Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Burden and Opportunity of Holiness

No one likes being told what to do. Blessed to have been born into free societies where we have the right to choose our own paths in life, the notion of coercion seems foreign – even quaint. In Israel we struggle with this notion in the area of religion – what we call kefiyah datit – religious coercion. Why should someone be forced to marry in a religious ceremony? Why should it be against the law to sell Chametz on Pesach in a democratic society?
At the same time, Judaism very strongly believes in the notion of coercion. The Gemara makes no distinctions between interpersonal transgressions (stealing or maiming) and spiritual transgressions (violating Shabbat or kashrut) when discussing punishments meted out in Beit Din. The Jewish community can – and must – force each individual Jew to adhere to the Torah. The fact that modern courts lack the jurisdiction and power to mete out these punishments in no way diminishes the very real coercive role of the Jewish court. Unlike our less schooled brothers and sisters, we understand that mitzvot are neither "good deeds" nor positive acts. Mitzvot are commandments. God doesn't ask us to follow them. He commands us, warning us that should we fail to comply we will ultimately suffer the consequences. What are mitzvot if not a form of coercion? More importantly, how do we square this perspective with our basic understandings of freedom of choice inherent in modern life?
This notion of coercion appears in several places in Emor. Hashem commands us to sanctify the Kohen. As our representative before Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash, the Kohen himself enjoys a higher level of kedushah that demands special behavior. He cannot defile himself, other than for immediate family members. He cannot marry certain types of women, such as converts and divorcees. וקדשתו – "and you shall sanctify him," the Torah tells us.
Yet, in two separate places, Rashi inserts the notion of coercion. What if the Kohen – born a Kohen against his will – doesn't want to adhere to the rules? He desires neither the rights of Terumah, nor the obligations of his Kehunah. What if he falls in love with a pious convert and wishes to abrogate his kehunah and lead a "normal" life? Sorry – that's not permitted. Rashi (on 21:8) explains, על כרחו – "against his will – if he does not wish to divorce [such a woman after he married her in violation of halachah], they must lash him and afflict him until he does divorce her.] The Kohen doesn't have a choice. His father was a Kohen (yes, we all know the joke), so he must bear not just the rights, but the responsibilities of that kehunah as well. (see also Rashi on 21:6)
Coercion again appears at the conclusion of the chapter. Now speaking to the entire nation Hashem tells us,
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם: אֲנִי, ה'. וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
And you shall guard my commandments and do them, I am Hashem. And you shall not defile My holy name, and I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel, I am Hashem who sanctifies you.
And yet, when we look at Rashi, he again interprets these verses in a rather striking manner. What does it mean that we must sanctify Hashem's name? Says Rashi, "Give yourself over [to be killed] and sanctify my name." Here Hashem tells us that we must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect and defend His sanctity.
Somewhat surprisingly, in each case the coercion appears in the form of Kedushah. Holiness isn't a feeling of spirituality; some vague sense of godliness or specialness. Rather, holiness emanates directly from a willingness to bend our own will to God's; to submit to His desire and sublimate ourselves. The Kohen achieves great kedushah precisely because he doesn't have a choice. He is kadosh – whether he likes it or not.
What's true for the Kohen applies to each of us as well. Every Jew was born into the גוי קדוש – Hashem's holy people. We all wear that mantle of kedushah on our shoulders, not despite the fact that it was forced upon us, but because of it. The real question we must ask ourselves is: do we see that Kedushah as a yoke and a burden forced upon us against our will, or a crown of glory bringing God's holiness into the world.
That's a choice that only we can make.