Fire, Brimstone and Positive Acts

Fire, Brimstone and Positive Acts

Rabbi Scott Aaron
Rabbi Scott Aaron


Parshat Kedoshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, starts with one of the most-oft quoted verses of the Torah: “Speak to all the people of Israel and say to them that you shall all be holy, for I, G-d your G-d, am holy.” The portion takes its name from that verse, as the word kedoshim is the plural Hebrew word for “holy,” and the entire portion is part of a larger grouping of Leviticus chapters commonly called the Holiness Code because of the constant repetition of the word.

Kedoshim is a classic example of what my evangelical colleagues call “fire and brimstone” Bible. This portion defines being holy by the acts and practices one either does according to the Torah’s instructions or acts and practices one scrupulously avoids according to the Torah’s instructions. Expectations of specific sacrifices to be offered and keeping the Sabbath are intermingled with prohibitions against summoning spirits and sexual deviance. Most of the commandments are actually worded in the negative, i.e., “You shall not …” and detail painful punishments and methods of death for violations.

However, as we are just completing Passover and engaged in the counting of the omer, I am struck by the observation that holiness in Judaism is as often about what actions one does as much as those one doesn’t. Consider Passover. We often think of the holiday as all about what we don’t do, such as we don’t eat foods with any form of leavening, which means we abstain from most grain-based or prepared foods that are a regular part of our daily diet the rest of the year. By the end of the holiday, everyone is complaining because they have been denied our culturally common “comfort foods.”

But is Passover just about abstaining? Of course not! That alone, while a commandment, does not celebrate the holiday. Think about the things that we do as part of Passover. We clean our homes, prepare special foods only served at this time of year, hold Seders with family and friends and recount the Exodus story. Each of these activities and many more are behaviors that make us holy. Yes, we “shall not” eat any form of leavening to be holy at Passover, but we shall do so much more than that to be holy then as well.

Recently, I was listening to a news story on the radio that discussed the acquisition of the Manischewitz food company by the venture firm Bain Capital. It seems Bain plans to expand the brand beyond the kosher food aisle and, as the reporter noted, “make matzah crackers as common as Fritos in the snack aisle.” The story said that focus groups had showed positive asso- ciation with food that is certified as kosher and that it was comparable to the value of a USDA inspection stamp or an organic certification. The reporter said that people liked the idea of eating food “that has been blessed by God.”

After I stopped laughing at the idea of eating Tam Tams at a Super Bowl party, it hit me that the focus group thought that kosher food was literally holy food in the same way that many Christians ascribe holiness to communion wafers and wine. That misunderstanding of what being kosher actually means says a lot about why we Jews focus on far more in the Torah than just the “fire and brimstone” verses like those in Kedoshim. We do not ascribe holiness to most phys- ical objects. With a few exceptions, we don’t set aside things as sacred. Rather, we ascribe actions as holy.

Matzah itself is not holy; the act of eating it during Passover is. Eating kosher food as a religious practice means making dietary choices between foods that are permitted and abstaining from those that are forbidden. It is the choices that are holy, not the foods we choose or reject. Kedoshim is essentially about making holy choices to do what G-d commands. Since Fritos are certified as kosher, then the holy choice between them and Tam-Tams for my Super Bowl party will always be a no-brainer.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., is community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh.