The Holiness Code

The Holiness Code – Parshah Kedoshim Leviticus 19 and 20


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow on shabat we read one of the most important sections of the Torah, Leviticus 19-20, or the core verses of the Holiness Code which includes verses and chapters from last week’s portion (17 and 18) as well as those from the following week. (For reference, I have included chapters 19&20 as a separate blog.) Many of the core commandments of the 613 commandments governing Jewish conduct are included in this week’s portion. Any one of them is worthy of an extended commentary. It is virtually impossible to discuss all the injunctions contained in this one reading in a single blog for they are articulated so succinctly and briefly that reading these verses is akin to unpacking a box literally stuffed to the gills with moral injunctions. I want to examine more than one, however, not to analyze a single commandment, but to offer the flavour of the Holiness Code with a view to obtaining a glimpse of what it means to be holy. I will discuss the portion under four headings as follows:

I. Sex and Speech
II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers
III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge
IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

I. Sex and Speech

Why start with sex when discussing holiness? Why probe all the injunctions against misuse of a servant girl by a male boss (19:20), ban adultery (20:10) especially with your brother’s wife (20:21) or incest (20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 20), castigate homosexuality (20:13) and sodomy (20:15&16) almost in the same breath, and then forbid having sex with a woman while she is menstruating (20:18)? Many of these are reiterations of injunctions in chapter 18. Bans on homosexuality seem totally misplaced for most of us with a modern sensibility. Adultery is not so good, but putting someone to death for such an act seems quite disproportionate to say the least. Sodomy seems more distasteful than deserving of such a harsh reprimand and saying that a servant girl should not be put to death when abused by a superior seems to perpetuate putting the blame on the female, though easing the punishment. And why is there an injunction against sex when your female partner is menstruating?

In other words, if sexual prohibitions are at once so basic and at the same time so deformed and misplaced, how can one suggest that obeying such extreme puritanical injunctions provides a path to holiness? I do not think it does. Further, the various penalties – from death to ostracism – do not seem to comport with our contemporary views of such actions or misdeeds. One predominant interpretation is that these injunctions against certain sexual conduct, allegedly profuse among the Canaanites and Egyptians, were intended to define the Hebrews as a pure and holy people in imitation of God, what Roman Catholics designate as imatio Dei. After all, they all seem to be placed in a context of being “clean,” where cleanliness is next to Godliness. And one characteristic of God is that (s)he is disembodied, does not have sex and inherently cannot be dirty.

This is the basic paradox. Humans are embodied. They have sexual drives. God is disembodied and does not need or desire to have sex. But God gave Adam a companion, Eve, precisely because Adam was a nerd and did not even recognize he had a body and needed to love and be loved. So does God want us to have sex and propagate the species? Clearly, the answer is yes. But God also commands that boundaries be placed around sexual behaviour. The reasons to me seem obvious and they are not about imitating God where holiness in the highest realm is defined as asexual. Rather, it is very practical and down to earth.

Yesterday I heard two more stories about young couples with very young children who, contrary to everyone’s expectations, broke up and are headed towards the divorce court. The epidemic – and it is an epidemic – of divided couples and marriages has to be a major concern. Adultery was involved. One partner “fell in love” with someone else. Or in another tale from the day before, one partner felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled in the marriage. I am not suggesting that couples when they discover they are incompatible should remain married. On the other hand, the marriage commitment and bond should mean much more than simply abandoning a pledge because of an attraction to another or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s path of self-realization.

That is why the sexual injunctions need not be considered as absolute puritanical injunctions, but as basic and profound guides about how a couple can realize holiness while engaging in sex and also bearing children. In other words, if we want to understand the sexual prohibitions, it will not be because we pay attention to the literalness of the commandments, but because we pay attention to their purpose related to the pursuit of holiness. And in my understanding of the Jewish religion, it is not because we envision holiness as equivalent to puritanical behaviour or asexuality, but, guides for embodied humans, thereby recognizing embodiment and how embodied sexual beings become holy.

