Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.
The prime emphasis (of the holiness described in Leviticus 19) is ethical. And the moral laws of this chapter are not mere injunctions of conformity. They call for just, humane, and sensitive treatment of others. The aged, the handicapped, and the poor are to receive consideration and courtesy. The laborer is to be promptly paid. The stranger is to be accorded the same love we give our fellow citizens. The law is concerned not only with overt behavior but also with motive; vengefulness and the bearing of grudges are condemned.
Among ethical duties, that of sexual decency is singled out for particular emphasis. The Torah demands the control–not the suppression of–the sexual instinct. Life is sacred. The physical process by which life is generated is to be treated responsibly.
The ethical injunctions of Chapter 19 are interspersed with ritual commandments. Some of these are directed against pagan and superstitious practices deemed incompatible with biblical religion. The intent of others is not so plain. To the biblical author, these ceremonial rulings are divine ordinances with the same authority as the ethical commandments. Traditional Judaism regarded them as “royal decrees,” to be observed whether or not we comprehend them.
The Jewish modernist cannot agree with this. But he can recognize that worship and ceremony, undertaken thoughtfully and reverently, can elevate personal and family life. Though he may reject older views as to the origin and authority of ritual, he may still benefit from the practice of ritual in holy living. The ethical factor is primary, but it is not the only one. In combining moral and ceremonial commandments, the authors of the Holiness Code [as this section of the Torah is known by scholars] displayed sound understanding.
Can Anyone be Holy as God is Holy?
Such are the components of the way of life called kadosh (holy). Our chapter begins with the startling declaration that by these means we can and should try to be holy like God. The same Torah that stresses the distance between His sublime perfection and our earthy limitations urges us to strive to reduce that distance. The task is endless, but it is infinitely rewarding. Rabbi Tarfon said: “Do not avoid an undertaking that has no limit or a task that cannot be completed. It is like the case of one who was hired to take water from the sea and pour it out on the land. But, as the sea was not emptied out or the land filled with water, he became downhearted. Then someone said to him, ‘Foolish fellow! Why should you be downhearted as long as you receive a dinar of gold every day as your wage?'” (Avot deRabbi Natan, 27). The pursuit of the unattainable can be a means of fulfillment.
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