To Be Holy Is to Be Ethical

Posted on May 6, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

The Torah’s boldest claim is not about God but about human beings. In the very first chapter of Genesis, Scripture declares that we are God-like, created in the Divine image, b’tzelem Elohim. As the Torah’s narrative unfolds, the meaning and implications of this distinction become clear. We have a moral capacity, the ability to discern right from wrong, and God expects us to use this endowment to do “what is good and right.”[1] This is the mission to which God calls Abraham and his descendants, “to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right.”[2] Clearly, God believes in our ability to fulfill this expectation.

While Judaism includes a broad range of ritual practices and teachings, our rabbis assert that the essence of our faith is ethical behavior. The greatest principle of all, said Rabbi Akiva, is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[3] What matters most is how we treat one another.

When asked to expound the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Rabbi Hillel declared: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; all the rest is commentary…”[4] The commentary is important because the more we delve into the details of scripture, the more we will understand what it means to act ethically.

On the same page of Talmud where we learn this teaching, we learn of the questions we will be asked when we are brought before the heavenly court for judgment. Notably, the first question will be, “Were you honest in your affairs?”[5] It is not, “Did you keep kosher?” or “Did you pray three times a day?” or “Did you believe in God?” To be a Jew means, above all, to be a mensch — a good, kind, and righteous person — and the Torah’s primary purpose is to cultivate such people through the study and practice of its laws and teachings.

In pursuit of this purpose the Torah does not suffice with generalities. Its narratives provide object lessons of right and wrong behavior, and its extensive enumeration of laws and precepts are to be understood as an explicit code of conduct, whose goal is to attain the lofty aspiration described in this week’s parashah, Kedoshim: “You shall be holy, because I the Eternal your God am holy.”[6] Kedoshim goes on to provide a detailed guide to the life of holiness, which while it includes acts of devotion to God, primarily focuses on the ethics of human relations: providing for the needy, respecting property, honoring the elderly, loving one’s neighbor and the stranger, behaving honestly in our affairs, pursuing justice, refraining from gossip and slander, not standing idly by when others suffer, and much, much more.

From generation to generation, our people have studied and commented on this and on the many other expressions of ethical duty enshrined in our foundational texts. The Midrash, the Talmud, and subsequent legal codes repeat and embellish these precepts to keep them relevant and at the forefront of Jewish life and practice. Beginning in the early Middle Ages with Sa’adia Gaon (892-942 CE), our rabbis began to develop the study and practice of Mussar, the effort to refine our ethical sensibilities and our character. Medieval scholars like Maimonides penned codes of ethics and etiquette to foster moral excellence. In our own day, thank God, this pursuit has not abated.

I say, “thank God,” because increasing our efforts to live ethically is desperately needed in our time, as moral sensitivity and insensitivity both are on the rise. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have documented an alarming increase in acts of hate and bias of all kinds at the same time as courageous people are coming forward to tell their stories of surviving abuse and exploitation.

While it is important to support efforts to confront enduring prejudices based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity, it is also of great importance for us increase our personal awareness of the ways we relate to others and to increase our commitment to living ethically.

The recent revelations of sexual misconduct and abuse in our Reform Movement are deeply distressing, and we, as a member congregation, need to be part of the solution. So far, it seems that the leaders of our movement are taking serious and appropriate steps to make sure that our congregations, seminary, camps, and other institutions are safe spaces where all are welcome and protected from harm. But more must be done.

I am pleased and proud to say that we at TBE are doing our part. Under the strong leadership of Elayne Weitz and a great team of congregants and staff, TBE is one of the first congregations in our movement to have created and embraced a code of ethics that articulates the standards we are committed to live up to in our communal interactions. This is a proactive step that comes not out of fear but out of love for one another.

Just as God believes in our ability to do what is “just and right,” so, too, do we hold dear and treasure the warmth and caring that have always characterized our TBE family. Please read our new Ethics Code and join our temple leadership in embracing its call to love and care for one another. Together, we can ensure that Temple Beth-El will be a safe and sacred place for all — a place where every person will be treated with respect, sensitivity, and compassion.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck

[1] Deuteronomy 6:18; 12:28
[2] Genesis 18:19
[3] Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 24:7, quoting Leviticus 19
[4] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a
[5] Ibid
[6] Leviticus 19:1