Holiness Does Not Have an Expiration Date
by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
[Editors’ Note: The piece that follows contains frank and graphic language, the kind that those faithful to derech Yisrael sava and kedushas Yisrael avoid using without euphemism, and then only in private. Nonetheless, there are times when dramatic means are necessitated to meet a challenge to mesorah. Readers are forewarned that the essay that follows is not for children, and indeed, not for many adults. We are mispallel for the day that Hashem will repair the pirtzos of Klal Yisrael.]
You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.
– Leviticus 20:26
As Jews, we are powerfully aware that the past is never just the past. The lessons, the struggles and even the victories of past ages are ours to relive in one generation after the other. In the Haggadah, we read, “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” The reading is forever in the present tense, in my life. I am not to tell my child what the Lord did for the Hebrew slaves at the time of the Exodus. No, I tell what the Lord did for me.
God’s freeing us from bondage is constant in all our lives.
So too, when God commands us to “be holy” it is clearly not a directive only to the generation in the Sinai. It is a command to all of us, for all time.
Each age and generation makes specific demands on those who live it. Ours is no different. While every generation confronted salaciousness and sexuality, what other generation has had to wrestle with the ever-present Internet? What other generation has had to endure a constant barrage of pornographic images rain down on it from billboards, television screens, movie theaters, radios, and concert halls? The images, language, and messages benumb us. We become calloused. We become inured.
In doing so, we make the mistake of also becoming accepting of this pornographic tsunami. Oh, of course not “accepting” in the sense of thinking any of this is good. But we become accepting in that we simply allow it to continue in our world, viewing it as the necessary backdrop of our lives.
In doing so, we fail to take account of the damage it does to us and, more importantly, our children.
How does this generation protect itself from this onslaught?
God’s call for us to be holy is an eternal call. It is as immediate a call today for us as it was to the Hebrews in the desert of Sinai. Holiness must be protected in order to preserve its spiritual essence. While it must be hidden and protected, our teaching is clear that creation is good. We are not to remove ourselves from the world. We must function in the world. We must engage the world.
If we are to be holy, that must mean that holiness also needs to function in the world.
But, in a very deep sense, it can never be of the world.
Those who try to compromise holiness, to fail to see the eternality of the command, do lasting damage to themselves and to the Jewish people. There is no place where the challenge of kedusha is more at risk than when it comes to sexual behavior.
There is no more self-serving or hurtful excuse for the lack of kedusha than the excuse that it is “for mental health”. That is, for sexual health. Imagine, rationalizing deviant behavior, countering Torah teaching, for a positive reason! The world has been turned upside down!
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has taken hold of God’s divine declaration and rendered it a nullity. By aggressively championing sexual behavior – not just knowledge that a wife might use to benefit the sanctity and joy of marriage – JOFA stands opposed to the call to kedoshim tiheyu.
As reported in Lilith.org by Susan Schneider, JOFA is committed to “explicit and liberating sex education.” Interesting that sex education would be considered “liberating” when it was God’s liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt to led to the command for us to be holy.
Have we fallen so far?
In the article, Ms. Schneider writes, “Bat Sheva Marcus, a sex educator, has a new tool for enlightening not just the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox women who are the base of her clinical practice, but the rest of the human race as well. She is the lively and genial — and often funny — co-host and resident sexuality expert for a new podcast series, ‘The Joy of Text,’ a forum for rabbinic and psychological perspectives on sexual behavior, from masturbation before (and during) marriage, to the use of sex toys, to whether fantasy can be a religiously approved aspect of sexual behavior.
“’The Joy of Text’ is billed as ‘in-depth conversations by rabbinic and medical experts about subjects that you’ll almost never hear discussed anywhere else, even online.’”
One such podcast which was recorded live at LimmudNY recently featured Marcus in conversation with Miryam Kabakov, author of the lesbian anthology “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires”. In another segment, Marcus and her co-host, Rabbi Dov Linzer, answered a listener’s question about whether it’s permissible to “talk dirty.” Earlier episodes discussed premarital condom use and “sneaking out to the mikveh.”
I have quoted here verbatim because I don’t know that I could have found words to come close to capture how disturbing this all is. Bat Sheva Marcus is, after all, a woman whose doctoral dissertation in human sexuality was on women and vibrator use! She takes great pride in telling high school students in Jewish day schools to intimately examine their bodies in a mirror and telling them to find the most pleasurable way to masturbate!
Could anyone stand not before a mirror but before any of our rabbis and sages – let alone God – and convincingly explain how these animalistic teachings conform with kedoshim tiheyu? Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem, your God…”
Ramban teaches us that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of any particular category of commandments. To be holy is not to adhere only to the letter of the law but to embrace the fullness of holiness. In the words of our Sages, not only by refraining from what is expressively forbidden but from too much of what is permitted! How could JOFA answer that admonition?
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teaching is consistent with the words of Ramban and the Sages. He teaches that holiness means that the whole of our being is to be perfect – “that one’s lifestyle in toto, the overall impression, be faultless.”
Rashi informs us that the commandment “to be holy” was conveyed to the entire assembled nation as one. Everyone was required to hear it. This command was not at all like all the other mitzvoth that were first taught to Aaron then Nadab and Abihu would join them and Moshe would repeat the teaching, then the Elders would enter and Moshe would repeat it again, then he would finally teach it to all Israel. No, kedoshim tiheyu stands apart, as does this holy people! To be holy is to stand apart. And it is the Jewish people that is to stand apart, not individuals within the community. Kedoshim (You, plural) are to be holy.
A single standard applies. Not just for one time, but for all time. It is not for JOFA or anyone else to redefine that standard, for the standard was put in place from the beginning. “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
On whose book shelf of good and sacred books would “The Joy of Text” reside? Not on the shelves of those who would answer God’s call to holiness. Not to those who would heed JOFA’s vicious attacks and condemnations of a New Jersey Orthodox rabbi for openly speaking out about lifestyles that have the potential to lead all to what is decidedly not holy.
There is much to be embraced by our time in history. We live during a time of great joy. Israel is strong and bold. There is a passionate resurgence of Orthodoxy throughout the world. Torah learning abounds. But these joys should never blind us to the dangers that hold us back from fulfilling that great command.
Holiness has no expiration date. It is our call for all time, in all ages, for all eternity.