“Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel and say to them: 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 this portion, we must admit that the concept seems rather vague and difficult to define. What does it really mean to be “holy”?
Examining some of the commentators on this issue of holiness, the remarks of Rashi and Nahmanides are thought-provoking, not only because of their differences, but also because of their similarities.
Rashi explains the phrase “you shall be holy…” as follows: “You shall separate yourselves. Abstain from forbidden sexual relationships and from sin, because wherever you find a warning to guard against sexual immoratlity, you find the mention of holiness” (Rashi on Leviticus 19:2).
Since the sexual drive is probably the strongest of our physiological needs and urges — and the most likely to get us into trouble (an old Yiddish proverb has it that most men dig their graves with their sexual organ) — 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.
Nahmanides, 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.
Nahmanides 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 Nahmanides, the commandments must be seen as the floor of the building and not as 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, as well as 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 halakhic directive does not exist. Therefore, “you shall be holy” is the guidepost or meta-halakhic 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 dare not spend the majority of his time in pursuit of delectable dishes and outstanding wines. And in Judaism, as Nahmanides 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.
Nahmanides finds the parallel for the meta-halakhic “you shall be holy” in the human-divine relationship, within the equally meta-halakhic “you shall do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18) in all of our interpersonal human 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, Nahmanides tells us that doing what is right and good must be the overall rubric under which we are to conduct our affairs.
It turns out that Rashi’s focus regarding the concept of “you shall be holy” concerns matters of sexuality, while Nahmanides focuses on the entire range of our experience, giving us a global view of modesty and restrained human conduct. A formalistic reason for these two different approaches to the interpretation of holiness may derive from the context of the verse in question. Apparently, the placement of the commandment “you shall be holy,” which opens chapter 19, sends Rashi and Nahmanides in two different directions. Rashi, finding that immediately preceding the mandate to be holy, the Torah presents all the laws of improper sexual behavior — 23 biblical prohibitions and 23 forbidden sexual alliances — he is inspired to conclude that holiness must refer first and foremost to the sexual realm.
Nahmanides, however, gazes ahead and sees, following the directive “to be holy,” no less than 51 commandments in Kedoshim unfolding before him, with 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.” Nahmanides therefore prefers to view 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 Nahmanides define holiness as disciplined self-control, as 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 desires. JN
Rabbi Dr. Schlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.