Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, the Holiness Chapter, stands out as one of the most important chapters in the Hebrew Bible. The chapter begins with a command addressed to the people Israel to be holy – “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19, 2). The concept of holiness is not only a central concept of the Bible, but it is a central concept of religion in general. There is a debate between two great medieval Biblical commentators of the Jewish tradition, Rashi (11th century) and Nachmanides (13th century) concerning the meaning of the concept of holiness.
I want to give some background about traditional Judaism before looking at the debate between Rashi and Nachmanides. The term Judaism is not found in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In speaking about Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis use the term Torah (תורה) – a term from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from law, the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible (Judaism), to wisdom of a universal nature.
According to the Jewish tradition, there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Such material establishes permissible and forbidden behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
On the verse “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19, 2), there is a midrash (commentary of the Talmudic rabbis) that the meaning of holiness in the verse is “you shall separate from” (פרושים תהיו). It is not clear, though, what we are to separate from in living a life of holiness in the Talmudic conception. Rashi interprets that this means that “you shall separate from forbidden sexual relations and from violation of law, as in every place where you find a decree to fence yourself in against such relations you find the term holiness”. Rashi then is not defining the concept of holiness in the Bible – rather, he is interpreting the Talmudic conception of holiness as “you shall separate from”.
Rashi understands the Talmudic conception of holiness to be a legal conception – and, we express holiness for Rashi when we refrain from violating law. Rashi cites as evidence for his understanding that in every place where there are prohibitions regarding sexual relations in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) the term holiness appears. Rashi learns from this that violation of sexual laws is an example of not violating law in general. Rashi here gives a very narrow interpretation of the Talmudic conception of holiness as not only applying in the realm of law – but, also, the concept of holiness applies to the violation of law (prohibitions) as opposed to fulfilling laws that are positive requirements or obligations. According to Rashi’s understanding, the Talmudic conception of holiness is a narrow conception of refraining from violating law and thereby committing wrongdoing or sin.
By the way, this understanding of Rashi of the Talmudic conception of holiness in a legal sense is compatible with Rashi’s opening of his commentary on the Torah in which he cites a famous midrash (rabbinic commentary) in which Rabbi Isaac asks regarding the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) “What is the reason it opens with the account of the Creation?”. Rabbi Isaac suggests that the Torah should have opened with the first mitzvah (commandment) given to the people Israel as a nation, which is, according to the Jewish tradition, the establishing of a calendar on the basis of the verse “this month is for you the beginning of months” (Exodus 12, 2) – and, although there are several commandments (such as to “be fruitful and multiply”) given prior to this in the Torah, they are not given to the people Israel as a nation. Rabbi Isaac’s suggestion assumes that the Torah is in essence a book of law (of the Jewish people), and thus he cannot understand why the Torah opens with the story of creation.
It appears that Rashi in citing the midrash of Rabbi Isaac as the opening of his commentary to the Torah identifies with the conception of Rabbi Isaac that the Torah is in essence a book of law of the Jewish people. In my view, the reason the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) opens not only with an account of the creation, but with a series of stories in the Book of Genesis, and the story of the exodus in the Book of Exodus, before the first laws are given to the people Israel as a nation, is that the Torah is not in essence a book of Halacha (law) merely demanding obedience (even though the Torah does serve as a legal constitution of the Jewish people). Rather, the Torah is in essence a book of Aggadah (moral and spiritual guidance). In the plain meaning of Scripture, Aggadah (moral and spiritual guidance) precedes Halacha (law) in the Torah not just chronologically but also in terms of importance. This is the view of Nachmanides who so disagrees with the conception of Rabbi Isaac that at the beginning of his commentary to the Torah he interprets the midrash of Rabbi Isaac not in its plain meaning, and he twists the midrash of Rabbi Isaac to conform to his own view that the essence of Torah is Aggadah rather than Halacha.
The very same disagreement between Rashi and Nachmanides is expressed regarding the Talmudic conception of holiness as “you shall separate from” in which Nachmanides (Leviticus 19, 2) disagrees with Rashi’s understanding of the Talmudic conception in a Halachic (legal) sense – and, Nachmanides understands the Talmudic conception in an Aggadic (moral and spiritual) sense:
But, according to my opinion, this separation is not to separate from sexual transgressions, like the words of Rashi. Rather, the separation is the one mentioned in every place in the Talmud where its practitioners are called those that have separated themselves (פרושים). And, the issue is that the Torah prohibited sexual transgressions and forbidden foods, and permitted sexual relations between husband and wife and the eating of meat and wine. If so, a lustful person will find a place to be lecherous with his wife or his many wives, or to be among the guzzlers of wine and the gluttons of meat. He will speak as he pleases about all the vulgarities, the prohibition of which is not mentioned in the Torah. And behold, he would be a despicable person with the permission of the Torah. Therefore, Scripture came, after it specified the prohibitions that it completely forbade, and commanded a more general rule – that we should be separated from those things that are permissible.
Nachmanides here is arguing that the Talmudic conception of holiness as “you shall separate from” is not of a legal nature of refraining from violating law as Rashi understands. For Nachmanides, the Talmudic conception is a separation of a moral and spiritual nature in which we separate from things that are permissible to us. Nachmanides points out that the Torah prohibits certain sexual acts or relations, and prohibits certain foods, while permitting us to do a wide range of things in terms of sexual relations or eating and drinking – and, according to Nachmanides, it is regarding these things that are permitted to us that the concept of holiness in the Talmudic conception applies. Nachmanides makes a famous statement here that a person can be “a despicable person with the permission of the Torah” by which he means that one can be strictly observant of law and yet be a despicable person regarding things that are permitted – for example, one can strictly observe dietary laws refraining from eating pig, and yet eat greedy and gluttonously like a pig (and, the Torah grants legal permission to act in such a disgusting way), which for Nachmanides would not be a life of holiness.
Nachmanides is expressing the view that Aggadah precedes Halacha in importance, and he actually formulates this position in two separate places in his commentary upon the Torah – on the verse, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19, 2) and on the verse, “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18). The problem that is bothering Nachmanides is why the Torah needs to make such general statements as “You shall be holy” and “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” when there are so many positive and negative commandments of a legal nature in the Torah requiring and prohibiting various specific actions.
On the verse, “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”, Nachmanides explains that God “wished to add that you should do that which is right and good in His eyes, even in regard to those things where no specific Divine commandment applies”. That is, the Torah must make general demands of an Aggadic (spiritual), meta-Halachic (non-legal) nature because law regulates behavior in specific concrete situations, and the Torah must give general moral and spiritual guidance for acting properly even in situations not covered by specific laws.
Nachmanides’ is arguing here that the Torah makes demands of holiness and morality that are Aggadic (spiritual) and meta-Halachic (non-legal) in nature, and go far beyond the observance of the strict letter of the law, which represents only a minimum standard of behavior. There is support for Nachmanides’ position in the plain meaning of the Torah in that immediately prior to the general warning, “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18), it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17). The general warning “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18) is thus meta-Halachic (non-legal) and moral in nature – above and beyond the observance of commandments and laws demanded by the previous verse.
Halacha (law) is part of, and an expression of, the Aggadic, moral and spiritual, guidance of the Torah in general, which is the essence of the Torah. The observance of law and commandments (mitzvot) is in the context of, and an expression of, the fulfillment of the moral will of God, as we learn from the Book of Deuteronomy in which it is written “You shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18), and in the verse immediately prior to this moral demand it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17) – indicating that the observance of law and commandments is an expression of the righteousness and goodness that God demands morally and spiritually as the essence of religion.