Jewish Exceptionalism

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Last week’s parsha introduced us to the concept of kedusha (holiness). Each and every Jew is commanded to be holy. This state of existence is not limited to the elite. It is a vital part of everyone’s observance of Torah. The question therefore arises, what is the meaning of this term? What does holiness consist of, and how can we attain it?

One can also ask the question in a different way. Hashem has given us many commandments, both positive and negative. Isn’t it enough to observe them? Do I not serve Hashem and fulfill His will by maintaining His mitzvot, and isn’t a person who does so automatically “holy”? 

Why, then, is there a need for an additional command to attain this status? The commentators address this problem. Nachmanides explains that the imperative is necessary because keeping the mitzvot, in and of itself, does not necessarily produce holiness. He cites the concept of one who is “corrupt within the framework of Torah.” This refers to a person who is meticulous in following all the details of the law, but fails to live according to its spirit or ideals.

For example, the purpose of kashrut, a system of prohibited and permitted foods and of forbidden sexual relations, is to instill within us a sense of discipline and moderation in the gratification of our carnal desires. However, one can live a gluttonous and hedonistic life while scrupulously avoiding that which is prohibited by halacha (Jewish law).

Such a person, religious observance notwithstanding, cannot be regarded as holy. To the contrary, he is living an animalistic existence that is diametrically opposed to the goal intended by the Torah.

The lesson is that a person should pay careful attention, not only to the halachic minutia, however important they may be. We should be just as concerned with the “reasons” for the mitzvot and study the philosophical ideals and teachings they seek to imbue. Mere halachic observance will not transform us into “holy” human beings.

The goal of the religious Jew should be to perfect himself through the medium of the Divine commandments. Every one of them has great benefit in terms of correcting certain defects and imparting valuable truths about life. We should seek to mold our personalities in accordance with the values transmitted through the mitzvot.

A rigorously practicing Jew who engages in corrupt business dealings, mistreats others, or acts in a rude or destructive manner misrepresents Torah and gives people a false impression about our religion of truth. 

Living a holy life has two purposes. First, it enables a person to perfect his soul by internalizing the deep wisdom embodied in the mitzvot. He lives the most meaningful life in this world, and as a natural result, inherits a portion in the World to Come.

There is a second dimension to becoming a holy person. Our mission as a “holy nation” is to live not only for ourselves, but to shoulder responsibility toward mankind. Hashem desires the wellbeing of all His creatures and wants Gentiles to discover Him and to live a righteous existence. He wants them to have access to the lessons and directions in our Torah.

We must ask, however, what is it that will draw non-Jews to Torah? The answer is Jewish exceptionalism. When Jews display their unique wisdom, justice, kindness, and sensitivity in all areas of human endeavor, Gentiles will take notice. They will see that the Jews are a special people who live by a formula that brings light and joy to all who come into contact with them. 

They will then ask, “What is the source of this spiritual uniqueness?” And we will tell them it does not come from us, but from our Torah.

Shabbat shalom.