Parashat Kedoshim

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky
Holiness, kedushah, abounds in this week’s parashah. The Children of Israel are commanded to be holy (Lev. 19:2; 20:7), God is described as being holy (ibid.), and God is also described as sanctifying Israel (Lev. 20:8). Holiness is a concept that invokes strong religious emotion and it is empowering, but holiness also has the potential to be misused. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was an Israeli scientist and philosopher, was very weary of the potential abuse of holiness as a formative concept in our religious lives. According to him, only God is holy. He wrote the following as a warning against what he felt were the dangers of attributing holiness to people, historical events, actions, objects, and places:
“One expression of the transformation of faith into idolatry is to be found in the distortion of the concept of holiness. The recognition that holiness is an attribute of God and is specific to him means that the word cannot be used as an essential description of anything else. To see holiness as the essence of some object existing in the world of nature or of history is to raise that thing to the level of the divine-and that is idolatry. In the world of faith, the term holiness as used in connection with particular entities is not a matter of their essence but rather of their being directed-or of the directedness of the subject-to the service of God; it is understood, that is, in a functional sense rather than as an immanent quality, and once the function has been completed the adjective is no longer relevant. That is how the word is used in such signal phrases as the prayer from the daily liturgy “Who has sanctified us with His commandments” and scriptural passages such as “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8); “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God” (Num. 15:40); “You shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2)-and not, it should be noted, “you are holy.” So, too, we read in the Mishnah: “The land of Israel is the holiest land. And in what does its holiness consist? In that the omer and the first-fruits and the twin loaves are taken from it” (Kel. 1:6). It is not because the land is intrinsically holy that these things are taken from it. Rather the land is sanctified by virtue of the very fact that the omer and the first fruits are taken from it. This is the sense in which the term holy is consistently used in all the traditional texts of Judaism.”

[Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Idolatry,” in Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, eds., Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 447-448.]


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.