Parshat Kedoshim: You Shall be Holy

By David Nekrutman, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC)

דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה’ אלקיכם

“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, “You shall be kadosh, for I, the L-rd, your God, am kadosh (Leviticus 19:2)

Translating Kadosh

There are certain words in Hebrew that are hard to translate into English, and even when translated, still hard to fully explain in a few words. One of those terms is “kadosh.” Normally translated as “holy,” the first time it appears in the Bible is the last creative act of God, Shabbat: “God blessed the seventh day and declared it kadosh” (Genesis 2:3). Besides G-d, Shabbat and the Nation of Israel, kadosh applies to:

  • The Festivals (Lev. 23:4)
  • Jubilee (Lev. 25:12),
  • The Nazirite (Num. 6:8)
  • The Prophet (II Kings 4:9)
  • The Temple (Isa. 56:7)
  • The Torah (Ezek. 22:26)
  • Jerusalem (Neh. 11:1)

One can easily deduce from the above examples that kadosh means “set apart.” This definition in fact is substantiated in Leviticus itself – “You shall be holy (קְדֹשִׁים) to me, for I the Lord am holy (קָדוֹשׁ), and I have set you apart (וָאַבְדִּל) from other peoples to be mine” (Lev. 20:26). The appearance of the root קדש in tandem with the root בדל informs the reader in this week’s Torah portion that God desires for His people to be set apart from the other nations of the world.

Illicit Relations

In the attainment of national holiness, Leviticus 19 & 20 provide a practical guide on how to achieve it. It includes being honest in business, respecting the elderly, not bearing a grudge, seeking vengeance or hating another as well as not getting tattooed nor seeking mediums to connect with loved ones that have passed away, and no child sacrifice. It may take a lifetime for a nation to master many of these mitzvot, but at least these Levitical chapters provide clear instructions on how to do so.

In his commentary of “you shall be kadosh,” Rashi decided to freeze-frame the commandment and directly link it to the previous chapter, which outlines all the illicit relations from which one must refrain from engaging. The forbidden sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 include within the nuclear family and with certain extended family members; homosexuality; bestiality; one’s own wife during menstruation; and others. Instead of defining kadosh as adhering to the Do’s and Don’ts in Leviticus Chapters 19 & 20, Rashi is defining it as refraining from the sexual encounters in Leviticus Chapter 18. 

A peripheral reading of the revolutionary Code of Sexual Conduct in Leviticus 18 suggests that the outlawing of these relationships is directly connected to the immoral practices of Egypt and, more specifically, as a counter response to Canaan – “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes” (v.3). However, if one is to examine other Torah texts relating to Canaanite behavior prior to the nation of Israel receiving the Torah, there is hardly any mention of their moral depravity.

Canaanites in Genesis

Canaan is first mentioned in the Torah after the episode of the flood. We are privy to Noah’s nakedness, Ham’s gossip of it, and Shem and Japheth covering their father with a blanket. When Noah wakes up from his drunken stupor and realizes what was done to him, he curses his grandchild – Canaan. In an attempt solve the exegetical puzzle as to what sexual offense took place, Rashi presents two possibilities; Ham either castrated or sodomized his father.

In answering why Noah cursed Canaan – as opposed to Ham, who perpetrated the crime – Rashi says since Ham prevented his father Noah from having a fourth child by castrating him, Noah in turn cursed Ham’s fourth child – Canaan. Although the nation of Canaan commits egregious sins against God later in the Torah, at the time this event took place, the man named Canaan is guilty of nothing.

There was a familial edict of the Abrahamic family prohibiting them from marrying the daughters of Canaan (Genesis 24:3-4 & 28:1). Isaac and Jacob obeyed the edict, but Esau did not. Both Judah and Simeon violated the family tradition by marrying Canaanite women (Genesis 38:2 & 46:10).

But the Torah does not indicate that the Abrahamic familial edict of not marrying the Canaanite daughters was based upon their moral depravity. In fact, the only time we see any sexual offensiveness committed by the Canaanites was when Shechem abducted and raped Dinah (Gen 34:2). Hamor, Shechem’s father, is fully aware of the gravity of the situation and wishes to peacefully settle the situation with Jacob. However, Simeon and Levi, enraged with Shechem’s violation of their sister, conjure up a diabolical revenge plan which completely annihilates the males in that tribe.

Revolutionary Code of Relational Holiness

Based upon the Books of Joshua, Judges, Kings and Isaiah, as well as recent archaeological findings of the Canaanites in the land of Israel and in other places, the worship of Baal, El and Asherah was deeply rooted in this region before and after Abraham. It was believed that these gods directly influenced the rain and other aspects of nature. In an agricultural economy with a dry season during the year, the lure of worshipping these gods in the land of Canaan was a powerful one, especially when the rainy season did not come in a timely manner. Worship of these gods included engaging in both male and female temple prostitution, child sacrifice, and self-laceration.   

My contention is when Rashi speaks of kadosh as it pertains to the new Code of Sexual Conduct, it is separate from the prohibition of imitating the practices of Egypt and Canaan. Furthermore, I believe Rashi was using the new divine morality as a prerequisite, necessary to fulfill all the other mitzvot relating to holiness that are outlined in Leviticus Chapters 19 & 20. 

Rashi sees that in this parsha, the Jewish people are standing between the Egyptian paganism of the past and the Canaanite culture of the future. To achieve their uniqueness as a nation, not only will they need to completely remove the idolatrous nature of each civilization from their midst, but they will also need to practice their own divine morality.

The history of the Jewish people prior to becoming a nation at Sinai is filled with the improper and incestuous relationships mentioned in Leviticus 18. Jacob married two sisters; Judah married his daughter in-law Tamar. Simeon, according to the Midrash, married his sister Dinah. Another Midrash says that Jacob’s other sons married their half-sisters. Yocheved married her nephew, Amram, the parents of Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

This new moral code is more than just separating from sexual relationships, as compared to other pagan societies. It is the springboard to properly defining familial relationships, to build a nation that will remain in the Land of Israel. In being set apart from these relationships as a nation, the Jewish people can truly actualize holiness and work toward bettering society.  


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