K’doshim Tih’yu - You Shall Be Holy

K'doshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Naamah Kelman

Our fairly new Reform prayer book, Mishkan T'filah, never ceases to surprise in the best ways. Every time I use it I discover another intention, another commentary, another remarkable offering for our prayer experience.

Just recently, as a humble, praying participant at our Shabbat morning t'filah at the HUC-JIR (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) campus, I was able to take in the siddur as a delightful pair of our first year rabbinic and cantorial students (Sarah Fishman and Sara Weiss) were leading us in t'filah, kavanah (intention), and song. We rose to recite the Amidah as a community, we reached the third blessing known as the K'dushah. As I am often leading t'filah on Shabbat or concentrating on our students' efforts, I usually focus on the traditional "right side" of our siddur, the traditional Reform K'dushah prayer. This time, with this cantorial student in glorious command, my gaze wandered to the left side of the book. While these words have stared me in the face since I began using Mishkan T'filah, I found myself totally taken aback by the fact that on Shabbat, when we recite the K'dushah, on the left side of my siddur are the powerful, ethical mitzvot of Leviticus 19, opening with the words: "You shall be holy, . . . " (Leviticus 19:1, Mishkan T'filah, p. 249). This time, I could actually "pray" the Leviticus 19 alternative and ponder the power of its juxtaposition to the K'dushah.

The K'dushah has long been considered the climax of our prayer service. It is the moment when we literally reach for God. The Amidah prayer is constructed in a rhythm and flow that allows us to simulate entering a majesty's palace. We approach humbly, taking three steps back, and bowing left and right; standing upright with feet together (at attention!) we introduce ourselves based on the merit of our ancestors in the Avot V'Imahot (ancestors') prayer. We then praise God so we can get closer in the G'vurot prayer, which acknowledges God's might. In the K'dushah, we remain standing straight, but we lift our heels upward three times, with each utterance of the word kadosh (Holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tz'vaot!). This choreography is meant to imitate a protocol for appearing before a Supreme Power. But there is actually a severe "breach of protocol." What audacity it is to reach up to God! What are we doing? Are we trying to be like the ministering angels? Are we bringing God down to us?

This prayer had so much power that the Eretz Yisrael tradition had it recited only on Shabbat. But the prayer was eagerly adopted by the Babylonian rabbis for every publicly recited Amidah prayer (twice a day). In a recent conversation, Rabbi Dalia Marx, professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, said that this difference shed light on the tension between these two approaches to holiness-that of Eretz Yisrael and that of Babylonia-illustrating the challenges of "being holy." Marx continued: "the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael were more time and site specific on holiness, whereas the Babylonians sought God's Presence everywhere!"

So, unbeknownst to most of us, our Reform siddur is harking back to this dynamic tension. During the week, the alternative readings for the K'dushah are collections of p'sukim, "passages" regarding ethical/holy behavior. On Shabbat, we can "recite" Leviticus 19, our compendium of the ethical mitzvot.

Transposing the ancient argument on our reach for holiness, as a person living in Israel, I ask myself, is it tougher to be ethical when you actually have the power to be ethical or can acting ethically be possible in ways not previously tested? With sovereignty comes the ability to implement our values. Reading Leviticus 19, I pause at two particular mitzvot: "You shall not . . . place a stumbling block before the blind" (19:14) and "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning" (19:13).

Are we a society that enables our disabled? Are we a society that enforces fair labor practices and equal employment? Israel has some of the most progressive laws regarding the disabled and supporting workers, but they are not always enforced. Early Zionism promoted social-democratic laws and values, but decades of privatization has rendered us a country with one of the biggest gaps between the rich and the poor. And yet, we have universal health coverage here, and generous maternity and paternity leave for all!

