The Horizons Of Holiness


‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” [Leviticus 19:2].

Holiness is certainly a “religious” word expressing a worthy ideal, if not the worthiest of all. But upon encountering this idea in the opening verses of Kedoshim, we must admit that the concept seems rather vague and difficult to define. What does it really mean to be “holy”?

The commentaries of Rashi and Ramban are thought-provoking, not only because of their differences, but also because of their similarities. Rashi explains “you shall be holy” to mean “you shall separate yourselves! Abstain from forbidden sexual relationships and from sin, because wherever you find a warning to guard against sexual immorality, you find the mention of holiness.”

Since the sexual drive is probably the strongest of our physiological needs and urges, it makes sense that Rashi will use this activity as a paradigm for all others. Who is a holy individual? The one who can control his sexual temptations, and arrange his life in a way in which he/she will not end up trapped in forces which often overtake and destroy all too many families.

Ramban, after initially quoting Rashi’s understanding of holiness, goes a step further by pointing out that the rabbinic interpretation of the phrase (as cited in the Midrash Torat Kohanim) doesn’t limit the holiness of self-restraint exclusively to sexual behavior, but rather applies it to all elements of human nature. The commandment is ordering disciplined conduct in every aspect of life.

Ramban goes on to explain that a Jew may punctiliously observe all the details of the laws and still act “repulsively, within the parameters of the Torah” (“naval b’reshut ha’Torah”). In effect, argues Ramban, the commandments must be seen as the floor, not the ceiling: everyone must keep all the laws as a minimum requirement, and then add to them as his/her personality or conscience desires or dictates, in accordance with the nature of the situation which arises.

Since life is so complex, we require necessary guideposts or clearly enunciated goals to help us make the proper decisions regarding our daily conduct — especially in those areas where a black and white halachic directive does not exist. Therefore, “you shall be holy” is the guidepost or meta-halachic principle which must determine our relationship to the Creator. It reminds us that although drinking and eating kosher foods to excess, for example, may be technically permitted, an individual who strives for holiness ought not spend the majority of his time in pursuit of the best food and wine. In Judaism, as Ramban would see it, holiness refers to a God-like personality, a person who strives to dedicate him/herself to lofty goals of compassionate and moral conduct. Self-restraint and proper balance between extremes are necessary prerequisites for a worthy human-divine relationship.

Ramban finds the parallel for the meta-halachic “you shall be holy” in the human-divine relationship, within the equally meta-halachic “you shall do what is right and good” [Deuteronomy 6:18] in all of our interpersonal relationships. It is impossible for the Torah to detail every single possible point of contact between two human beings, points which could easily become stressful and litigious. Thus, Ramban tells us that doing what is right and good must be the overall rubric under which we are to conduct our affairs.

Apparently, the placement of the commandment “you shall be holy” (which opens Chapter 19) sends Rashi and Ramban in two different directions. Rashi, finding that immediately preceding the mandate to be holy the Torah presents all the laws of improper sexual behavior and forbidden couplings, he is inspired to conclude that holiness must refer first and foremost to the sexual realm.

Ramban, however, gazes ahead and sees in Kedoshim, following the directive “to be holy,” no less than 51 commandments, approximately half dealing with ritual and the other half dealing with the ethical, including such famous laws as “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.” Ramban therefore views holiness as applying to the entire range of the human experience.

In a most basic way, however, the two approaches are very similar. Both Rashi and Ramban define holiness as disciplined self-control, the ability to say “no” to one’s most instinctive physical desires. They both understand that the religious key to human conduct requires love and limits, the ability to love others and the self-control to set limits on one’s self.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:43 p.m.

Torah: Lev. 19-1-20:27                                                                         

Haftarah: Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephard);
Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz)

Havdalah: 8:44 p.m.