What is a Jewish state? A state with a Jewish majority? A theocratic state governed by Jewish law? A democratic state governed by Jewish ethics? Perhaps, a Jewish state would combine all three elements? Of course, we are not speaking theoretically. Israel is understood by all parties, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Israel, in the diaspora and around the world as ‘the Jewish state’ – because it is the only one. But there is no agreement about what makes it ‘Jewish’ – although, demographic arguments seem to predominate: In order for Israel to be a Jewish state, the majority of inhabitants must be Jewish. But let’s say, the ultra-nationalists held sway, and all non-Jews were banished from Israel. Such a state would be 100% Jewish in demographic terms, but it would not be Jewish in ethical terms.

The Book of Leviticus, Va-yikra, which we are reading at the moment, gets to the heart of the matter. Parashat K’doshim opens with the words: ‘The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the Israelites and say to them: You shall be holy, because I the Eternal one your God, am holy”’ – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai (Leviticus 19:1-2). K’doshim goes on to set out a code of law, in which the majority of the rules concern ethical behaviour – in particular in relation to the vulnerable and the marginal. It is here that we find the famous verse: ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Eternal’ (19:18). And it is here that we also find these equally important verses: ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. / The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal One your God’ (19:33-34).

Being holy as God is holy seems to revolve around treating others with justice and love. But holiness is actually more complex. This week’s parashah, Sh’mini, opens with the concluding eighth [sh’mini] day of the ceremony of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests. The system of avodah, sacrificial worship, administered by the priests collapsed in 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Nevertheless, the understanding of holiness, which infused Temple Judaism, survives to this day. The root of kadosh [plural: k’doshim], ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’, designated by the Hebrew consonants, Kuf Dalet Shin, means that which is ‘set apart’ or ‘separate.’ In Sh’mini, the meaning of holiness as that which is set apart is illustrated in the description of the ordination of the priests, who were set apart from the people Israel for their role as sacred functionaries (Leviticus 9). It is also illustrated in the lists of living creatures, including land animals, fish, birds and insects that may and may not be eaten (Lev. 11).

Immediately after the account of the ordination of the priests, we encounter the shadow-side of holiness. We read that Aaron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu ‘each took a fire pan, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered strange fire [eish zarah] before the Eternal One, which He had not commanded them’ (Lev. 10:1). The punishment for their transgression was swift. We read in the very next verse: ‘Then a fire came out from before the Eternal One and consumed them, and they died before the Eternal One’ (10:2). Being set apart for the sacred service of God did not imply special powers or immunity from prosecution. On the contrary, the unique status of the priests was confined to the scrupulous performance of their function. Any deviation from the prescribed ritual was punishable by death.

There seems to be a contradiction between the ethical and ritual realms of the sacred. How can it be holy to treat others with justice and love, and also be holy to require absolute adherence to ritual practice? As we have seen from the examples of the ordination of the priesthood and the dietary laws, sacred activity means nothing more and nothing less than setting apart. It is what we do when we engage in setting apart that makes the difference. So, the setting apart of the Jewish people is not an end in itself. The State of Israel can lay claim to being ‘the Jewish state’ only insofar as it is set apart to act in ways that are different from other states. And that difference cannot simply be defined in ritual terms. Indeed, ritual behaviour must be accompanied by ethical action. The passage from Isaiah chapter 58, addressed to the people of Judah after the return from exile,[1] and read as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur in the midst of our fasting in all denominations, in Israel and throughout the world, is unequivocal (58:5-7):

Is this the fast I choose, a day for human beings to afflict themselves? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day which is favourable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I choose: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your home? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?

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  1. The Torah commentary of W. Gunther Plaut (The Torah. A Modern Commentary, Union for Reform Judaism, New York, 1999), reflects the scholarly view that the Book of Isaiah includes the prophecy of two prophets, Isaiah, who prophesied in the 8th century BCE (chapters 1-39) and ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, who prophesied during and following the Babylonian exile that began in 586 BCE (chapters 40-66).