This week’s portion, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) continues to discuss the laws of holiness, changing focus from the world of the Sanctuary and Priests to the Israelites as a whole, commanding them to be holy. The opening chapter contains the “holiness code” with its commands to love the neighbor and the stranger, as well as other ritual laws.
Until now the book of Leviticus has been largely about sacrifices, the laws of purity, the Sanctuary, and the priesthood. It has been, in short, about a holy place, holy offerings, and the elite and holy people – Aaron and his descendants – who are the Priests. Suddenly, in chapter 19, the Torah shifts its focus to the whole of the people and the whole of life: God said to Moses: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy because I Adonai Your God am holy.’” (19:1-2).
This is the first and only time in the book of Leviticus that the entire people are included in a command concerning holiness. The Sages say that it means that the contents of this chapter were declared by Moses to a formal gathering of the entire nation. It is the people as a whole who are commanded to “be holy,” not just an elite, such as the Priests. In fact, it is life itself that is to be sanctified. Holiness is to be achieved in the way the nation makes its clothes and plants its fields, in the justice of its law courts, the way workers are paid, and the way business is conducted. The vulnerable – the deaf, the blind, the elderly, and the stranger – are to be protected. The whole of society is to be governed by love, without anger or revenge.
This is a radical idea. It is the democratization of holiness. Just as in a democracy all people have equal rights, the Torah tells us here all people have and can achieve holiness. All ancient societies had Priests. The Priesthood was not unique to Israel, and in all places it was an elite group. However, here for the first time, we find a code of holiness directed to the people as a whole. This is a radical and new idea the Torah brings to the world – we are all called on to be holy.
This radical idea, the democratization of holiness, that all people have and can achieve holiness, should come as no surprise to us. The idea, if not the details, had already been hinted at in the Torah. The most explicit instance comes in the prelude to the great covenant-making ceremony at Mount Sinai when God describes the potential of the people to be a “kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6), that is, a kingdom all of whose members are to be in some sense Priests, and a nation that is, in its entirety, holy.
The point is not that these ideas were fully formed in the minds of human beings during the period of biblical history. This is clearly not so. The concept of human rights is a product of the seventeenth century. Democracy was not fully implemented until the twentieth. The concept of equality we find in the Torah specifically and Judaism generally is not an equality of wealth: Judaism is not communism. Nor is it an equality of power: Judaism is not anarchy. It is fundamentally an equality of dignity. We are all equal citizens in the nation whose sovereign is God. Holiness belongs to all of us when we turn our lives into the service of God, and society into a home for the Divine Presence.
(Special thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) who words inspired these thoughts)