OPINION Sanctity, Individuality and the Space of Social Justice

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan, a good friend of mine and one of the most important psychologists in Israel, called with a rather last minute request: “Yaakov, would you be so kind to give the congregational speech for my daughter Hadas’ bat mitzvah? We’d like you to be the one to present her with the shul’s present and congratulations.” Of course, what immediately ensued was an alarmingly variegated cocktail of flattery, panic and synapses: “What am I going to talk about?”

I’m an academic. Teaching and writing on the European literature of the Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment periods is what I do. So all I do is give 90-minute lectures to students, and sit in the National Library in Jerusalem writing on poetry of the 17th century. Giving what is commonly known as a dvar Torah is not exactly my cup of tea… So yes, panic: check.

Now once the level of adrenaline was under control again, I managed to open a chumash VaYikra (Leviticus, one of the five volumes of the Pentateuch) and there it was: Parashat Kedoshim. Yes, the weekly reading was exactly the same as the one I had so voraciously learned the very first day of Yeshiva back in 1997, when I left my agricultural routine in Sde Eliyahu, a kibbutz in Northern Israel, and went to invest some quality time with tradition in Shilo. I sat, on that first morning, in the Bet Midrash and read all that I could find on the concept of kedushah, sanctity. What is holy for Judaism? Who is holy? And how are we to relate to this quality (metaphysical? Material?) called “kedushah”?

The parasha opens with a rather univocal commandment addressed by Gd to Moses: Israel is required to be holy because I [Gd] am holy. Holiness is presented as a result of imitation – do as I do and you will be holy. The matter, of course, is not as simple as this. What does it mean to imitate Gd? The Nachmanides proposes a striking answer upon which I wish to structure most of the present article: imitation Gd is something one does by separating himself – just as I am separate, you will be separate, just as I am holy, you will be holy.

What does it mean, I thus asked myself, to be separate, to be unique, to be an individual? Does one have to detach from society, or oppose one’s own consciousness to that of the collective? And how is this separation possibly have anything to do with sanctity?
The holiness of the Gd of Moses is one which derives directly from his being differentiated and separate from separate from nature, from the creation he himself has made. The unique is thus to be seen as perpetually distinct from the multiple, from the collective – the Divine “I” is holy because of his uniqueness and distinctiveness. I would like to call this first type of holiness “individual kedushah.” The people of Israel, addressed as a collective by Gd through Moses, is an edah, a congregation, a community – and as such they are required to push themselves to pursue their uniqueness, their individuality.

On the other hand, the Torah is very clear on the social nature of sanctity: the individual Israelite is required to take heed of respecting the weaker members of society, by leaving parts of the harvest and of the vines for the poor, the widows and the strangers. Israelites are commanded not to lie, not to steal from one’s partner, not to exploit one’s workers but rather to pay them at the end of the day, not to place an obstacle in front of a blind person, not to damn one who is deaf; the people of Israel are ordered to foster the doing of justice, and to prevent from making the life of the weak and poor more miserable, and the life of the rich and the powerful easier. Hatred, exploitation, lack of justice, wrong-doings and the radicalization of social differences – these are the main obstacles on the way to kedushah. For all these disturbances of balance, of Divine equilibrium with a social collective, are contradictions of the principle “Be holy for I, Gd, am holy.”

We are thus left with an exquisite conundrum: kedushah is the outcome of both separation, distancing, and the ethical coexistence of individuals within society. Or, to put it in more psychological terms, following the encouragement of the Divine speaker in this parasha, the individual is required to be both one, self-centered, conscious of his / her uniqueness, and in a perpetual conversation with an ever-present other, weaker members of society like widows, orphans, or converts, pushed to face the absolute necessity to act within the social fabric in an ethical and just manner. In other words, kedushah may very well be a quality formed by the individual in the interstices found between the one and the many – be one, be unique, but do not forget the Other – ” וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ”. The individual is required to love the Other like he loves himself – put the “I” and the “non-I” on the same level and love them both.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Divine speaker does mention these very complex ways in which kedushah is fashioned leads me to think that the natural tendency of the “I” is to define itself at the expense of the Other – hating a parent, hating the stranger, exploiting, stealing, etc. It is for this reason, I think, that both the Torah and the Rabbinic tradition repeat, over and over again, that the People of Israel, considered as a collective and as individuals, must remember their past, must maintain a clear consciousness of their having been strangers in Egypt, slaves exploited by powerful rulers. This consciousness results in a love for the stranger, a loving need to protect he or she whom experiences alterity all the time, which, I would argue, is not merely a literal group of individuals, but an internal stranger in each and every Israelite.

Identity is not merely univocal, but must include otherness, contradiction, differences – the Divine speaker thus encourages the people to accept, via the legislative sphere, the internal tension between being one and being many, being unique and being different at the same time. Of course, while one struggles to engage with the borders and the differences in order to include and embrace, the Torah complicates the task paradoxically and inexplicably, by ordering a clear-cut differentiation between different types of seeds and plants, by ordering the distinction between pure and impure animals. There are categories in the Torah, and the borders between them are not always porous or simply a matter of social consensus – but the individual is called, at every stage is his or her life, to engage those differentiations, to challenge them and at times even transgress them. Kedushah is, to conclude, a direct result of this active engagement and is specifically a result of the performance of an individual’s actions – and as a consequence of this challenging work, God himself performs a differentiation: ” You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University