Shabbat Shemini/Parah 5774

We’re going to spend the next several weeks of Torah portions grappling with the theme of kedushah, usually translated as holiness. The problem, as I see it, is that we can’t define holiness with much certainty either.

Whether our Torah is addressing the special regulations for the kohanim, or the dietary laws, both of which appear in this week’s parshahShemini, it is clear that we are expected to behave differently than other peoples. Maybe that’s why the rabbis, in the midrashic collection on Leviticus called Sifra, made this simple statement: “Kedoshim tihiyu–perushim tihiyu.” “Be holy” means “be separate.” But how separate must one be in order to live a life of holiness?

Our parshah contains guidance for the priestly class to keep them distant from impure objects and for the entire people to keep distant from “unclean” animals. But there seems to be a natural by-product to the dietary laws. Not only do we keep apart from this list of creatures; we seem to be expected to keep apart from other peoples, who aren’t bound by the same dietary restrictions. Is that the burden of expectation upon us as a holy nation–forced separation? Or is there a way to be faithful to the dietary laws while being very much in social contact with those who aren’t expected to keep them? Must we live alone, or can we share space with the other?

This question goes to the heart of one of the “big ideas” of Jewish life. Is being separate and apart a classic Jewish value? And speaking of values, extending the thoughts of the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel series, to what extent might this value relate to Jewish life in the Jewish State? On Shabbat morning, we’ll explore the kashrut paradigm as a Jewish value that might inform our thoughts on the ideal way for Israel to function in relation with its neighbors.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David Wise