Israel's Formative and Core Revelation: "You Shall be Holy"
The Rabbinic Quest for the Defining Principle of the Torah’s Teachings
The well-known Talmudic story about the prospective proselyte who challenged Shammai and then Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing “on one foot” (b. Shabbat 31a) is but one, albeit perhaps the most famous, of various formulations in Rabbinic literature as to what constitutes the core teaching of Torah. Hillel’s answer – “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man” (דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד) – can be seen as an exposition of the equally famous verse appearing in Parashat Kedoshim – “love your fellow as yourself” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ; Lev. 19:18) – which Rabbi Akiva, in a different context, cites as representing a cardinal principle of Torah.
Midrash Tehillim (Psalm 27, section 5) portrays David as referring to Deut. 10:12 as the original commandment.
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
And now, O Israel, what does YHWH your God demand of you? Only this: to revere YHWH your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and soul.
Still another Rabbinic text traces the evolving distillation of the essence of God’s 613 commandments from Psalm 15 (containing eleven precepts) through Isaiah 33:15 (containing six), Micah 6:8 (containing three), and ultimately Habbakuk 2:4 which lays down the ultimate principle, namely “the righteous shall live because of his fidelity [to God]” (צַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה).
What emerges from these sources, then, is that without questioning the binding nature of all of the Torah’s commandments, the rabbis still found it legitimate and even desirable to get to the root principle which all of the various commandments could be seen as amplifying.
The sort of exercise that the classical rabbis engaged in provides a useful opening point for modern scholars who are committed to the halachic system as a whole, yet do not view the entire written Torah corpus, let alone the exegetical apparatus upon which normative halacha rests, as having been delivered at a single point in history. I refer specifically to the model labeled as “core revelation” in a previous TABS posting “Torah from Heaven: Current Approaches.”
Core revelation posits that at a given moment in history, perhaps even going back to Moses himself, the emerging people of ancient Israel were imbued with a sense of commitment to God, even though the specific details of how this commitment was to be practically effected evolved over time through the prisms of various scribal circles.
Benjamin Sommer has even suggested the possibility that the revelation at Sinai could be understood as consisting of non-verbal content conveying God’s desire that Israel express obedience, even while “the specifics through which the obedience is expressed were to be constructed by Israel.”
Separation – The Essence of Revelation
I believe that Professor Sommer’s formulation can be taken up a notch, to wit that the original insight our ancestors accepted as divinely mandated was that they were to lead their lives in a manner that would distinguish themselves as God’s special people, however the nature of that special status may have been perceived.
In a nutshell, the essence of the revelatory experience, however that was internalized, was the recognition that God desired for his people to be set apart from the other nations of the world, as befits a people that is called upon to serve a God who is himself set apart and unique. As put succinctly in Lev. 20:26:
וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי.
You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be mine.
The appearance of the root קדש in tandem with the root בדל in this verse is instructive. The root קדש has long been recognized as having a basic meaning of being separated or set aside for a particular purpose, usually (but not always) to do with the service of God.
The separation mentioned in the previous verse (Lev. 20:25) between clean and unclean beasts and fowl represents just one particular expression of the separation that the Israelites are enjoined to maintain between themselves and the other nations. Observance of the other commandments would presumably be reflective of the same goal.
The Strategic Location of the Holiness Theme
One beckoning sign of the centrality of the holiness theme, indicating that it could have been perceived as the “original commandment,” is its appearance at pivotal points in the Torah’s legal traditions. I refer here to the following three texts from three different sources: Exod. 19:3–6; Lev. 19:1–2; Deut. 26:16–19.
A. Introduction to the Sinai Revelation (Exod. 19:3–6 )
וּמֹשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְ-הוָה מִן הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי. וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ…
Moses went up to God. YHWH called to him from the mountain saying: Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…
This text functions as a prologue to the account of the Sinai revelation that features the Decalogue and the Covenant Collection and which is most often associated with the Elohistic strand of the Pentateuch. By virtue of its position as prologue, the text serves to convey the gist of what Israel’s observance of the soon-to-be given commandments is meant to achieve.
B. The Heart of the Torah: The Command to Be Holy (Lev. 19:1–2)
וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
YHWH spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, YHWH your God, am holy.’”
The quintessential command to uphold communal holiness is situated at the very heart of the Torah’s priestly legislation, within the section most often referred to as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26). The central literary placement of Leviticus 19, with its occasional echoes of the ten commandments (vv. 3–4, 11–12), and its wide-ranging array of precepts whose observance will ensure Israel’s holiness, has the effect of setting the holiness ideal at the peak of the priestly legislation that surrounds it.
C. Closing of the Deuteronomic Law Collection (Deut. 26:16–19)
הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ. אֶת יְ-הוָה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְוֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַי-הוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְלִשְׁמֹר כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו. וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן עַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִתְהִלָּה וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם קָדֹשׁ לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.
YHWH your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that YHWH is your God, that you will walk in his ways, that you will observe his laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey him. And YHWH has affirmed this day that you are, as he promised you, his treasured people who shall observe all his commandments. And that he will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that he has made, and that you shall be, as he promised, a holy people to YHWH your God.
The promise first enunciated in Exodus 19 is here actualized precisely at the closing section of the Deuteronomic law collection, although as Deut. 28:9 makes clear, Israel’s status as God’s holy people is fluid, wholly dependent on the people’s continuous observance of the commandments:
יְקִימְךָ יְ-הוָה לוֹ לְעַם קָדוֹשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָךְ כִּי תִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְוֹת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ בִּדְרָכָיו.
YHWH will establish you as his holy people, as he swore to you, if you keep the commandments of YHWH your God and walk in his ways.
In any case, the ubiquitous highlighting of the holiness theme at the beginning, middle, and the end, respectively, of the Torah’s three major law collections, can be understood as pointing to its role as the underlying conceptual foundation from which the laws themselves developed.
The Ideal of Separation in Historical Perspective
Mainstream historians and archaeologists broadly agree that the Early Iron Age (circa. 1200 – 1000 B.C.E.) witnessed the gradual emergence of an Israelite national identity. To what extent and at what rate the formation of such a national identity went hand in hand with a distinctive religious identity is debated. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the early Israelites’ growing self-definition as a distinctive group extended to the ideational realm as well.
Thus, the Israelites’ emerging sense of separation from their Canaanite neighbors would have included, and perhaps even have been inspired, by a different way of imagining the nature of the relationship between the deity and his adherents. Indeed, the very conception of an entire people being designated as holy, or being commanded to aspire to holiness as part of its relationship with its god, is unknown in other ancient near eastern religions.
The Torah passages cited above that highlight the theme of holiness represent the literary formulations of what was perceived as God’s most fundamental command: Maintain your separateness through allegiance to the God who separated you! Thus, the most unique insights that formed a central part of early Israel’s religious consciousness were related to the idea of exclusivity, namely Israel’s ongoing acknowledgment of its unique status vis-à-vis God and of its exclusive obligations to God flowing from that status.
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February 28, 2017
October 22, 2020
Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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