Parashat Kedoshim

Ritual And Ethics: A Holy Blend

Only through the combination of ritual and ethics can Judaism fully express itself.

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Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

In any five-book anthology, the third book always forms the center of that collection. So it is that Vayikra (Leviticus) is the center of the Torah. At the center of Vayikra is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code. This parashah is central in more than just location. A pinnacle of spirit and morality, it embodies the high water mark of all religious writing, in any period.

What makes Kedoshim uniquely magnificent is its insistence on a maximal Judaism--one which demands much, teaches even more, and which creates a completely new orientation in the hearts of those who try to take it seriously. 

Kedoshim does not tailor Judaism to fit the personalities or ideologies of any particular group of Jews. Instead, it posits a lofty set of standards and then challenges the Jews of every age to rise up to match its high ideals and exalted holiness. It asks of us all to grow beyond our own comfortable conventions, our own sleepy standards, to confront our evasion of excellence.

There are some Jews for whom Judaism is primarily a set of behavior. What matters, for them, is whether or not a Jew performs the required behavior (ritual) in the proper manner. Such people measure "religious Jews" by the number of homes they won't eat in or by the punctilious performance of ritual deeds.

Yet another group of Jews see Judaism exclusively as a form of social action. Ethics, for them, is the sum and total of any "living" Judaism. Marching against injustice, petitioning Congress and writing letters to the editor--this forms the entirety of what is important in being Jewish. Either of these approaches to Judaism may be right, but neither of them captures the totality of Kedoshim.

Both of these philosophies of Judaism ("Judaism is doing the proper rituals," or "Judaism is being a good person") contain an important insight, but both of them reflect only a caricature of the fullness of Judaism as it is developed in the Torah and by the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash.

Indivisibility of Ethics and Ritual

At core, this week's reading demonstrates the indivisibility of ritual and ethics. Without seeing any difference, the Torah speaks about paying a laborer his wages promptly, observing Shabbat, honoring parents, not forming idols, the proper mode of sacrifice, and leaving food available for the poor. In this purposeful jumble of ritual and ethical injunctions, the Torah offers only a single justification: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." What a staggering claim!

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.