Leviticus 19

This climactic chapter emphasizes the obligation to be holy in our dealings with our fellow human beings.

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The Law of Holiness is not addressed to selected individuals. It is addressed to the entire community of Israel. Its objective is not to produce a few saints, withdrawn from the world in contemplative or ascetic practices. Rather, does the Torah aim to create a holy people which displays its consecration to God's service in the normal day‑to‑day relations of farming, commerce, family living, and community affairs… (see Exodus 19:6).

Sanctifying & Profaning the Name of God

The statement that one who offers his offspring to Molech profanes the name of God [appears in Leviticus 18:21]. The same expression appears in Chapter 19, verse 12, in connection with swearing falsely. In these contexts, the phrase seems to require no explanation. But its fuller meaning emerges elsewhere. To profane the name of God means to impair His reputation in the non‑Israelite world.

Thus, Ezekiel (who, we have seen, shows affinity to the Holiness Code) declares that, when the people of Judah brought the punishment of exile upon themselves, they profaned the name of God. For the Gentiles regarded the defeat of Judah as a defeat for Judah's God as well. They supposed the people were in exile because their God was not strong enough to protect them. Therefore, to retrieve His reputation, God would purify and restore Israel. When they were back on their own soil, strong and prosperous, God's name would be "sanctified in the sight of all the peoples"--that is, the nations would recognize His power and understand that the exile was not evidence of His impotence, but of His unswerving justice (Ezekiel 36:16 and following).

This concept was transformed in Rabbinic Judaism from a questionable theological proposition into a powerful moral challenge. The prestige of Israel's God among the Gentiles--the Rabbis taught--is not God's worry, it is humankind's responsibility. Jews must so live and act as to win for their God the respect of all mankind. Any behavior that brings public disgrace on Jews and Judaism is hillul haShem, profanation of the divine Name; any action that enhances the dignity and honor of Judaism is kiddush haShem, sanctification of the Name.

Robbing a Gentile is doubly sinful, since it adds to the sin of robbery the further sin of hillul haShem (Tosefta Baba Kama 10:15). A Jew should accept martyrdom rather than publicly violate a commandment and thus profane the name of God.

Kiddush haShem has no connection with what we now call "public relations." It does not mean currying favor with the Gentiles. It requires us to deserve the approbation of others, whether we actually obtain it or not. The highest act of kiddush haShem is to die for one's faith.

The "Golden Rule" Begins Here

The culmination of this climactic chapter is verse 18: "Love your neighbor as yourself." It is one of several versions of what in modern times has been called "the golden rule." (We do not know when or by whom the phrase was coined.) It appears in various forms, positive and negative; but all of them demand for others the same kind of treatment we want for ourselves.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.