This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1–20:27,1 starts with, “Speak to all the congregation of Bnei-Yisrael and tell them: You shall be kedoshim (holy), for I, ADONAI your God, am holy” (19:2) and as it to a conclusion, “So consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am ADONAI your God. You are to keep My statutes and do them. I am ADONAI who sanctifies you” (20:7-8).
In a quick overview of the statutes included in this section that carries the expectation to “be holy” includes multiple aspects of interpersonal relationships. These aspects include giving honor and respect to one’s parents and the elderly, providing for the poor and destitute, and avoiding theft, deceit, lying, false oaths, slander, and gossip. Also included is not showing favoritism in judicial matters whether the plaintiff is poor or wealthy. Then there are various aspects of improper sexual conduct, within and without the bonds of family. At the center of them all, is the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
Rabbi Akiva has been accredited as saying, “This is a great principle of the Torah: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”. It is said that Hillel once responded to a potential convert, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Then we are all familiar with Yeshua’s response to a possible antagonist, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). The first, of course, was “Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI echad. Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One. And you shall love ADONAI your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).
There appears to be at least thirty-two aspects of interpersonal relationships addressed, and surprisingly just five or possibly seven aspects dealing with one’s relationship with HaShem in this week’s parasha. This disparity may have been at the heart of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s strong affirmation that “…divinity (or being holy) is not to be found in abstract theological concepts but in everyday holy acts among human beings in the ordinary pursuit of their lives.”2 If I may paraphrase Rabbi Kaplan, the key to “being holy” is performing acts of practical holiness in relating to one another, and not just friends and family members but to all that HaShem brings across our paths.
While, to this point, most of these thoughts have been from the parasha, I believe that James would have agreed whole-heartedly with Rabbi Kaplan’s understanding of what it means to be holy. The second chapter of James’ letter begins by reminding his readers of the folly of showing favoritism based upon wealth or position. He ended this section with
If, however, you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show favoritism, you are committing sin and are convicted by the Torah as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)
After further discussion concerning other aspects of interpersonal relationships, he asks the following,
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in shalom, keep warm and well fed,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is that? (James 2:15-16)
James then infers that if one, as an act of faith, blesses those in need, without attempting to actually assist in alleviating their needs, their faith is worthless, or in his words, “So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself” (James 2:17). Then, in the very next verse, he makes a bold statement, one of which may well sum up what it means to “be holy.”
Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. (James 2:18b)
I do not believe that James is making a soteriological statement here, rather he is speaking of working out practical holiness in everyday life. If one really studies the letter of James, one soon discovers what he considered to be the working out of the royal law. It was and remains to be meeting the needs of others when one is able, of not showing favoritism, of abstaining from murder, adultery, gossip, and slander. It was and still is being straight with one another, not haughty, prideful, or envious.
Instead of going further, I conclude with two passages, both of which I believe capture not only James’ teaching on practical holiness but the very heart of the interpersonal requirements of this week’s parasha. First from James,
Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct let him show his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. …the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, not hypocritical. (James 3:13 & 17)
And then from Sha’ul in his letter to the Galatians,
Therefore, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good toward all—especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
1 All Scripture citations are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Accordance edition, hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.
2 Steven Carr Reuben, A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion, (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 2019) p 119.