Emor 5771: What's unique about holiness?

Parashat Emor continues the discussion of holiness that has preoccupies much of the book of Leviticus. Unlike last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, it focuses not on a wide range of discrete subjects, but on a few large issues: relationships, sacrifices, and time. The parasha begins with the instruction to the priests that they are generally prohibited from coming into contact with a human corpse, but they may do so for immediate relations. It then discusses the physical completeness—perfection is an apt, but more loaded translation—necessary both for the priests and the animals offered as sacrifices. Finally the parasha takes up holiness in time, namely Shabbat, the festivals, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

What links all of these pieces together is the emphasis on kedusha, holiness or separateness. The Torah insists on kedusha in all of these dimensions: relationships, space, material objects, and time. On one level, this is a radical notion, that we can apply such a mental or spiritual construct throughout the Creation. There is nothing inherent in anything created that would suggest that it is different or special or holy. Kedusha is in the eye of the beholder—you have to believe it to see it. So when the Torah tells us that holiness applies across all elements of the world, we have to recognize what a bold claim that represents.

On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t so radical after all. As infants we begin to categorize and recognize along the lines of sameness and difference. All of language, the mental space within which we inhabit the world, is predicated on our ability to call something by a name. And our sense of awe or wonder is evoked when we reach the limits of that ability, when we encounter the ineffable, the unnamable, the holy. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “we have a certainty without knowledge… In moments of sensing the ineffable, we are as certain about the value of the world as we are of its existence.” This is as basic to us as recognizing the people and objects in our lives, even if we have forgotten how to recognize such a moment itself. In Heschel’s telling, everyone is capable of experiencing radical amazement, of encountering kedusha—we simply have to open our eyes to it and nurture our ability to sense it.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzhak, teaches that the covenant of with Noah and the covenant of Sinai do not contradict one another. Sinai is rather an elaboration of the covenant with Noah, except in one respect—our relationship with time. Rav Hutner cites the verse, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22), and in particular its final words, lo yishbotu—here translated as “will not cease.” But he links these words with the Jewish legal prohibition to a non-Jew of fully observing Shabbat: lo yishbotu means, They may not make Shabbat. Thus when the commandment is given to the Israelites at Sinai to make Shabbat, an element of the previous covenant with Noah is overturned. This is distinct. While Noahides are enjoined not to murder, not to steal, not to practice idolatry—all items which are reaffirmed in the covenant at Sinai—in the area of time something fundamentally shifts at Sinai. The idea of kedusha, of sacredness in time, becomes a unique Jewish heritage.

In this lies one of the basic animating tensions of Jewish life, both today and throughout history: the extent to which our practices and rituals are rooted in basic human realities on the one hand, and are total innovations on the other. According to Heschel (and others like Rudolf Otto), holiness is a pre-cognitive truth of human life: all human beings can sense that which is beyond words, that which is holy. But for Rav Hutner (and, to be fair, for Heschel as well) there is a uniquely Jewish aspect to kedusha, particularly in time, but also in all the other dimensions to which it applies: space, relationships, the material world. Kedusha, in our holidays, in the land of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, in our relationships with other Jews both within and beyond our immediate families, is the unique aspect of our language as Jews. As its name implies, it is what makes us unique and special—not better, but unique.

Shabbat shalom.