Author Archives: Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

About Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Elyse Goldstein is the Rabbinic Director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto.

Do Women Experience Holiness Differently?

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Kedoshim places before us one of the most difficult commandments in the whole Torah–not kashrut or Shabbat, nor even the rules of sexual conduct, but rather the admonition and expectation to “be holy.” Throughout the Torah, we are given rules and statutes that tell us what to do. Here we are told what to be. We find a similar statement in Exodus 19:6, commanding us to be a “kingdom of priests Torah Women's Commentaryand a holy people.” But what does it mean to be holy? Kedoshim does not tell us. The guidance that the parashah gives us is in the specifics: the “who, when, why, and how” of the injunction.

First, who is to be holy? The entire people is addressed: kol adat b’nei yisrael; all Israel is told: “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy” (I 9:2). Not just the priests or Levites, not only the women or men, but everyone is part of this command to be holy. The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshech asks why such important rules as the ones that follow upon this verse are not taught person by person, group by group, rather than to one large assembly. He suggests that the opening of Kedoshim emphasizes the ability of any Jew to attain even the highest and noblest principles of Judaism; thus these laws, and the paradigm of “holiness,” are not only for a select few, but for everyone.

When are we to be holy? The verb tih’yu in verse 2 can be read–and is often read–as a command (“be holy!”). But it is grammatically a future form (“you shall be holy”). The implications are: “Be holy–now! And you shall be holy–in the future.” Thus holiness is a daily struggle, in the here and now, as well as a future yearning.

Why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. The 16th-century commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sforno notes that this verse teaches us that we are to remember and act “in the image of our Creator,” as much as that is possible. Philosophers refer to this concept via the Latin term imitatio dei. We try and “imitate” the Divine. As God cares for the widow and orphan, so do we. As God rests on the seventh day, so do we. In imitating God we can achieve a higher sense of purpose and our actions will reflect the ongoing concern of the Divine for the world. In imitating God’s holiness we make holiness our behavioral ideal.

Reappropriating the Taboo

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray notes: “Women’s bodies may be the hardest place for women to find sacredness” (Sacred Dimensions of Womens Experience, 1988, p. 197). Our society sends negative messages to women from earliest childhood about the expected perfection of their physiques and the disappointments of any flaws in the female form. Parashat M’tzora, then, with its focus on menstrual impurity (15:19-24), seems to impart the same kind of unfavorable sense. Rejecting our own received biases and patriarchal assumptions about menstruation, however, can help us form a contemporary view of these so-called taboos.
torah, womens commentary
What the Torah deems as tamei (“impure”) or tahor (“pure”) is not actually attached to cleanliness, even though they are often translated as “unclean” and “clean.” These Hebrew words are ritual terms, meant to designate those in a physical and spiritual state unable to enter the Mishkan (Tabernacle; and in later times, the Temple), or those able to do so. Those who are considered tamei are taboo (which is not what we think of as “bad”), meaning that they cannot enter the sacred space; and the thing that causes them to be ineligible to enter is also understood to be taboo.

Anthropologists note that taboos are the system by which a culture sets aside certain objects or persons as either sacred or accursed. Such objects or persons inspire both fear and respect. Penelope Washbourn writes: “Menstruation symbolizes the advent of a new power that is mana. . . ‘sacred.’ … A taboo expresses this feeling that something special, some holy power, is involved, and our response to it must be very careful” (in WomanSpiritRising, 1989, p. 251). This mixed message of fear and power, contact and avoidance, actually dominates all the Torah’s passages around blood.

Blood, which is to be avoided in the realm of eating and sex, is the same substance that atones for the community in the sacrificial system, and it binds the individual male child to the Israelite covenant through circumcision. Blood both sustains and endangers; it is the medium of plague or deliverance. Thus blood–like every potent symbol–has the double quality and the twin potential of birth and decay, purity and impurity.