"And the L‑rd spoke to Moses saying: Speak to all the Congregation of Israel you shall be holy for I the L‑rd your G‑d am holy." (Leviticus 19, 1)
Holiness is an unusual and difficult concept to understand. For most of us raised in western culture holiness brings to mind an eccentric individual who seems misplaced in the general community. When I was a teenager many young Jewish people sought holiness, sought a special spiritual connection with G‑d, through various eastern religions and disciplines. They looked to the spiritual leaders of these groups, many of whom displayed unusual conduct and who seemed to live lives separate from the masses, as their guides to the holy life they sought. Caught up in these foreign beliefs and cultures most of these young Jewish seekers eventually became frustrated and more cynical than ever. No doubt part of the problem was that when their holy men came in contact with capitalism more often than not they would exchange the carrying a rose for a credit card. Sadly the concept of holiness as taught to us by our religion simply was unknown to these innocent and more often than not terribly nieve individuals.
What is holiness? Rashi the consummate Biblical commentator, states the following regarding our passage: "We learn from the fact that Moses was commanded to speak to all the congregation of Israel that this section was stated in public assembly because the majority of the essentials of Torah are dependent upon it."
Commenting upon this further he notes, "The holiness described requires one to separate from incest and from transgressions for wherever you find a fence around incest you find mention of holiness." And he gives as an example in the law regarding a woman who is involved in harlotry which ends "and you shall be holy."
Maimonides comments as well regarding why the commandment to be holy was stated to the entire congregation of Israel. He asks, weren't all the general commandments taught to the Israelites while they were gathered together? He explains that if a Jew lives in a community with poor principles and improper ways he should flee that community traveling to a place and community of proper principles and conduct. And if he cannot find such a place he should dwell in the wilderness or in small villages.
The truth is that absenting himself from the community alone will not improve the actions of the individual. For holiness can be achieved only in interaction with those who live a moral life. The human being is a social creature. G‑d underscores this in the very first book of the Bible when he provides Adam with Eve. Holiness achieved in solitude is the mark of G‑d Himself. Holiness achieved by man must be in community.
This concept of Judaism begs the question that is very much a part of Jewish religious enthusiasm in the United States today. Simply, is it possible to find a place exclusively inhabited by religious Jews, steeped in learning and Jewish practice, that is insulated from the world about us? Sadly for us the answer is no. For the blessing of a free and open society accepting of the Jew brings with it the curse of having to be part of that society no matter how one tries to separate from it.
European Jewry survived for hundreds of years, in the main, separator and apart from the majority culture. Physically forced to live apart through the institution of the ghetto, or socially separated from the mainstream of human life, the Jew lived a life that was self-contained. Indeed in a number of situations the general community turned over to the Jewish community the responsibility of policing and running its own affairs separate from the majority. Ghettos are constructed by the majority to hem in the minority. When the majority is accepting however, when the general society welcomes the active participation of the Jew, no effort on the part of the Jewish community can separate it from the world in which it finds itself. Ghetto walls were meant to lock people in, not to lock people out.
And so we here in the United States are faced with the added dilemma of a free society - a free and open society in which we are to become holy. How can this be done?
It seems to me that the only real answer for us is to involve ourselves in the day to day work of bettering our society as a whole. It should be the Jewish People in the United States who speak out for moral and ethical principle. It should be the Jewish People in the United States who for their own growth as a holy nation, seek to move American society to a more G‑dly, Torah oriented way of life. For, as I have demonstrated, there is no way to exclude oneself from the majority culture's influence.
During the reign of teenage ninja turtles, it was my want to point to the reality that the most devout child in the most Orthodox of Yeshivos was cognizant of the three courageous turtles who battled for justice.
In the aftermath of the holy day of freedom, Passover, which celebrates the emancipation of our ancients so that they might accept the holiness of a Torah way of life, we must head out to conquer new vistas never before encountered by our predecessors. An open society, willing to listen to the Jewish view of life must be confronted if we are to truly be holy. For holiness comes to the Jew only by surrounding himself with others of like desire, with those who seek to live a moral and pricnpled life according to the dictates of Torah. In a tumultuous world this issue becomes the touchstone of debate in all aspects of life. I pray that we are up to this monumental challenge. For our success in confronting this modern day challenge will result in our living the holy and pure lives we as Jews aspire to and in turn motivating society as a whole to embrace the values and principles of Torah that will create the community in which we and others can achieve moral and ethical perfection - holy lives.