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April 29, 2015 4:17 pm

As Jews, We Must Hold Ourselves to Higher Standards

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A President guilty of sexual abuse. A Prime Minister indicted on charges of corruption and bribery. Rabbis in several countries accused of financial impropriety, sexual harassment, and child abuse. That such things happen testifies to a profound malaise in contemporary Jewish life.

More is at stake than simply morality. Morality is universal. Bribery, corruption and the misuse of power are wrong, and wrong equally, whoever is guilty of them. When, though, the guilty are leaders, something more is involved: the principles introduced in our parsha of Kiddush ha-Shem and Chillul ha-Shem: “Do not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelites, I the Lord who sanctify you” (Lev. 22: 32).

The concepts of Kiddush and Chillul ha-Shem have a history. Though they are timeless and eternal, their unfolding occurred through the course of time. In our parsha, according to Ibn Ezra, the verse has a narrow and localized sense. The chapter in which it occurs has been speaking about the special duties of the priesthood and the extreme care they must take in serving God within the sanctuary. All Israel is holy, but the priests are a holy elite within the nation. It was their task to preserve the purity and glory of the Sanctuary as God’s symbolic home in the midst of the nation. So the commands are a special charge to the priests to take exemplary care as guardians of the holy.

Another dimension was disclosed by the prophets, who used the phrase chillul haShem to describe immoral conduct that brings dishonor to God’s law as a code of justice and compassion. Amos (2: 7) speaks of people who “trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground, and deny justice to the oppressed … and so profane my holy name.” Jeremiah invokes chillul ha-Shem to describe those who circumvent the law by emancipating their slaves only to recapture and re-enslave them (Jer. 34: 16). Malachi, last of the prophets, says of the corrupt priests of his day, “From where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations … but you profane it” (Mal. 1: 11-12).

The sages suggested that Abraham was referring to the same idea when he challenged God on his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if this meant punishing the righteous as well as the wicked: “Far be it from you [chalilah lekha] to do such a thing.” God and the people of God must be associated with justice. Failure to do so constitutes a chillul ha-Shem.

A third dimension appears in the book of Ezekiel. The Jewish people, or at least a significant part of it, had been forced into exile in Babylon. The nation had suffered defeat. The Temple lay in ruins. For the exiles this was a human tragedy. They had lost their home, freedom and independence. It was also a spiritual tragedy: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” But Ezekiel saw it as a tragedy for God also:

Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by their conduct and their actions … I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned My holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ (Ez. 36: 17-20)

Exile was a desecration of God’s name because the fact that He had punished his people by letting them be conquered was interpreted by the other nations as showing that God was unable to protect them. This recalls Moses’ prayer after the golden calf:

“Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.” (Ex 32:11-12)

This is part of the divine pathos. Having chosen to identify His name with the people of Israel, God is, as it were, caught between the demands of justice on the one hand, and public perception on the other. What looks like retribution to the Israelites looks like weakness to the world. In the eyes of the nations, for whom national gods were identified with power, the exile of Israel could not but be interpreted as the powerlessness of Israel’s God. That, says Ezekiel, is a chillul ha-Shem, a desecration of God’s name.

A fourth sense became clear in the late Second Temple period. Israel had returned to its land and rebuilt the Temple, but they came under attack first from the Seleucid Greeks in the reign of Antiochus IV, then from the Romans, both of whom attempted to outlaw Jewish practice. For the first time martyrdom became a significant feature in Jewish life. The question arose: under what circumstances were Jews to sacrifice their lives rather than transgress Jewish law?

The sages understood the verse, “You shall keep my decrees and laws which a person shall keep and live by them“ (Lev. 18: 5) to imply “and not die by them.” Saving life takes precedence over most of the commands. But there are three exceptions: the prohibitions against murder, forbidden sexual relations and idolatry, where the sages ruled that it was necessary to die rather than transgress. They also said that “at a time of persecution” one should resist at the cost of death even a demand “to change one’s shoelaces,” that is, performing any act that could be construed as going over to the enemy, betraying and demoralizing those who remained true to the faith. It was at this time that the phrase kiddush ha-Shem was used to mean the willingness to die as a martyr.

One of the most poignant of all collective responses on the part of the Jewish people was to categorize all the victims of the Holocaust as “those who died al kiddush Hashem,” that is, for the sake of sanctifying God’s name. This was not a foregone conclusion. Martyrdom in the past meant choosing to die for the sake of God. One of the demonic aspects of the Nazi genocide was that Jews were not given the choice. By calling them in retrospect, martyrs, Jews gave the victims the dignity in death of which they were so brutally robbed in life.