So how is speech related to sexuality? Because it is through speech that men and women archetypically (men and men in cases of homosexual relations) initially have intercourse with one another. Recall that the use of speech was Adam’s hang up. He thought that words were all about naming and classifying and, in imitation of God, bringing something into existence by the speech act of naming and classifying. But a speech act is only asexual as a scientific enterprise. It is thoroughly sexual as a human enterprise.

Leviticus 19 verse 11 commands that you not “deny falsely” (Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman) or lie. The two injunctions are different. Bill did not precisely lie, for he meant by sexual relations intercourse not fellatio. But he did deny falsely for his assertion was completely misleading. The same verse commands that humans should also not lie. Why is truth-telling the most basic injunction in human intercourse. Because truth-telling is a requisite of trust. And trust is basic to human relations.

Have I lied? More precisely, have I lied to my partner? I have. And each time that I did it was because I was a coward and did not trust my wife to respond in the way I wanted. But that is not trust. Trust entails respect and talking to another and addressing their highest natures. It is not based on fearing reprimands and scolding. Speech in intercourse must be honest, direct and based on trust. Every time I fail to follow this understanding, I betray myself, my partner or children or friend and, mostly, fail myself. Implicitly, I “swear falsely” and profane the name of God. So healthy sex and healthy honest talk are interdependent and foundational for holiness.

II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers

If guidelines and injunctions about physical and verbal intercourse, about how to cultivate a healthy sex life and an honest dialogue between those with whom we are intimately related, are the foundation stones for a holy life, the second level of commandments address those with whom we are least intimate – strangers, particularly strangers who do not belong to our own tribe. And we all know, or should know, that the most repeated commandment in the Torah addresses how to treat strangers and then how to treat acquaintances or neighbours.

With respect to strangers, you cannot tease or belittle them and certainly not characterize them as “rapists” and “thieves.” You shall not taunt the stranger (19:33). More than that, you are required to treat the stranger as if he were a member of your own tribe. “You shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34) On the other hand, you must also reject and ostracize strangers who cavort with Moloch, Ov or Yid’oni and even put to death any who give their children to Molech.

Who is Molech? A god of the Canaanites, a god that required child sacrifice. A holy people, immigrants and refugees, sacrifice themselves for their children. Followers of Molech sacrifice their children for themselves. That is why when we are married, have children and run into trouble, as most marriages do, the primary consideration must be not to sacrifice one’s children for the pursuit of one’s own self-fulfillment or gratification of one’s own physical desires. Now it is a rarity these days to follow that injunction. God knows, I have personally failed. But that does not detract from the value of the principle. In fact, it raises the principle to a higher value.

There is an intimate connection between the dedication to raising your children and to respecting and loving strangers, for giving of yourself for your children and giving of yourself for refugees. But not all so-called refugees. Not “refugees” who victimize children, who engage in terrorism or who exploit others. But why the demonization of those who worship Ov and Yid’oni as well as Molech? (20:6) Ov is a medium who claims direct access to the divine or nether world. Yid’oni is an oracle who claims to be a spokesperson for the nether world or the divine voice. Followers of Ov and Yid’oni are as despicable as those who follow Molech, those who follow the path of using and abusing children, sacrificing children for one’s own purposes rather than sacrificing oneself for one’s children.

What connection is there between denouncing mediums and oracles and the respect and love for children? Mediums and oracles for a holy people spout vapid nonsense. One should not follow a demagogue who promises he can lead you to the Promised Land. Only the Holy One can do that. Oracles who say “trust me” and “I know how to make a deal better than anyone” are not to be trusted. And anyone who follows that oracle because that oracle has accumulated a following also becomes suspect. There is NO privileged access to the nether world or to the future. And there should be no surprise that such oracles and mediums so often scapegoat strangers. By displacing hatred onto others and using the oracular voice, they would bewitch you into trusting them instead of yourself and your inner voice, surrendering yourself for a leader who believes in strength rather than holiness, betting on charms and omens rather than evidence and behaviour over the long run that builds trust. The pursuit of holiness does not depend upon trickery, but upon a consistent effort at honesty and truthfulness and a respect for others especially if they are strangers. The devil may not be Molech, but the devil may be Ov or Yid’oni.

