Parashat Kedoshim begins, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But just what does being holy mean? The root meaning of the Hebrew word “kadosh,” holy, is separate, but not in the sense of being cut off. In the Torah, holiness is not a quality relegated to the monastery or convent. The Ketav Sofer (Rabbi Abraham Schreiber, 19th century, Hungary) said, “You shall be holy, but not cut off from the world, ‘for I, the Lord your God, am holy’ and yet I dwell with you and walk
And just as kadosh doesn’t mean that an individual should cut himself off from the world, so too it does not mean that the Jewish people should isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Certainly our parasha’s insistence that we treat the strangers who dwell among us no differently from citizens tells us that holiness is not something that is confined to the ghetto.
In the first part of this week’s double parasha, the Torah tells us: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws.” We are commanded to avoid “hukkot hagoyim,” the customs of the nations — specifically those things that pertain to idolatry and immorality. However, there is no commandment to avoid the goyim, the other nations, themselves.
So kadosh doesn’t mean physical separation. Rather, we should think of kadosh not so much as separate, but as different or distinct. That is, to be holy means to live in the world but not to uncritically or blindly accept all of its practices and values. “I the Lord your God am holy” teaches that we should accept from the world only what is consistent with God’s laws, with Jewish ideals, ethics, and values.
When you study parashat Kedoshim, you will discover that almost every verse calls to mind some aspect of our society and popular culture that is, if you will, unholy — or at least inconsistent with the values we profess to stand for.
• The Torah says, “Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves.” Today the problem isn’t people bowing down to statues. Idolatry is treating — worshipping — that which is not God as if it were God. “American Idol” is more than the name of a TV show. It’s a reminder than too many people take direction from and try to emulate singers, actors, athletes, and other celebrities who deserve no such admiration and adulation.
• The Torah says, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” And yet the only time we see people over 60 on television is in commercials for incontinence products, laxatives, and treatments for impotence.
• The Torah says, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin [liquid measure].” Yet my formerly one-pound can of coffee now holds 12 ounces and Coca-Cola redesigns its bottles to be “easy pour” and forgets to mention that they now hold 1.5 liters rather than two — for the very same price.
There is much that the non-Jewish world has to offer that is wonderful and our lives would be much poorer without it. But we can never forget “You shall be holy.” Make distinctions, choosing from the larger culture what is good and rejecting what is degrading, unjust, or soul-deadening.
Our mission is to live, to the best of our ability, according to God’s laws — and by doing so, to be “a light to the nations” — so that every human being can learn to make the world a holier place.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.