D’var Torah: Emor

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May 14

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Holier than Thou?

I love clubs.  I’ve always been a club junkie.  I’m particularly thrilled to join clubs that require special equipment.  Over the years I have treasured my ice skates, my curling stone, my softball glove, my exercise ball, my riding crop, my knitting needles, my squash raquet.

And uniforms, how I love uniforms! I was inordinately proud of my brownie uniform with all its badges.  When I started pottery classes, my potting smock gave me much more nachas than my pots.  Likewise, the tennis skirt I bought to launch my squash career.

Why?  Because I love to belong.  And I love to be seen to belong.  I love the sense of kinship, the common knowledge, common language, common identity.

And the sense of separateness – I love that the clubs I belong to are different, exclusive in some way.  That in belonging to these clubs I must in some way be different, special.

I’m proud to be Jewish.  I belong to a club whose members include Einstein, Freud, Marx, Pasternak, Harry Kroto, Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth – Barry Manilow ….  Am Yisroel Chai.

In the introduction to today’s Parashah, Emor, the Etz Hayim Chumash says: “The previous parashah [Kedoshim] describes the Israelites as being set apart from other nations, called on to attain holiness through their distinctive lifestyle.  Emor sets the Kohanim apart from other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions and abstentions in their lives.  As the Israelites are to represent the God-oriented life to the nations of the world, the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites.  Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”  If this is true, why do we think, generally speaking, that it’s bad to be “Holier than thou”?

This week’s Parsha continues what is known as the ‘Holiness Code’, so-called because of “its repeated use of the word Kadosh (Holy)”.

The root meaning of ‘Kadosh is “something distinctive and set apart”, that is separate.  Last year, in one of his ‘Weekly Words’, Rabbi Rafi wrote that “we seek to imitate the divine to become holy.  In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating:  light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea”.

There are lots of separations enumerated in the Holiness Code: the pure from the defiled, unblemished from the blemished; the priests from the rest of the Israelites; festivals from ordinary days; praise from blasphemy; the Israelites from the other nations.

There are potential pitfalls in creating simple but unbridgeable dichotomies. I feel uneasy about this. If I’ve understood him correctly, Rabbi Joel Levy also feels uneasy.  In this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’, he refers to the “Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity”.  He is talking about the harsh punishment for blasphemy set out at the end of this parsha, but there are other problems that arise when I view my particular nation or tribe as Holier than yours.  Maybe there is a difference between creative acts of separation, which are holy; and the static state of separate-ness, which is not.

Jonathan Sacks wrote, in an article about Kedoshim, that “only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy.”  He goes on to say “That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew”.

I suspect few of us Jews in the modern world are conscious of this call to holiness as we go about our daily lives.  And even fewer feel the need to heed it.

But we are acutely aware of our separateness.  We nurture it.  We are the victims – and the survivors – of the Shoah.  And of countless precursor pogroms and attacks throughout our history.

I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the Jewish people have suffered more than other groups. Or that only the Jewish people have an obligation to be holy.  Does it imply that only Jews – as a whole community – can be holy?  Or that the Jewish people, the Jewish religion – in being separate, is superior to others?

To be “something distinctive and set apart”: this is simultaneously our great strength and our greatest vulnerability. The UK’s response to the threat of extremists has been to assert, and even to enshrine in law, the duty to promote ‘British values’ (e.g. civil partnerships, gay marriage, adoption of children by same-sex partners). Personally, I have no problem with these principles. But Ofsted has rated some Charedi schools inadequate, and last year one was threatened with closure because of its refusal to teach about same-sex relationships and about other faiths and cultures. One Charedi spokesman argued that this is an attack on their way of life. “There are lines we cannot cross”, he said.

I suspect that the brit mila could be next on the hit list. Jewish News reported that recently, at its annual conference, Norway’s ruling Progress Party voted to ban the religious circumscision of boys under the age of 16.  Again, from the perspective of current modern Western values, it’s hard to deny that there is a problem about injuring or disfiguring children when they are too young to give consent.

Next could come shechita, on the grounds that pre-stunning makes animal slaughter more humane. Whilst it was no doubt true that in biblical times shechita was the most compassionate way to dispatch animals, I don’t think we can be sure that’s the case today.

Nevertheless, despite my personal reservations, I feel deeply anxious about the State threatening customs that have bound our communities together; customs that we have shared and valued over so many generations.

As you all know, Rabbi Karl is a zealous advocate of “good questions”, so to end this drash I’ll pose some:

  • To what extent are we prepared to be “distinctive and set apart”?
  • Are such rituals as brit mila and schehita intrinsic and essential to our Jewish identity?
  • Are they worth practicing if they inflict pain (even if only momentary) on babies or animals? If they are proscribed by British law?
  • In the face of evolving British values, to what extent will we be permitted to maintain such practices? And if we’re not, how can we maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora today?

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