III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge

If trust is basic, enhanced through the use of honest language and intimate physical attachment to another, if loving the stranger and evading the enchantment of those who would use and abuse children for their own pleasure, those who pretend to be mediums or oracles, on the next level of building blocks for a healthy and holy home, we locate the concept of respect. It is the first window of the second story of that home. And the most basic form of respect is that accorded one’s parents. Parents are enjoined to sacrifice themselves for their children and not sacrifice their children for themselves. In turn, children are enjoined to render parents respect and honour.

But respect extends beyond the family. You must respect not oppress the other. (19:13), neither robbing no exploiting him or her. Nor shall you curse another who is physically deaf or is out of range of your voice and cannot hear you. (19:14) You shall not diss another, whether cursing another driver who cannot hear you; in so doing, you demean yourself. If you belittle and insult another, another propensity of those who scapegoat others and put themselves forward as oracles, you undercut respect both for others and for oneself. You shall not engage in favouritism (19:15) and give greater respect to the rich than the poor, for all humans must be respected (19:16), but you certainly must respect the venerable and the elderly. (19:32)

But respect is not enough. You must go deeper and evacuate your soul of hatred. Hatred eats like an acid at your soul and is a sure guarantee preventing one from becoming holy. (19:17) And if you do not express that hatred, but feel it deeply inside, it is even worse. Better to vent than stew, but venting as a relief valve can be almost as poisonous. This does not mean you do not confront and rebuke another for their failings, for their dishonesty, for their demagoguery, for their dogmatism and for their lack of respect for others. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (19:17)

Failure to rebuke, failure to confront, failure to express when you feel hurt by the actions of another, means that the weight of their sins will be borne by you and you will be weighed down by the inability to express what you honestly think and feel. But expressing those feelings and thoughts must be done in a context of respect for the other. Finally, if you fail to rebuke, fail to confront, if you carry a grudge and build up a store of hatred within and then seek relief through revenge, that is the final straw in betraying the commandment to be honest and respect another.

IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

The culmination of these failures is idolatry. Making a molten figure into an idol is simply a metaphor for worshiping a material entity as if it were holy. The best sign of idolatry is when a leader ensures his picture appears everywhere or when a leader seeks to stamp everything with his own name. Whether one worships an idol or tries to become an idol oneself, perhaps the greatest failing of our age of celebrity worship, we indicate by such behaviour that we have betrayed the pursuit of holiness.

Let me give one perhaps trivial example, the current fad of tattooing one’s body, of making “cuts in your flesh”. For “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself.” (19:28) Why not? What harm results? Enormous harm. For etching a tattoo into one’s flesh is an effort at make a fleeting feeling of the moment permanent and failing to recognize that things of the flesh can never be permanent. It is not because the body is God’s creation, for our bodies are made of the dust of the earth. It is not because we are enjoined not to mutilate God’s handiwork, for we are commanded as Jews to circumcise a male baby when only 8 days old. Rather, tattooing is related to idolatry, to deifying what should not be regarded as worthy in an effort to get in touch with the permanent, with the eternal.

It is clear in the Torah and it is a fear at a time of celebrating the day of Israeli independence, that Israel itself can be turned into an idol, worshiped in itself as the exceptional and the holy in total disregard of the behaviour of its politicians and its people. On the other hand, God has said to his people, “You shall possess their land, and I shall give it to you to possess it a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, Who has distinguished you from the peoples.” Jews are commanded to be a holy nation, a nation that gives witness to the highest values. This does not mean that other nations cannot express that role or aspire to holiness. Quite the contrary. But it is an overriding injunction for Jews as a people.