One new organization, Bema'aglei Tzedek, has taken up this challenge in Israel. As Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy has become increasingly concerned with ritual practice and purity, this relatively new organization founded by young Modern Orthodox adults who promote social justice based on Jewish values is like a breath of fresh air. This is the organization's mission:

"Bema'aglei Tzedek ("Circles of Justice") does more than just imagine a brighter future for Israel. It empowers the next generation of young Israelis to engage their Jewish identity and become powerful agents of social change.

Bema'aglei Tzedek uses cutting-edge educational tools and social action campaigns to create a more just Israeli society informed and inspired by Jewish values."

Perhaps the organization's most ambitious campaign is to add a new kind of "kashrut certification":

"The Tav Chevrati is a seal of approval granted free of charge to restaurants and other businesses that respect the legally-mandated rights of their employees and are accessible to people with disabilities. This initiative encourages Israeli consumers to selectively patronize those businesses which have been awarded the Tav Chevrati, with the ultimate goal to encourage exponentially more businesses to uphold ethical and equitable business practices, while teaching consumers that they have the power to impact society.

The Tav Chevrati has already been awarded to 350 businesses throughout Israel and it is estimated that approximately 20,000 "unique visitors" have chosen to go to Tav Chevrati businesses in the last three months alone.

The Tav Chevrati, a pioneer in the field of Social Kashrut, is maintained by over 30 volunteer supervisors who perform monthly spot checks of Tav Chevrati certified establishments." (www.tav.org.il)

Leviticus 19:15 reminds us to use the law fairly; not to privilege the rich and powerful, or give undo preference to the disadvantaged. For example, the Israeli Court recently convicted a former President of Israel of rape, sexual harassment, and obstructing justice.

Living in Israel we a have the responsibility to reach high for holy and ethical behavior; but it is very challenging. Perhaps that is why our ancient Eretz Yisrael rabbis limited our access, lest we think we have a direct connection to God and can easily abuse our sense of ourselves. The Babylonians, far away from the source of power and protection, wanted that closeness.

In true Rabbinic argumentation, they are both right!

Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1976, helping to build a pluralistic, progressive, and egalitarian Jewish Israel.

Two Paths to Holiness

Daver Acher By: Beth Ellen Young

Rabbi Kelman delves into the juxtaposition of the K'dushah prayer and Leviticus 19:2, "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God am holy." I would like to propose an additional gleaning from the contrast of these two texts.

The K'dushah prayer1 transports us to the celestial court of God. The scene is set with the introductory line, "Let us sanctify Your Name on earth, as it is sanctified in the heavens above" The prayer presents angels calling antiphonally one to the other. Two lines of the prayer that are sung by the congregation are lines that the Bible ascribes to angels. "Holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tz'vaot" is said by the seraphim (fiery six-winged beings) in Isaiah 6:3 and "Blessed is the presence of God" (Ezekiel 3:12) are the words of the chayot (four winged angels) described in the first chapter of Ezekiel. In this prayer we, the people of Israel, approach holiness by taking a place alongside the angelic hosts and participating in a religious ritual honoring God.

In contrast, this week's Torah portion emphasizes that holiness comes about through human actions that are God-like. Mentioned above are the instructions to help the disabled and pay workers fairly. The Torah portion also includes directives to leave food for the poor and the stranger (Leviticus 19:10), not to steal (19:11), and to show deference to the elderly (19:32). This is a rich collection of tasks that allow us to approach holiness by acting in ways that emulate God's actions.

In his essay, "The Life of Holiness,"2 in our Torah commentary, Dr. Bernard Bamberger presents holiness as a goal that we can approach through disciplined action, citing the "recurrent declaration in our prayers and benedictions that God 'sanctifies us through the mitzvoth.' " The two texts we have studied suggest that a life of holiness combines both the ethical directives of this week's portion and the religious rituals of worship.

  1. Elyse D. Frishman, ed., Mishkan T'filah (New York: CCAR, 2007), p. 248 
  2. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 808

Beth Ellen Young, RJE, is director of education at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida.

Reference Materials

K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 894-907; Revised Edition, pp. 797-813; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 701-722

Originally published: