Politics & Parsha: Kedoshim 5771

Posted on April 29, 2011 In Archives

Politics & Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Kedoshim 5771: Separate but Really & Truly, Equal

Sometimes the English translation doesn’t do justice. We translate kadosh as holy but separate is more accurate. In Jewish tradition, something sanctified as holy is set apart. When the Bible this week urges “kedoshim t’hiyu” (“be holy”) many of the commentaries interpret that as “pull back” or “separate.” Ramban/Nachmanides famously suggests the Torah asks we live in moderation, because you actually can have too much of a good thing. (I am reminded of an anecdote (I can’t vouch its truth) about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Passover marked his 18th yartzheit), a paradigm of self control who sometimes ate just one spoonful of ice cream for dessert.)

So being separate is good, says the Bible. But then the Bible lists all manner of commands that cannot be performed save in a community: give charity, honor parents, gleaning fields, paying workers and dealing with the stranger and foreigner. We are admonished to keep honest weights and measures, forbidden from tale-bearing, gossip and more.

The path to holiness is not either via separateness or community but both, says the Bible. Step back, but do not remain apart.

Being separate sometimes leads to being out of touch, being too judgmental of fault and error or too suspicious and wary; of holding people responsible for things beyond their control and having unrealistic expectations of people. Sometimes even, conversely, separateness causes someone to assume too little of people and presume they can’t do certain things or won’t act in certain ways. This happens all the time when people without young children encounter toddlers, pre-teens or heaven help them, actual teenagers. They either expect them to act “grown up” or talk down to them because they think the child can’t meet them at their level.

A long time ago, in summer camp, I met two role models, Rabbi Naftali Besser & Rabbi Danny Rhein who excel in treating – and taking everyone – whether six, sixteen or 56 – seriously. Admittedly, they made, and, to this very day, make it look very easy. But for the rest of us, the Bible has some advice. You can work on bettering yourself but you can never think you’re that much better. The Bible therefore requires us to be in the community and to look at, deal with and converse with those we might think less of. We have to give them charity, pay them daily, make sure to leave them of our harvest and even so, we can’t talk about them out loud or hate them in our hearts.

Sometimes our elected and appointed officials, not to mention our pop stars and major league athletes, live in a bubble (the Beltway, Hollywood, Wall Street) and they don’t understand what ordinary folks go through.

All too often they assume things – and usually for the worse. They make that assumption about their political opponents or even political allies, and both they and voters make assumptions on those who hold different political opinions or vote a different way on an issue.

We ourselves do this at times in our own workplaces, with our families and in our communities. Anna Quindlen famously took 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney to task for this in a 1994 column when he couldn’t understand why teenagers were depressed or had stress and essentially dared them to experience the real pain and stress of a world war or the fight against communism.

We all, at times, assume more – or less – than we should. And because we should know better, the Bible ensures we can know better. In the words of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Be within. But stay above.” Be holy, but be here.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder — politics & the parsha.

In honor of the birth of Chana bat Ora Rochel, who I’m betting grows up to internalize this lesson by watching her parents model it.