And that is what it means to be holy. It means being both intimate and honest with one’s partner, making one’s best effort at telling the truth, especially telling the truth to power, not sacrificing the lives of children for oneself but sacrificing oneself for your children, loving the stranger as oneself but never being so naïve as to fall into the bewitchment of a Molech, a medium or an oracle, not disrespecting or insulting the other, but being willing to rebuke that other when he or she offends, not building up resentments into a hateful cauldron or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worshiping another as an idol or trying to embed in one’s own flesh a sense of permanence for the impermanent.

That is the core of the holiness code.


Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10  Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump 


Howard Adelman

Last week in the commentary on the mishkan, I suggested that the Israelites were given directions to build the portable sanctuary for two complementary reasons, so that God would no longer have to live alone on a mountain top but could dwell among his own people. The second reason was to permit God to be close at hand to observe whether the Israelites were transgressing, a suggestion which may bother those who believe God is omnipresent. Further, I also gave voice to a belief that the sanctuary was built with such richness as both a mode of wealth distribution as well as to build the assets of a central depository that could serve as the central bank for the nation, but it was built by voluntary donations, not by the payment of compulsory taxes

In this week’s portion, we move from the design of the portable building and its artifacts to the costume designer’s function for characters requiring and operating under an eternal light fed by the most expensive oil of all available to them, olive oil. The garments worn by the priests are designated as a robe and breaches made of the finest linen and traversed by a sash. Can you imagine? The Israelites were struggling to survive in the desert, yet they were obligated to find just the right dyes to colour a sash and the various vestments – blue and gold, purple and crimson. The High Priest was also to wear an efod that seems similar to the fez worn by Turks before the secular revolution in Turkey instigated by Ataturk. The clothing was intended to enhance dignity and use adornment to set the priests apart from the populace.

The costumes are intended to enhance and communicate the roles they play and the status they were to have. They are ceremonial, not functional. They are fixed and not varied and adapted for different occasions. The roles are to be as permanent in time as the eternal light. Then the portion prescribes how Aaron and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be inducted into their priestly roles and how incense was to be burned on the golden altar. All glitz and pomp, but, as I will try to show, not godawful! The alternative would turn out to be much worse.

Look at the description of the breastplate worn by the priests – trimmed in gold with four rows of precious stones, birthstones for each of the tribes – carnelian, chrysolite, turquoise, agate, topaz, onyx, jacinth, amethyst, beryl, lapis lazuli, emerald and jasper. And on the breastplate, the options in divination – Urim and Thumamin, Yes or No. Light or Night. The enlightened or the forces of darkness, despair and desperation. The irony is that these would be determinations and judgments on how to handle internal divisions and not just commandment of whether to go or not to go to war, whether God endorsed the war or not. Tetzaveh is about command and control but the stage was being set for a rebellion.

The most notable thing about this portion is not the presence of detailed designer’s directions, but the absence of Moses. He is not even mentioned. The name of Aaron, however, is mentioned 22 times. This requires some explanation. The sacred must be understood.

Sacred is associated with that which is worthy of worship and entitled to be venerated. Not just respected, but worshiped. Though often used interchangeably as synonyms, there is a great deal of difference between respect and veneration. Veneration and worship are actions. Respect is an attitude, like gratitude versus saying, “Thanks.” You have respect for…You do not say I have veneration for or I have worship for. The difference is significant. You respect someone for the qualities they exhibit. You venerate someone for the role they play. In respect, it is your attitude that is elevated. In veneration, it is the other who is elevated. Veneration elicits reverence which so easily slips into devotion and even idolatry. Respect acknowledges the dignity observed in the other. Parents and teachers deserve respect, but they only become recipients when they earn that recognition.

