The Torah speaks frequently of the concept of holiness. The Israelites are commanded to be a holy people. In several places the Torah gives this commandment with just a single negator, that is “you will be a holy people… do not do this or that [that would make you not a holy people].” For example, Shemot (Exodus) 22:31 tells the Israelites to be a holy people and not to eat an animal torn by wild animals. In Devarim 14:21 YHVH commands the Israelites not to eat an animal that died on its own that the Israelites should be a holy people. It then goes on to say that the Israelites should not boil a kid in the milk of its mother, a ritual associated with Baal worship. In Devarim 28:9 YHVH says He will establish the Israelites as a holy people by an oath as long as the Israelites will obey Him and observe His commandments.
Nowhere do we see a complete description of what holiness means as a concept except within parsha Kedoshim: Vayikra (Leviticus) chapters 19 and 20. Here holiness receives a clear definition. YHVH commands the Israelites to be a holy people because He is holy. Although there are many commandments offered in chapter 19, many of the 10 commandments are scattered throughout, two main themes come from these: first, to follow all of the commandments that YHVH has commanded; and second, to be an honest, just, and decent people. Examples of the first theme include commandments not to make and worship idols, not to steal, and not to swear falsely by the name of YHVH. Examples of the second theme include not harvesting all of one’s grain or fruit, that the poor may gather some and eat; not to withhold the wages of an employee until the next day; and to use fair and standard weights and measures, not to tip the scales in one’s favor or otherwise deal dishonestly in business.
Chapter 20 embraces a different theme all together: not to engage in the ritual abominations (ta’avot) of other peoples. First and foremost not to engage in the practice of molech, that is the ritual sacrifice by fire of one’s first-born child. The passage says that any man who engages in the practice may be punished with death. The passage also forbids the use of divination such as the cults of Yidoni and Ov, which are practices that involve ventriloquism through a bone of a dead person or through the gut of the diviner. All of these practices are associated with Phoenician Baal worship. Molech is a practice that began sometime around 1450 BCE, about 100 years after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, and ended around 300 BCE in Carthage. Human sacrifice in the Holy Land was a major problem throughout the Biblical age. King Yossiyahu (Josiah), one of the last kings of Yehudah (Judah) and the first of the Biblical messianic figures, destroyed an altar called Tophet in the Valley of Ben-Hinom where Molech had been practiced (2 Melechim [Kings] 23:10). The commandments against molech, Yidoni, and Ov follow with a major theme in the Torah of valuing life, especially our offspring, and avoiding death and all matters associated with it.
In addition to these, more commandments are interspersed, failing to observe the traditions of one’s parents (here stated as cursing one’s parents), committing adultery, and observing the commandments regarding Kashrut (dietary laws), among others. Many more ritual abominations (ta’avot) are included in this chapter including inappropriate sexual behavior that is forbidden in Israelite ritual life: a man lying with a man as with a woman, a man taking a mother and her daughter, and a man defiling his daughter-in-law. All of these practices are associated with Canaanite/Phoenician religious practices. The observance of these commandments will set the Israelites apart from other peoples, specifically the Canaanites, and make them a holy people.
YHVH commands the Israelites to be a holy people and according to the scripture this involves
setting one’s self and one’s community apart from other peoples by: 1) observing all of the commandments in the Torah; 2) avoiding the abominations of foreign ritual life, especially where they violate the life and/or body of another; and 3) being decent, honest, and ethical. These concepts center on serving YHVH as He commands mankind to be upon its best behavior. The Israelites are to be His first born son among the nations of the Earth (Shemot [Exodus] 4:22), His representatives among mankind. Naturally, representatives must present the best face on behalf of those whom they represent, in this case YHVH Himself.
According to Rabbinic tradition holiness is a more concentrated subject. Rashi states that holiness simply involves failing to engage in certain sexual behaviors. In commenting on the same portion Nachmanides disagrees and says that holiness involves observing the Talmud (the commentaries of Rabbis recorded over the centuries) because otherwise a person could engage in licentious and wonton behavior with the apparent permission of the Torah. I find both opinions incorrect, according the the three concepts I explained earlier holiness does require decency, the prohibition of ritual sexual acts, and the observance of G-d’s law (in my opinion the written law requires sufficient decency) but neither of these Rabbis fully articulates the concept, and thus they fail to grasp the complete meaning of holiness and the separation from wickedness.
Some Karaite traditions regarding holiness also fail to grasp its true meaning. At least one Karaite approach to holiness requires a man to be ritually pure (tahor) in order to be holy. Yet if all men remained ritually pure we would never procreate as the act of procreation makes a person unclean until the next sunset, provided that he has washed himself and changed his clothing. In order to appear before YHVH (at the Temple or at the synagogue a metaphor for the Temple) we must be both ritually clean (tahor) and holy (kodesh). I think some Karaite commentators have confused the two into the same concept. Holiness requires the observance of the law, among these laws are those that state that people who are ritually unclean (tamei) may not engage with the community or appear before YHVH. The fact that these people are observing the laws, however, is one component that makes them holy.
A woman does not cease to be holy during her menstrual cycle, nor does a man cease to be holy when he buries a deceased relative. These people remain holy, assuming that they have not otherwise violated the concept of holiness, but simply cease to be ritually clean until they take the necessary steps to become clean once again. By the same principal, a person who harvests the whole of their field, perverts justice, or seeks out a diviner ceases to be holy but does not become ritually unclean.
The concept of holiness in the Torah is YHVH’s way of telling us to be a people apart from the wickedness common to mankind. We will not use religion as a way to excuse morally corrupt behavior, as many religious traditions have done (especially those that existed when the Israelites entered the Holy Land). We will be honest and fair when dealing with our fellow man, whether Israelite or non-Israelite. We will celebrate life and YHVH’s creation without using our faith as an excuse to destroy it. Most importantly, the Israelites will obey their master who freed them from slavery in Egypt to be His servants by observing His laws.