“You Shall Be Holy”–Parshat Kedoshim and Disability Rights
This morning, I had the privilege of the giving the d’var Torah at the quarterly Jewish Disability Network coalition meeting. Below is the d’var I shared with the group of people gathered at the meeting.
This week, we read from Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27. The title of the parsha gives us some indication of what the portion is about—the word Kedoshim has as its root the word “Kadosh,” the Hebrew word for holy. Parshat Kedoshim is all about the ways in which we are commanded to be holy.
In the first few lines of the parsha, echoes of the Ten Commandments are addressed in the restating of laws that address respect for one’s parents, observance of Shabbat, and a prohibition against the worship of other gods. A host of other laws are mentioned in this parsha—from the rights of the poor, to what we do with our bodies, from respect for elders to caring for the stranger. Many of the laws mentioned in Parshat Kedoshim are mentioned in other places in the Torah, and certainly the values embodied in these sets of laws are present other places in our texts. But in this parsha, these ‘holiness’ laws are all written down in one section and book-ended by the commandment “You shall be holy.”
There are two famous phrases that stick with me when I read through this parsha. The first is the commandment “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). It’s a line frequently used by people in the disability rights advocacy community, especially among those also in the faith community. I like this commandment because we know that “stumbling blocks” come in many forms, and that today those stumbling blocks look different from what our ancestors experienced. Today, stumbling blocks, include discrimination, unfair federal benefit policies, and high unemployment rates for people with disabilities.
The other commandment that stays with me comes four lines later: “Love your fellow [neighbor] as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). When Hillel was asked by a student to explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he answered by saying: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary—now go and learn it.” As a child, I liked Hillel’s explanation of the Torah because it was simple and true. As a camp counselor at a Jewish summer camp, I liked Hillel’s explanation because it was an easy segue into talking to my campers about our expectations for the summer using our Jewish values as a basis for our conversation.
There’s one memory from a conversation with my campers I’ll never forget. We sat down on the first day of the summer, and after introductions and getting-to-know-you games, my co-counselors and I asked our campers to write down some ‘rules’ we all wanted to live by for our time together. Our campers gave us thoughtful rules (including no swearing, keeping our bunks clean, etc.). We asked our campers if they’d heard of the Golden Rule, to treat others the way you want to be treated. They all nodded yes. Then we asked what they thought of the Golden Rule, if it was something we should write down as one of the ‘rules’ we all agreed to for the summer. One little girl said, “I think the Golden Rule is good, but I like the Platinum Rule better.” “What’s the Platinum Rule?” I asked. “The Platinum Rule is when you treat people better than you want to be treated,” she replied.
I was floored by her maturity and thoughtfulness, but totally unsurprised that her experiences at Jewish summer camp had led her to this conclusion. Summer camp is all about building connections with people—counselors and campers, campers and faculty. Ultimately, that’s what Judaism is about too. Parshat Kedoshim opens and closes with the commandment “You shall be holy.” The verb in the first line of the parsha is “tih’yu,” which is often read as a command—“Be holy.” But the verb form is grammatically a future form of the verb, which can be also be read as “You will be holy.” I think this dual way of reading the commandment is important because it reminds us that being holy is both an imperative for right now and something we’re striving for in the future.
When I think about the work that we do as a Jewish community to advocate for fair and inclusive policies, and for the work that clergy and congregants across the country do to build inclusive and welcoming synagogues, I am reminded of something that Rabbi Landsberg and I talk about often: we don’t welcome people with disabilities because they have disabilities, we welcome them because we welcome people—all people. If Parshat Kedoshim teaches us anything, it’s that within all the particulars of the commandments given during the portion, our tradition teaches us that to think about the way we treat each other and build relationships is truly to be a holy people.