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Holiness: Will You Know It When You See It?

April 20, 2006 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman
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I'm sure your holiday was both delicious and loquacious. I trust that the brisket was sumptuous and the conversation equally so. It seems a tad hard to leave this theme, so indulge me once more.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once quipped (and by doing so, bequeathed to the cultural lexicon the following line): "I can't define it, but I'll know it when I see it." When the challenge is made to define holiness, which is sometimes an obtuse and nebulous concept, one is reminded of such a sentiment. It seems as if it's hard to sink one's teeth into. Or maybe not.

When famed Kaminetzer Rebbe Baruch Ber Leibowitz came to New York, then-Mayor Jimmy Walker presented this illustrious rabbi the key to the city and said, "Now, I know that Darwin was wrong. Only such a holy man could have been created by God."

When he was a student at the University of Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the project of Western philosophy was different from that of Judaism. The Greeks were interested in finding "how to be good." Jews were interested in discovering "how to be holy."

Allow me to share an insight from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik regarding holiness. He noted something interesting about the way in which Maimonides wrote his legal compendium and magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah.

Indeed, the rabbi pointed out that in the European world of the cognoscenti, neither students nor scholars referred to Maimonides' work this way; his oeuvre was referred to as Yad Chazaka. It was in part named this because it consisted of 14 books, and the numerical value of the Hebrew word yad is 14. One of those books - aptly titled The Book of Holiness - yields some tremendous insights, suggested Soloveitchik.

We find under the rubric of The Book of Holiness three categories of laws: Laws of Forbidden Relationships, Laws of Forbidden Foods and Laws of Ritual Slaughtering. Let's sum this up bluntly but accurately. Under the rubric of holiness, Maimonides speaks of two things: sex and food. This week, the Torah discusses the latter. Kashrut is a major theme of our parashah.

Listen to these words: "It is appropriate for a person to try to examine the statutes of the holy Torah and try to ascertain their essential meanings … but something that a person cannot find an adequate reason for should not be taken lightly …

"The legislative laws of the Torah (mishpatim) have reasons which are readily discernible, for example, laws against stealing, murder and honoring one's parents. The statutes (chukim) are those mitzvot whose reasons are not readily comprehensible wherein one questions them and pagan nations ridicule them, for example, the prohibition against pork or the mixing of meat and milk … ."

How interesting that kashrut is an example of something that does not jump off the page as explicitly manifesting an aspect of holiness, yet Maimonides includes it in his work.

How can we understand this?

Consider what I have coined as the Yalta conference - not theirs, but ours. Yalta was one of the great women of the Talmud. She was married to a prominent rabbi, but was herself a scholar.

The Talmud relates that she once taught her husband and, by extension, his students the following truth: "Everything that God forbade to be consumed, He created something permissible that was just like it." Indeed, there is even a fish, the shibuta, which tastes like pork.

Kashrut, it would seem, is not about denial or abnegation. Were that so, even the seductive smells and tantalizing tastes would be off-limits. Kashrut is more about discipline and affirmation.

Though it's now big business in America, to us Jews, kashrut has always been a big deal.

Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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