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Righting the balance
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Righting the balance

Kedoshim | Leviticus 19:1-20:27

“Holiness,” says Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879, Russia), “is separating ourselves from materiality and elevating ourselves to spiritual and divine concerns that transcend matters of the flesh.” 

By that standard, this week’s commandment to “be holy” seems an impossible task. So Malbim modifies his stand: “There are various degrees of the holy,” ranging from curbing our appetite for forbidden pleasures to becoming immune to sensory pleasures altogether. But even so, one wonders: Is total asceticism the ideal?

Jewish tradition does know isolated instances of ascetic behavior, but total self-abnegation seems foreign to Jews. So Malbim has a much grander message in mind, as we see from his following comment.

He calls the individual and society, respectively, the “small world” and the “large world” of God’s creation. They mirror each other, he maintains, in that they are both composed of body, mind, and soul. The purpose of controlling one’s individual urges is not to become an ascetic, but to effect a parallel change in the “large world,” the social order in which we dwell. 

The three domains of body, mind, and soul, he thinks, constitute a sort of zero-sum game —diminish one, and the other two expand to fill the vacuum. So when individuals shrink their material appetites, the realms of mind and spirit automatically get bigger. Since microcosm and macrocosm are interdependent, contracting our personal appetite for physical pleasures produces a parallel contraction throughout society. 

From a scientific point of view, there is much wrong with this analysis. In Malbim’s understanding, the connection between individual and society is automatic — a kind of metaphysical law built into the universal order of things. But take away the metaphysics, and Malbim is on to something. As every social psychologist knows, individual and society are indeed mutually interdependent; if cultures are materialistic, their citizens are equally so, and vice versa. We take our individual cues from the culture in which we are raised. 

But individuals are not, on that account, mere lemmings destined to follow their cultural ideals into the sea. We hold people morally responsible for resisting cultural norms that go astray: We think cultures should be called to account by individuals who believe their society has taken them too far.

Malbim is not arguing for selfless asceticism, therefore. His target is materialism so rampant that it crushes the other two realms of mind and spirit. What makes us distinctively human, he contends, is not our bodily appetites, after all; it is our mental and spiritual capacities that give us the right to the label “human.” When the “large world” of society becomes overly materialistic, only “the small world” of individuals can right the balance.

The commandment to be holy is thus no call for otherworldly monasticism. It is the commitment to cultivate mind and spirit. By mind, we mean a life of learning and of thoughtfulness. By spirit, we mean the values we associate with God, who is, after all, the ultimate standard of holiness: such things as compassion and kindness, justice, and nobility.

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