The second of this week’s two Torah portions opens with the imperative to the Israelite community “to be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
The Hebrew root for the word “kadosh/holy” means to be separate or distinct. But beyond the basic meaning of “different,” kadosh suggests a sense of elevation and sanctification. When we declare Shabbat to be kadosh, we elevate it from the other six days of the week. When we speak of God as kadosh, we sanctify God as different in quality — not only in quantity — from all else imagined to be divine. But when we speak of the Jewish people as “holy,” wherein lies the uniqueness, and how is it articulated?
In this week’s parasha, the Torah commands: “You shall not follow the practices of the nations that [God is] driving out before you.” Jewish tradition understood this commandment to mean that Jews should not emulate the customs of the people among whom they live, especially the religious customs. Doing so would eradicate the boundaries that distinctive religious practices confer. Those boundaries, whether of diet or dress, or belief and behavior, were reinforced throughout Jewish history by the social isolation often imposed by the countries where Jews resided.
In the modern period the Jewish people began to move beyond the walls of ghettos and into the social, political, economic, and cultural life of their native countries. As part of this process of emancipation, the traditional indicators of distinctiveness began to dissolve. The contemporary quest to identify the uniqueness of the Jewish people and of Judaism in an open society had begun.
The Torah wants us to be “holy” — separate, special, distinctive. But the societal and cultural imperatives for American Jews have been to integrate, acculturate, and assimilate — to take advantage and be fully a part of (rather than apart from) the open societies in which we live.
Some contemporary Jews find “the Jewish difference” in beliefs, others in behaviors. Some find it in individual expressions of Jewishness, others in collective expressions, secular as well as religious.
The Torah says, “You shall be holy” — not “You are holy.” Holiness is not a status that has been conferred, but a challenge that is always waiting to be accomplished.