Respect entails holding another in esteem, but does not imply deference to that other. Disrespect entails a disregard for another’s authority, status or accomplishments. There is no such thing as disveneration or disworship. One pays one’s last respects to the dead; one does not (or, is not expected to) venerate or worship the dead. We are expected to respect parents and teachers, not venerate them. And the clue is that we venerate what we hold to be sacred, what is to be set aside and raised on high. And here is the heterodox suggestion. The sacred is that which is preserved and set aside as very special, but also raised high and out of reach. The sacred is something we put away, not something we want to or need to or should live with.

This is what is happening to Aaron and his sons. They are being given high honours and high formal roles and are being retired from their positions as military commanders married to religious convictions. It is appropriate preparation for the wars to come that will require professional military leadership. All Aaron and his sons can do is indicate whether God commands they go to war or not, whether God is on the side of the Israelites in a specific conflict. The execution of war will be left to the professionals.

Eventually, Jews would leave the role of priests and the need for temples far behind as rabbis were sent out to live among and with the people and teach them about the divine as He reveals Himself in the Torah. When God said he wanted to live in the midst of his people, He was confining and raising the status of the priests and honours bestowed upon them so that they could feel His presence. But if God Himself was simply confined to the mishkan, He would not really be living among the people.

God up high on the mountain top inspired awe and wonder. God living in the midst of his people risked becoming too familiar and accepted and even treated as an object of indifference, and worse, disdain. Aaron, on the other hand, as a military commander had power, and the best way to take away his power was to promote him to an honorific and ceremonial function. So as God was coming down to live amidst His people, the religious functions tied to military roles were being disaggregated. Aaron was being raised up as a mode of retiring him. What we want to retire, we preserve, put away and raise up so it can no longer threaten or impose itself upon us. We create a sacred realm and identify a sacred clan to preserve it.

So where is Moses? Why does he seem to have no part in what is going on? Moses was the one who convinced God to come down from on high. It was a gamble. To bring the sacred into the secular world was being balanced by creating a sacred world where military men who had the potential to initiate a coup could assume responsibilities for the polity, but only formal and ceremonial ones. They were not responsible either for the wellbeing of the nation or any longer for its security, except in the most general way in determining whether a war was to be sanctioned. Military power had to be neutralized by giving the generals honorific titles, costumes and roles.

So God had to come down from the mountain, not only because He was alone and needed human contact, not only so He could be the close-at-hand and observe the behavior of the members of the nation he had chosen and now was opting to live among, but to assign a ceremonial function to retired military commanders. The change would prove to be a big gamble that, as we shall see next week, almost went totally awry.

Sacred is opposed to the secular. It is also set opposite the profane. Moses was a stutterer like King George VI of Britain and was definitely not an orator. He was very flawed as an oral communicator, but the benefit, the great side effect, was that he introduced a reliance on written commands and prescriptions. The rule of law rather than the rule of power would be supreme. The threat that an Israelite like Aaron might copy the pattern of Egypt and impose the rule of force had been removed. But Moses by himself was not very inspiring. Not only could he not articulate his thoughts and instructions clearly and concisely, but he was fraught with other psychological and social disabilities.

Moses was a man full of inner rage, both at his sense of personal abandonment while not fully being accepted as a royal, though raised as a royal with a sense of entitlement. But this was married to a sense of injustice and resentment that exploded like a volcano when he saw how an ethnic cousin was being treated by a member of the Praetorian guard. His response was not so much of empathy, but an automatic response because of projection and identification. Moses, however, was a coward and ran away rather than either face the music or lead a rebellion.

