Thoughts to Ponder Number 50
18 Sivan, 5760; June 21, 2000

The Danger of Holiness and the Future of Israel

No word in the Torah is as central to Judaism as the word, "kedusha," holiness. But no word in the Jewish Tradition is so open to misunderstanding.

When discussing sexuality, food consumption and general human behavior the Torah calls on the people of Israel never to forget that everything needs to be sanctified and consecrated. The ultimate goal is to turn the whole nation into a holy people: "You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy." (Vayikra 19.2) This call is many times repeated: "Hallow yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God." (ibid, 20:7,8) "And you will be holy unto Me." (ibid, 20:26)

For hundreds of years, there has been a difficult debate among Jewish philosophers concerning whether the Jewish people is inherently or only conditionally holy, but the above verses make one point abundantly clear. There is no opportunity or justification for any Jew to hide behind holiness which is not the product of an intensive effort to live an exalted moral life. Any view which frees the Jew of his responsibility to observe the laws of the Torah because he is automatically considered to be holy is heretical and condemned. The Jew has no claim to anything that he has not earned through hard spiritual work and commitment. This is true as far as the possession of the land of Israel or any other matter is concerned. There are no automatic rights or claims based on inherent holiness if the people of Israel do not prove actually to be holy in deed and thought.

The sages were well aware of the danger of using the concept of inherent holiness as a way to justify what in fact is unjustifiable. We see this in their choice of the haftaroth which are read on the Shabbath of parashioth "Acharei Mot" and "Kedoshim," those portions of the Torah which deal par excellence with the need for holiness. Altogether there are three haftaroth for these two parashioth.

The one which is read on a given Shabbath depends on whether the parashioth are read together or separately and on whether the congregation follows the Sephardi or Ashkenazi custom.

The haftara which is read when the parashioth are combined discusses the equality of all men and Israel's mistaken view that it is something special because of its history and inherent holiness: "Are you not as the Ethiopians to Me, O Israelites? True, I brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir…" (Amos 9:7) In other words, the fact that God brought the Jews up from Egypt is not something unique which sets Jews totally apart from the rest of the nations. The haftara continues with a harsh statement which removes any possible conclusion that Israel is able to rely just on its holiness when it sins: "For I will give the order and shake the house of Israel through all the nations as one shakes sand in a sieve and not a pebble falls to the ground. All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, those who say: 'Never shall evil overtake us to come near to us.'"

Amos continues, "The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth, yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Yacov, says the Lord." (9:8) While this is a promise that a remnant of Israel will survive, there is no promise that it will be in any way protected beyond basic survival or able to make a claim on the land or anything else when it does not observe the demands of the Torah.

The other two haftaroth carry a very similar message: When the people of Israel behave in evil ways, "when Jerusalem sheds blood in its midst," when the people will "disdain father and mother" and "oppress the stranger," "violate the woman in her period," "take usury and interest," then "I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you throughout the lands, I will consume the uncleanness out of you. You shall be dishonored in the sight of the nations and you shall know that I am the Lord." (Yechezkel 22:15,16)

These haftaroth are clearly a protest against all those who claim that the nation of Israel is inherently holy and consequently able to lower its standards of behavior or permit itself deviation from morality. What makes the people of Israel separate and unique is nothing other than the result of its undivided commitment to live a life of holy deeds.

When contemplating the re-establishment of the State of Israel after nearly 2000 years of exile, no Jew should believe that the land is guaranteed to remain his forever. It could easily be taken away as it has been in the past. And no army, law or international body would be of any help.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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