I love parashat Kedoshim. There are times when it fills me with pride to read through it. While it’s not perfect (ooh, did I say that?) it is chock full of values and ideas that, while they may not be unique to us, we can certainly point to with pride. You read through it and think “hmmm, that’s a good idea” or “that makes sense” and things of thatnature. Sure, there’s an occasional head-scratcher, but that’s the nature of these things. Coming from the list of sexual depravities in Acharei Mot, it’s positively uplifting. Perhaps we ought to stand when we read those parts of Kedoshim that restate, amplify, and add to the ten commandments?
Right from the start are words that are positively brilliant, and draw us in. “You shall be holy, for I, the L”rd your G”d am holy.” Wow. Yes, it is true that this statement can be interpreted in many ways. I am sad when I hear them interpreted with an almost passive sense suggesting that we are (or will become) holy simply because G”d is. I prefer a more active understanding – that we must strive to be holy. Continually. Doing so, at least in my view, does not necessarily mean imitating G”d. For at times, I think even G”d fails to live up to being holy. That’s a view that could have gotten me branded a heretic (and some people might still say so.) The text could have said “because I, the L”rd your G”d am *always* holy.” On the other hand, it could have said “You shall be holy, for I, the L”rd your G”d shall be holy.” So it is not an unreasonable assertion that, at least in the view of the biblical text, G”d is holy per se. Nevertheless, I exercise my right to assert that the text itself relates times and places when, unless you play the “ineffable” card, G”d was not acting so holy.
Consider, also, what it means for us to be holy people, yet also be commanded to kill those who transgress certain laws. G”d’s idea of holiness apparently contains the notion that killing people for wrongdoing (or even, perhaps, on a whim, or when they just p*ss you off) is normative. Tell the people destroyed in the flood, the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the Israelites felled by G”d-inflicted plagues or earth-opening fits of pique, the Canaanites killed so we might possess their land that G”d is always holy. Not so much.
I don’t want to make this all about that first important statement. Parashat Kedoshim has so many things to think about. Many, if not most of them, are positive ethical and moral ideas. I am proud that the religion I practice helped bring these ideas to the world (even if they aren’t totally unique to us.)
The problem with Kedoshim is like the lyrics to that old song “Something Stupid.” “…and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you.” The author(s) of the Torah couldn’t leave well enough alone. They had to come back to sexual improprieties, and to death-penalty-deserving deeds. Gee, thanks. You couldn’t leave well enough alone? The “something stupid” they say isn’t exactly “I love you” unless you’re thinking of “love” in that sort of “tough love from G”d” way. Yet they sure did seem to go and spoil it all by something more than needed to be said, perhaps well-intentioned, but missing the mark.
In the text, it’s almost like the need to come back to this negative line of thinking is bubbling under the surface, pops up a few times, and finally can be contained no more. We read this nice series of ethical and moral precepts including ideas like respect for elders, being honest and truthful, leaving the corners of our fields unharvested for the sake of those who are needy, of making fair judgments, and so on, and then out pops this but about a man who sleeps with another man’s designated slave. From there on in the text bounces back and forth between uplifting and less uplifting ideas. Finally, in the end, it wanders back into the same territory as Acharei Mot and its catalog of sexual depravity.As if to put an exclamation point on things, the parasha ends by taking an earlier exhortation to not consort with ghosts and spirits and turning it into a capital offense. What, did you rethink it and decide that a simple warning wasn’t enough?
A few times, in the last few years, I have hinted at this nascent idea forming in my head that the Torah itself has yetzer tov and ra. It’s certainly on display here in this parasha. That yetzer hara keeps poking its nose out in the midst of all the yetzer hatov that is in the text. That, for me, just gives more support to the notion that neither we nor G”d are inherently holy – we must strive to be so, allowing our good inclinations to fight off our bad ones.
Torah exists as a tool to help us identify potentially good and bad inclinations. We may not always agree with how the Torah asks us to define these–that does not diminish its value to us. One may ask how a sacred text that is itself divided between good and bad inclinations can serve as a basis to teach us to be discerning between such inclinations. I can answer that – the Torah walks a mile in our shoes. By being itself conflicted and striving to balance good and bad inclinations, the Torah is better prepared to understand us and advise us. In parashat Kedoshim, the Torah strives to be holy. Like us, and frankly, like G”d, it doesn’t always succeed.
We are all in each other’s image – G”d, Torah, and ourselves. Some may prefer a system in which G”d, and only G”d is always and perfectly holy (and for some, this, by extension, means that Torah is the same.) For me, that only creates a system that sets impossible standards, and sets humanity up to fail. I think I prefer a system in which we are all equally imperfect, and mirror each other, providing ways for us to continually learn from and teach each other.
©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 – Revisiting Schrödinger’s Cat
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 – Don’t Forget That The Goat Goes Free
Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 – Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 – Redux 5762 – Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger’s Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 – Insults Don’t Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 – Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 – Schroedinger’s Cat & Torah