Moses ran off and married a shiksa. After a dozen or so years, he abandoned her and their two children to return and lead his people in battle against their oppressors. He had to lead, not by example, but by magic, by wonders that inspired awe in his own people as well as in the hearts of his enemies. As a leader, Moses proved very dependent on others, especially on Aaron as his Commander-in-Chief, and on a foreigner who happened to be his father-in-law. What kind of leader delegated legal enforcement and interpretation to others?  What kind of leader could he be when he could no longer lead with shock and awe to back him up, no longer lead with the high religious authority or the prowess in commanding soldiers to guard his backside? What kind of leader would he be when he was unavailable to the ordinary Israelite to hear complaints and mediate interpersonal conflicts up until 2:00 a.m. in the morning?

Well a challenger would emerge propelled by bombast and bluff and with no respect given to what was considered sacred by the upper echelons of the nation. But what would be the appeal? The challenger would have to be one of their own, not a cross-breed or rather a cross-bred. He would have to be raised from among their own kind, one with whom they felt they could identify, even if he happened to be wealthier. But not a plutocrat, not one of the ones who donate their wealth to the mishkan to give the retired would-be powers fancy clothes and fancy titles. The Israelites had to be writhing with dissension and despair. After all, however bad it was in Egypt and however discriminated against they had been, they had lived side-by-side the Egyptians. They had been carpenters and stone masons, primitive plumbers and hard-working labourers, seamstresses and nannies. Now who were they – refugees without jobs, without any use for their skills, without self-respect?

In the meanwhile, one of their own had surrendered to the plutocrats and agreed to be installed as part of a new Camelot, primitive perhaps in comparison, but intended to rival that of the Pharaoh. Further, what had been promised them would not be delivered later that year, but it would take two generations. They would not see the benefits of such radical change in their lifetimes. They were ripe for the politics of envy and resentment, given fuller acceleration by a shift from oral rule by a chief to that of the written law. This communication revolution was powerful and disrupting, for no longer could they go to the sheik and speak to him personally to ask for an intervention to help deal with a problem. And who was their leader? A multicultural Moses without deep roots in the society in which they were raised!

They no longer had to fear the power of Aaron. He had been made impotent. Their rich compatriots had bet on him rather than them and built a portable Pharaonic throne. They were now irrelevant. Sacrifices had to be made of bull and ram, and of a lamb every single morning and evening. All that excellent food for the priests and a God they could not see nor even get near for the priests were intermediaries. Moses had consolidated his political power only to now appear naked before them without awe and wonders to intimidate them. Further, they were about to face real enemies who would challenge them directly and threaten to destroy them. Were they not better off retreating into a self-protected enclave manned by defensive barriers? The politics of nostalgia for a lost world was growing at the expense of hope for a new one.

Is it any wonder that they might look for a new god, a new order, one far more visible than the invisible hand that seemed to be controlling their lives? Is it any wonder that they might appreciate a new leader who spoke their language of resentment? Is it any wonder they might be ready to shift their loyalties to someone who promised to restore a semblance of their previous security? The Israelites were refugees, homeless wanderers in social disarray and suffering enormous psychological stresses. If our contemporary refugee camps are any indication, the Israelite camps were being infiltrated by small groups from the surrounding areas even poorer than they were and under greater threat. They were facing an unknown and very threatening future and had lived through a traumatic past. Sure, Moses had provided food and water when it was most needed. But would this welfare continue? How could it continue? Would Moses retain his magic powers? And why go to war against Canaanites? They were just defending themselves. It was a foreign war they had no business engaging in and, anyway, would likely lose. And all this because they were being led by a half-bred foreigner, but one no longer in possession of the power to impose his will.

Grim pessimism would replace the politics of hope. All received beliefs and entitlements were at risk. No more obeisance to the rich plutocrats who ruled over them. No more trust in the words of a God they could neither hear nor see. The Israelites were becoming tired of seeing themselves as losers when just a short time ago they had been such tremendous winners. The dream of conquering a promised land seemed totally at risk. Moses would soon be viewed as an alien and threatening outsider rather than one who delivered the people from slavery. Moses’ words would soon ring hollow.

The Israelites were ripe for an internal rebellion.


With the help of Alex Zisman