How does one really live a holy life?
That significant question is raised in Leviticus 19, known as “the Holiness Code.”
The rabbis describe this chapter of the Pentateuch as “Rov Goofay Hatorah,” the essentials of the Torah. In many ways, this portion resembles the Ten Commandments, only in a different garb.
It is clear from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible that we achieve holiness and come closer to God through the things that we do.
The most important commandment from this chapter is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, see also Matthew 22:35-40). If one takes this commandment, which is found to be so important, and commits oneself to it, then, in essence, you are committing to be a holy person.
The Holiness Code, however, is not simply about how one person can live a holy life, but how a community can become holy. The second verse reads, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, you [plural], shall be holy.”
Before anyone pointed out that there was no “I” in the word “team,” Judaism was affirming the need to create holy communities.
It is not simply about the “me.” It is about the “us.” This vision of society is an integral part of our heritage as Jews.
The biblical prophets spoke up for justice – defending the downtrodden and denouncing those who oppressed them. The prophets spoke up fearlessly to the rich and powerful, calling them to account before God. The prophet Micah even indicted the ruling class.
Biblical Judaism held forth a vision of humanity united as one. Zechariah 14:9 says, “On that day the LORD will be one and his name one.”
This is part of our heritage as Jews.
It is not surprising, therefore, that rabbis in the years after World War I cited the prophets as they assailed child labor, poor conditions in the slums and forced prostitution.
Rabbis of the 1950s and 60s quoted the prophets as they immersed themselves in the fight for civil rights and integration, opposition to the Vietnam war, nuclear disarmament, the war on poverty and the environmental movement.
The rabbi with whom I grew up, Rabbi Randall Falk, was a passionate advocate for social justice and civil rights.
The Reform Jewish movement devoted significant resources to building a “Religious Action Center” in Washington, D.C. – and in so doing taught us that “religious action” meant feeding the hungry, marching for peace and lobbying on Capitol Hill for a range of causes.
With all of the above, it should not be surprising that our congregation has been involved in many social justice activities during, or should I say in spite of, the pandemic.
We have had monthly food drop offs where, on a Sunday afternoon, congregants drive into our parking lot, say hello to our rabbis and drop food off for the food bank. We have collected thousands of pounds of food in this way.
We have continued our advocacy for compassionate treatment of immigrants. This is based upon another verse in the Holiness Code that states: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
Before the pandemic, a group of us journeyed to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, to see for ourselves the terrible conditions present in a for-profit immigrant detention center.
We have continued our “Stranger to Neighbor” program of dialogue with members of a local Hispanic evangelical church.
We have met via Zoom with our local congressperson to discuss the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform.
In the area of race relations and criminal justice reform, we have held numerous “Zoom” programs. These have included interviews with African American scholars and local activists, as well as our annual Sabbath service in honor of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Last summer, we sent an absentee voter registration with a stamped envelope to every adult in our congregation. This was done to encourage voting safely.
We continue to work for a safe and secure Israel, an Israel at peace with her neighbors.
In terms of the pandemic, we have made our building available as a vaccination site. We are helping to make sure that our elderly gets vaccine appointments and have the necessary transportation to the site. We are also working with the local country healthy department in facilitating outreach to minority communities.
We are doing all of this social justice work in the midst of the pandemic.
In the 16th century, in the city of Safed in Galilee, Rabbi Isaac Luria coined the term “Tikkun Olam,” which means “repairing the world.” That has become the mantra for much of what we do.
The bottom line is that, as Jews, we are taught that we should not be satisfied with the world as it is but strive for a world as it ought to be – a world with a greater sense of the presence of God.
We are hopeful that we will be remembered by the generations to come as a congregation which labored to build a holy community, a community which always challenged the greater community to strive for justice, compassion and peace.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series running this week for the United Nations World Day of Social Justice (Feb. 20). The previous article in the series is:
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.