening words “Be holy” mean in practical terms. Maimonides does not count this as a specific one of the 613 commandments, maybe because it is what he calls a ‘general command’ rather than one of the 613 specific ones. But this may be because sanctity requires something more than can be commanded, perhaps cannot be commanded at all. Only necessary boundaries can be created. Rashi quotes a comment from Sifra (second century commentary on Leviticus) that “wherever one finds a fence to licentiousness, one finds holiness” (19:2), as if to say that this boundary is enough to ensure sanctity. Nachmanides famously writes that this does not suffice, for one can do all one is commanded and remain a “degenerate with permission of the Torah”. “Be holy” is an instruction to “sanctify yourself (even) with what is permitted” (19:2). The Torah’s commandments alone do not make us holy and fulfilling them is not enough to make us holy.
Beit-Yaakov tells us that even if it is difficult even impossible, to pin down and define ‘holy’, for any definition will inevitably miss the mark, holy by definition being indefinable, yet we may know it in its affects. Commenting on the superfluity of there being two lists of forbidden relations, for proscribing the punishments for transgressors would certainly have made it clear that these sexual-relationships are forbidden, he explains that the two lists denote two separate ways of experiencing these relations, as prohibitions or as punishments. In The first list these relatives are described as forbidden, implying that were they not forbidden we would indulge in them. The second list, in the portion which opens with the words “be holy”, describes how one who is holy will experience these, as punishments, wholly undesirable. For an unhealthy person not eating white flour or sugar will be experienced as restrictive. A healthy person will have no interest in these things, does not need to be told to refrain, for he experiences them as poisonous, deadly. Similarly, the punishments in the second list describe the experience of one who is (already) holy. There is no criticism inherent here, just a note that someone who does feel desire to cohabit with their relatives lacks holiness.
We all are Holly because of what is not Holly
The Beit-Yaakov’s reading would translate the opening words as “You will be holy” rather than “You shall be holy”. This is a statement of fact, not a command. We all are holy in various degrees. Most of us have no inclination to cohabit with most of the long list of prohibited relations, implying that it’s not an all-or-nothing matter; we all are holy in various degrees, but we may know this only through the things we are not attracted to. Holy is known through not desiring what is prohibited. Both Rashi and Nachmanides may concur – holiness is known both through abstention and, as Nachmanides implies, through not desiring what is prohibited. Yet one can never know if one really does not desire what is forbidden or is suppressing and denying the desire, just as holiness itself is the unknown. One can never know whether to translate “Kedoshim Tihyu” as “Thou shall be holy” or as Thou art holy”.
Commenting on the Talmud’s question (Berachot 10a) “How did the Shunamite woman know that Elisha is holy?” (in Kings II 4:9) Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, (known as “Salanter”, founder of the Ethics movement in mid- 19th century) infers that there is normally no way of knowing that someone is holy for holiness is never evident. One cannot see that someone is holy and we are constantly to remember that we are adjoined to be holy and that we have never attained this.
So what is Holiness?
The two explanations that I cited above for why these relatives are forbidden suggest two approaches to holiness. For Maimonides these are to be shunned because these are far too available and the Torah is attempting to distance us from the most available possibilities of indulging “that sense (touch) that is shameful for us” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VII 4-10). According to Maimonides holiness is primarily a state of intellectual absorption and contemplation and any diversion from that is diversion from sanctity. Creating a boundary is creating a space through and within which, like Rashi teaches, holiness, opposite to sensuality or corporeality, may be experienced, given the right conditions. R. Hirshis explaining that holiness is not a static defined ‘thing’ but rather one that can be cultivated and magnified by our right actions, by developing love and growing out and towards another. It is not in the intellect and mind so much as in proper way of being and good human relationships.
The sense of holiness seems to imply tension; it may be not a calm placid state – that seems to be more the experience of Taharah-purity. Holiness has this element of tension, astriction, just as religion itself expresses this (Re+ligare – to bind, tie, reminding us of the primal Akeida story), sometimes giving birth to a violence almost inhering in this pulling on ones ties. Beit Yaakov’s explanation mitigates this: As in any learning, the allure of forbidden fruit abates; one comes to be less attracted to what may once have enraptured. For him, holiness involves a lessening of inner struggle, and the more holy one is – the less conflict will one feel or, perhaps, the same conflict will move to other perhaps more inner, realms. But it may be that those for whom the battle is constant are those who will know the greater holiness. Thus the Talmud is replete with stories of sages who’s sexual appetite did not abate for “The greater the person, the greater his passion” (Sukah 52a).
Edmond Husserl describes the moment of ‘now’, a perception which contains the no-longer-now of the recent past, and the not-yet-now of the anticipated future. We move from a singular past in which events have already been experienced into a future which becomes increasingly unpredictable. But, as Salanter describes, these ‘moments’, like holiness, may not be known in present tense. As in much learning, through hindsight and observation we learn ourselves, recognize moments of holiness that we have known, calm or turbulent; recognizing and assimilating these into our lives, we create space for and enhance, holiness, that indescribable ‘more’ without which our lives are indeed barren.
Now it is Holiness
Holiness is indefinable, but belongs to the family of words denoting specialness. When God Said at Sinai“And you shall be to me a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 20:7) he was expressing that they will be special for Him, and when, in the opening verse of Kedoshim, god says “Holy shall you be for holy am I, YHVH your God” (Lev. 19:2) he is asking us to be, and telling us that we are like Him, so that we can be special to Him.
Now is the Time
Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live
Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a holy message upon.
My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
This is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
(“The Gift” – versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)
 These two possibilities find parallel in the words of the Mahara”l of Prague (16th century Talmudist and mystic) who explains (Exodus 22:30) that the holiness that inheres in all of us needs to be maintained by careful guarding, and that it can also be enhanced by our positive choices. Abstaining prohibitions to which one is not attracted anyway, such as eating carcasses (ibid), is a necessary condition for maintaining ones sanctity, while resisting temptations such as forbidden co habitations enhances ones sanctity. But both, it seems, are result of coming up against boundaries.