This week we will be reading from parashat Kedoshim, which is part of a larger collection of writings in Leviticus that scholars refer to as the Holiness Code. As it says in Leviticus, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.”1
The implication here is not that the Israelites were inherently holy, but instead, through their relationship with God and the fulfillment of the mitzvot, they could come to embody what it meant to be holy.
Kadosh, or holiness, takes on many meanings in Judaism. It can mean separate, sacred, pure, or splendid, just to name a few. Originally it probably meant something like “imbued with a divine quality.” In the ancient world of the Israelites, it appears that in other cultures, only deities could have this quality. One way Judaism was transformative was by arguing that what we do and what we say can make us more kadosh, or more like God.
One way we demonstrate holiness is through the communities and societies we create. Kedoshim enumerates any number of ways to support and sustain a sacred community. These include but are not limited to actions like not committing robbery, not being deceitful, not defrauding one another, leaving food for the poor and the stranger, not insulting the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind, and “love your neighbor as yourself.”2 This last one, as is later interpreted by Rabbi Hillel who said, “that which is hateful to you do not do unto others,”3 is now known as the golden rule.
We have discussed at length the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious question of when life begins. There is no legal or scientific agreement about when a cluster of cells becomes a living human being. In some religious traditions it begins at conception. In others, like ours, it begins when the head emerges from the womb and the infant takes their first breath. And there are others that probably fall somewhere in between. Hence it is difficult to make any religious argument when it comes to questions related to reproductive decisions without stepping on one group’s religious beliefs.
To take it one step further, as we learn from parashat kedoshim, there is another issue at play as well, v’ahavata l’reiacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself, or as stated by Hillel, that which is hateful to you do not do unto others. It is not just about the question of being pro-life, pro-choice, pro-abortion or anti-abortion, it is also about seeing the holiness in the person who is making the decision. It is about respecting their physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and religious autonomy to also make the decisions they view as best for themselves and their lives.
If we wish to be a holy community, part of the premise is that we do not have the ability or the right to make decisions for how others wish to live and express their understanding of kadosh. So many factors are involved in any reproductive decision, and our obligation is not to dissuade or condemn, but rather, to support and not to put stumbling blocks in their path. To love our neighbor as ourself means to see them as fully autonomous human beings with their own hopes, dreams, aspirations, and plans. And to recognize that their decisions are often based on so much more than we may know or understand.
We may not always like or agree with the decisions of others. But as we have learned, when a person’s ability to make decisions for themselves is taken away, we, as a community, are all diminished.
Reproductive choice is part of the Jewish journey, and may we continue to demonstrate our holiness by continuing to fight for the rights of all to have that choice even if it is not necessarily one that we might make for ourselves. For that is what it means to be holy.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Leviticus 19:2
2 Leviticus 19:18
3 Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a