God In The Real World

  • Rav Alex Israel




Please pray for a refua sheleima for Yisrael ben Rut and Reut bat Sima,
Alon Shevut youth injured in separate accidents over Chol Ha-Moed.







by Rav Alex Israel




            The reader of parashat Kedoshim finds himself confronted by an entire kaleidoscope of Jewish law.  It would seem that no topic remains untouched; the variety and scope is astounding.  No area of human existence is left unexamined.  Every sphere of life has its directive and regulation which give it unique shape and form and transform a mundane existence into a particularly Jewish mode of living.  As we read each new verse, we move from topic to topic - from idolatry to social welfare, from the prohibition of acts of vengeance to the banning of clothing woven from wool and linen; tattoos, respect for the elderly, the strict outlawing of communication with the dead - are but a few of the varied areas covered in our weekly portion.  The Torah lurches effortlessly from subject to subject as if this series of directives were a flowing narrative.


            The reader will ask the question, what binds this eclectic collection of laws together?  What gives this narrative shape and form?  The Midrash has an answer.  The Midrash is drawn to the unusual introduction to Kedoshim.  The text stresses that the laws of Kedoshim were spoken to a gathering of the entire nation.  (This phrase appears only one other occasion in the Bible Exodus 12:1 with the law of the Paschal Lamb):


"The Lord spoke to Moses saying: speak to THE ENTIRE ISRAELITE COMMUNITY and say to them: You shall be holy ..." (19:1)


            Why was the entire nation convened in a mass gathering for this particular group of laws?




"Rabbi Chiya taught: This section was taught as a public gathering because the central principles of the Torah are based on it.

Rabbi Levi said: The Ten Commandments are contained in this section:


"I am the Lord your God" and here "I am the Lord your God" (19:2 and v. 26)


"You shall not have other gods" and here, "Do not make for yourselves any image" (19:4)


"God's name in vain" and here, "Do not swear falsely in My name" (19:7)


"Remember the Shabbat" and here, "Keep my Shabbats" (19:3)

"Honor your father and mother" and here, "Each person should fear their mother and father" (19:3)


"Do not murder" - "Do not stand idly over the blood of your fellow"(19:16)


"Do not steal" - "Do not steal" (19:11)


"Do not commit adultery" - "Do not make prostitute your daughter" (19:29)

"Do not bear false witness against your fellow" - "Do not talebear" (19:11)


"Do not covet" - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18)"[1] [1]


            The parallel between our parasha and the Ten Commandments is striking but what does it all mean?  The mass assembly of the nation brings to mind images of the revelation at Sinai when the entire nation "came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain, the mountain ablaze with flames to the very sky...and the Lord spoke to you out of the fire ..."[2] [2].


            But it is unlikely that the focus here is on the experiential dimension of the Sinai revelation.  Rather, it would seem that the Torah here is interested in the content of the revelation.  Why repeat the Ten Commandments in a new expanded form?  Because the great principles which were given amidst fire and cloud must translate themselves into regulations which guide our every step in the prosaic rhythm of the everyday.  We do not require a Sinai to experience the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are for life.  We experience them on a regular basis through our dedicated adherence to Jewish law, an entire code for living which touches every sphere of human activity. 


            If there is one hallmark of Kedoshim, I would pinpoint it as this all-encompassing, very typically Jewish approach to religion.  Judaism celebrates life.  It infiltrates and regulates the way that the ordinary person lives.




            It is puzzling that a single law, not particularly striking at the outset, makes a threefold appearance in parashat Kedoshim.  It is a law which warns us against spiritual clairvoyance.


"Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits to be defiled by them; I am the Lord your God.  You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old ..." (19:30-31)


"If any man turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and strays after them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people" (20:6)


"A man or woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death ... The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron..." (20:27-21:1)


            Why is this law singled out for repetition?  Is it a problem of such epic proportions that we need to be warned about it not twice but three times?


            First, a definition of these practices would be useful.  Rashi defines these practices as methods of connecting with the dead.  The "Ov" is a practice whereby the one raises the spirit of the dead in order to know what the future holds.  The spirit will talk from inside the body of the performer of this rite.  The second practice (Yid'oni) has a similar objective but here a bird's bone is inserted into the mouth and the spirit of the dead will speak from the mouth.


            Why does the Torah oppose these practices so vehemently?  The immediate reason is clear.  They are part and parcel of the pagan idolatrous culture of Canaan.  This culture is antithetical to the monotheistic atmosphere that represents Israel and the Torah.  These practices are therefore outlawed.


            But an additional comment is worthwhile.  Hirsch notes that the command to respect the elderly is linked to the ban on this practice of necromancy.


"The erroneous conception of these oracles seek ... to lose all their powers of thought and feeling so that, deprived of all their own senses, they fall under the power of the oracle giving spirit.  ... He does not wish to place the decision for what he is about to do ... under the dictate of the word of God whose laws for human behavior are addressed to the clear wakeful mind nor under the dictates of his own thinking brain ... with all his mental and moral free will.  He places the decision for himself and his acts under the dictates of some dark mysterious power ...


Rising before the aged is again the complete positive opposite to this ...  Our text demands rising to ones feet for "Seiva" - an honorable old age spent in faithfulness to duty, and for "Zikna," maturity of wisdom which has been obtained by the study of Torah ... To experience and wisdom - to the clear circumspect human understanding which matures with experience, and the spirit of God which speaks out of the Torah - are we to pay tribute and when we meet their representatives, in "old men" and "wise men," we are to show our homage by rising and giving honor to them.  ... But this is the opposite of the 'ghost and the spirit.'"


            Here R. Hirsch sees the elderly as the answer to the desire to seek advice from the spirits.  The elderly will give superior advice.  Likewise, the Midrash on 21:1 (noting the mention of clairvoyance adjacent to the laws of priests) sees the priests as the appropriate address for ones' religious and spiritual quest, the preferred alternative to necromancy.


            Man has always been intrigued by the future.  Man wants to know that the future will bring success and comfort and he consults with the dead in a moment of crisis because he imagines that the untethered soul has a clearer view of his destiny than he has.  In the Bible, King Saul consults with one of these oracles.  He is about to go to war and he feels that he cannot fight without some knowledge of the war's outcome (see I Samuel Ch. 30).  But in the realistic practical view of Judaism there is no place for this.  Man's destiny is determined by him and him alone.  His actions - in the real world -make him what he is.  Do we attempt to determine our future by seeking the spirits, or do we work on changing our lives from within, by slow, painful self-transformation?




"Many religions view the phenomenon of death as a positive spectacle, inasmuch as it highlights and sensitizes religious consciousness and 'sensibility.'  They therefore sanctify death and the grave because it is here that we find ourselves on the threshold of transcendence, at the portal of the world to come.  Death is a window filled with light, open to an exalted, supernal realm.  Judaism, however, proclaims that coming into contact with the dead precipitates defilement.  Judaism abhors death, organic decay and dissolution.  It bids one to choose life and sanctify it.  Authentic Judaism as reflected in Halakhic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life.  Death negates the entire magnificent experience of halakhic man.  '"I am freed from the dead' (Ps 88:6) - when a person dies he is freed of the commandments" (Shabbat 30a).


... The task of the religious individual is bound up with the performance of commandments, and this performance is confined to this world, to physical, concrete reality, to clamorous, tumultuous life, pulsating with exuberance and strength.  Therefore, holiness need keep itself far away from death" (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Halakhic Man. pg.31-33).


            Necromancy is designated as that which defiles.  Why?  Because it is an attempt to provide an answer to life by seeking out the dead.  But we shall see that parashat Kedoshim bears the hallmark of 'kedusha' - holiness, and it is its "this-worldly" orientation which enables kedoshim to provide a recipe for holiness.




            At first glance, the heading of our parasha would seem somewhat misplaced.  For a parasha so involved in the routine acts of life, we find the unlikely heading of "holiness."  ""You shall be holy" is the very opening line of our parasha and also its concluding verse. 


"The Lord spoke to Moses saying: speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (19:1-2).


            And at its conclusion.


"You shall be holy to Me for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from the other peoples to be Mine" (20:26).


