The first 19 verses of Parashat Kedoshim are an astonishingly broad code of religious life. The passage opens with a mandate for Israel to become holy like God, and it ends with preserving the integrity of plants and animals. In between is a remarkable series of commands designed to inculcate social solidarity and equality—we are commanded not to favor the rich or the poor in courts of justice, but to create an economic reality which is accessible to all people—including poor people who are welcomed to reap the fields of their more food-secure neighbors. Special attention is focused on physical disabilities, with the entire nation commanded to show reverence for God by not taking advantage of others.
This passage of Torah is not a secular social contract. The expression “I am the Lord” is repeated eight times. Cultic concerns with proper and improper sacrifice are mixed in with admonitions not to steal or besmirch the reputation of another person. It interests me that the punishment for desecrating God’s name through improper sacrifice is to be cut off from the people (v.8), whereas it is reverence for God that prevents taking advantage of other people’s disabilities (v.14). This is counterintuitive today—we think of piety as inspiring ritual, while social ethics are informed by interpersonal values. Leviticus sees it differently. Ritual piety secures membership in religious community; social ethics is an expression of reverence for God. As Rabbi Shimon b. Elazar says in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, “I the Lord created your neighbor; if you love them, then I will reward you, but if you do not love them, then I will exact payment.” Continue reading