Do Women Experience Holiness Differently?

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Commentary on Parshat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

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).

Parshat 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 parsha 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” (Leviticus 19:2). 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 up on 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 Be Holy?

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 to “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.

In much of the Torah, it is God who sanctifies — as we read in Genesis 2:3: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” But in Kedoshim, the command to make things holy is addressed to humanity. The task of sanctifying our lives is placed upon us, as an act of partnership between human beings and God. This is one way that we strive to act in God’s image.

How To Be Holy

The how to be holy is what follows — as the parsha lists a wide-ranging series of ethical laws, including honoring one’s parents, respecting the elderly, justice for the stranger, love of one’s fellow human, and more. But note that even though the parsha enumerates the specifics of holy behavior, it never defines what it means by the word kadosh (“holy”).

Many commentators have tried to understand the term kadosh as indicating a state of being. Rashi (11th century) and Ramban (13th century) both interpret “you shall be holy” as meaning “you shall be separate.” For them, holiness requires standing apart as Jews, with a firm set of boundaries. The end of Kedoshim underscores their point: “You shall be holy to Me, for I am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).

This concept of separation is critical to understanding Jewish spirituality. For example, in the classic Jewish wedding liturgy, the phrase harei at m’kudeshet li means “you are set apart for me from others.” (Wedding officiants are fond of claiming that it means “you are sanctified to me,” which is a more midrashic derivation.) In the Talmud, hekdesh is money or goods set aside or separated for tithing or donation. Holiness seems intrinsically linked in Judaism to separation (havdalah), making distinctions: milk or meat, Shabbat or weekday, Jew or gentile, female or male.

Separation vs. Connection

But does this concept of spirituality ring true for women? Would there be a different kind of imitation dei for women? Do women experience holiness differently? For those women who carry life inside, attached to another being who is — at the same time — part of them, separateness does not equal spirituality.

For those women who breastfeed — who nurture and sustain from their very own bodies — connection is more at the root of holiness. For those women who form bonded friendships from earliest memory, or who bring the family together, who are the cohesive force in a group, a definition of holiness is needed that does not imply building fencMaternal spiritualityes. Thus, though Parshat Kedoshim demands holiness, it is up to us to define holiness in a way that is truthful for both women and men.

As is apparent, then, Rashi’s definition of kadosh as “separate” presents a fundamental feminist challenge. The challenge is evident as well throughout rabbinic Judaism where authorities have portrayed the mitzvot (commandments) as drawing lines between “us” and “them,” lines that demarcate who is in (for example, circumcision marking a Jewish boy) and who is out (for example, the halachah  [Jewish law] of not counting women in a minyan [prayer quorum]). While feminists have challenged specific mitzvot, finding a way “in” through creative rereading and even reinventing, we have not yet sufficiently challenged the very notion of mitzvot that rest upon the “spirituality of separation.” This notion is at the heart of much that Jews do — including keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, and the marriage ceremony, just to name a few.

Redefining the mitzvot as connectors rather than as boundaries, as dialogue rather than as answers, is a first step toward addressing the question of how we as women will be kadosh. Although we are still at the beginning of exploring what a fully developed feminist notion of being holy might look like, the opening words of this parsha — k’doshim tih’yu — carry both a command for now and promise for the future: we can and we will find ways to be holy.

The product of 14 years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit

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