            Usually, holiness is seen is the result of withdrawal from the treadmill of everyday life and society, the exclusive reserve of a pious elitist group.  The hermit can be holy hidden from the world and its polluting influences, the reclusive monk, the frail old scholar bent over his books.  But Judaism gives a very different presentation of the road that leads to the holy life.  The halakha - Jewish Law - celebrates life in all its colorful diversity.  Judaism invented the concept of "a society of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5) by viewing the world - every area of life - as having the potential to be sanctified.  The halakha sets as its goal to infuse every action with the sacred.  Agriculture, commerce, family life, sexuality, clothing, can all become connected with the Godly.  Holiness is not an escape from the world; it is in the very fiber of life.  In the words of Rav Kook, we do not view the world and society as a Godless wasteland, vacant of spiritual content.  Rather, we define our world as "not yet holy."[3] [3]




            The theme that we have outlined is essential to the thrust of central lesson of the Book of Leviticus.


            Up to this point, the Book of Leviticus (Sefer Vayikra) has concerned itself with ritual procedure and definition.  Maybe a quick summary would be useful:







Laws of sacrifices (korbanot)



Ceremonial inauguration of the Sanctuary



Kosher (pure) and Non-Kosher (impure) animals



Laws of ritual purity and the body: Bodily emissions, leprosy.



The service of Yom Kippur in the Sanctuary



The prohibition of sacrifices outside the Temple



Prohibited sexual relationships



Parashat Kedoshim



Laws of festivals, slaves, sabbatical years etc.


            The first half of the book of Leviticus (A-E) deals with holiness as it regards the sanctuary itself - What sacrifices are offered in the temple etc.  Even the laws of purity and impurity are really connected in with the Temple in that the impure are barred from entering its doors.  Even the Yom Kippur service (E) tells us what goes on inside the Temple but not what goes on outside of it.


            But we shall see that from Chapter 18 onwards, Leviticus changes its focus.  It begins to orientate itself to ordinary life with all its weaknesses; the sexual drive, corruption, greed, paganism.  It begins to formulate a code for achieving holiness, not only inside the sacred walls of the sanctuary, but in the towns and fields.  In the second half of Leviticus, when a law is addressed to the priests, it concerns their life outside the sanctuary and not within it.  The laws of the Sabbatical year sanctify our fields, the laws of festivals sanctify our time.


            Leviticus teaches us a vital lesson.  In the kabbalistic phrase "There is no place where God's presence cannot be found."  Or in the words of the chassidic Rebbe of Kotzk: "Where is God?  Wherever you let him enter."




            We will conclude with one fascinating Midrash.  The Midrash describes Moses ascending to the upper world to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people.  He arrives and presents himself before the angels.  They turn to God in indignation.  "What business has one born of woman amongst us?  That secret treasure ... Thou desirest to give it to flesh and blood?"  The angels are outraged.  Has God waited with his Torah so long to give it to a mere mortal, with all his weaknesses, passions and contradictions?


            God tells Moses to argue his case.  Moses answers by quoting the Ten Commandments.  He quotes "I am the Lord ... who brought you from the Land of Egypt" and turns to the angels: "Did you go down to Egypt?  Were you enslaved?"  He quotes "Remember the Shabbat day" and asks the angels, "Do you perform work that you need to rest?  "Do not murder.  Do not commit adultery.  Do not steal."  He asks the angels: "Does jealousy exist amongst you?  Do you have a desire, an inclination towards any of these things?"[4]


            And the angels conceded.


            The Torah is given to humans "born of woman ... flesh and blood" with all our inner contradiction and weakness.  But the Torah was not designed for angels.  It is written for real people.  It is given to us, and if it is given to us, then it is possible for us to perform its laws and to realize its vision.  Our role is to use it as our guide to make the world a little better, to make the world a little more holy.

[1] Vayikra Rabba 24:5

[2]Deuteronomy 4:11

[3] Orot Hakodesh I pg. 143-145. This phrase (not yet holy) is the invention of R. Dr. Norman Lamm. See his "Faith and Doubt" pg. 73-74.

[4] Talmud Shabbat 88b