There is a fifth dimension. This is how Maimonides sums it up:

There are other deeds which are also included in the desecration of God’s name. When a person of great Torah stature, renowned for his piety, does deeds which, although they are not transgressions, cause people to speak disparagingly of him, this is also a desecration of God’s name … All this depends on the stature of the sage …

People looked up to as role models must act as role models. Piety in relation to God must be accompanied by exemplary behavior in relation to one’s fellow humans. When people associate religiosity with integrity, decency, humility and compassion, God’s name is sanctified. When they come to associate it with contempt for others and for the law, the result is a desecration of God’s name.

Common to all five dimensions of meaning is the radical idea, central to Jewish self-definition, that God has risked his reputation in the world, His “name,” by choosing to associate it with a single and singular people. God is the God of all humanity. But God has chosen Israel to be His “witnesses,” His ambassadors, to the world. When we fail in this role, it is as if God’s standing in the eyes of the world has been damaged.

For almost two thousand years the Jewish people was without a home, a land, civil rights, security and the ability to shape its destiny and fate. It was cast in the role of what Max Weber called “a pariah people.” By definition a pariah cannot be a positive role model. That is when kiddush ha-Shem took on its tragic dimension as the willingness to die for one’s faith. That is no longer the case. Today, for the first time in history, Jews have both sovereignty and independence in Israel, and freedom and equality elsewhere. Kiddush ha-shem must therefore be restored to its positive sense of exemplary decency in the moral life.

That is what led the Hittites to call Abraham “a prince of God in our midst.” It is what leads Israel to be admired when it engages in international rescue and relief. The concepts of kiddush and chillul ha-Shem forge an indissoluble connection between the holy and the good.

Lose that and we betray our mission as “a holy nation.” The conviction that being a Jew involves the pursuit of justice and the practice of compassion is what led our ancestors to stay loyal to Judaism despite all the pressures to abandon it. It would be the ultimate tragedy if we lost that connection now, at the very moment that we are able to face the world on equal terms.

Long ago we were called on to show the world that religion and morality go hand in hand. Never was that more needed than in an age riven by religiously-motivated violence in some countries, rampant secularity in others. To be a Jew is to be dedicated to the proposition that loving God means loving His image, humankind. There is no greater challenge, nor in the twenty-first century is there a more urgent one.

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  • There is a very big difference between Jews holding themselves to higher standards; and Israel-bashing newspapers (like the New York Times, The Guardian, etc) holding Israel to unfair double-standards designed to blacken the name of Israel; and Israel-bashing organizations (like the United Nations) holding Israel to impossible unfair standards designed to eliminate Israel’s self-defense.

    Furthermore, even when Israel does practice higher standards of behavior, almost nobody in the international community notices or cares.

    • Michael

      “Nobody in the international community notices or cares…” We do right because of God’s attention. Not the attentions of our international peers.

  • As a gentile Born Again Christian I respect and support Israel and the Jewish People-The Chosen People of God!

    • Heather Warford

      I couldn’t agree more. Reading this article brought tears to my eyes.

  • Haym Salomon asked George Washington if Jews would be welcome in an independent America. Our founding fathers, having seen the millenia of death and destruction suffered in Europe and Britain under the guise of religion, were determined to prevent this from happening in their new country, and Washington assured Salomon that State and religion would be separate and there would be a safe haven for Jews. Salomon went to the Jewish communities abroad and raised revolutionary funding/loans from them, as well. We were told he died destitute because he volunteered his time and either did not charge, or minimally charged, for his services to the Revolutionary cause. We were never told (and rightfully so) that he advanced his own money. He made it possible for the Continental Army and militia to be fed, clothed, and armed when they met the enemy.

  • jankel

    It shows that religion in itself, gives, indeed, a Model…. but doesn’t compensate mental immaturity and illnesses : perversity/psychosis- borderline structures which make the most part of the famous Mankind…..
    Not much hope to cure it before millions of years!…?!

  • Rabbi Dr Shalom Coleman CBE AM

    This message is a masterpiece for all religions. The former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Lord Sacks, is a distinguished scholar. His thought process, his writings and addresses carry a universal message. The current essay is a timely message as moral principles are being eroded in almost every echelon of society in the world of knowledge. He explains that in the weakness of bodily impulses there is also a spirit endowed by the Almighty which enables mankind to escape from the lowest form of degradation by reaching out to the luminary of celestial stars, replacing Chillul Hashem with Kiddush Hashem, restoring moral values and the dignity of all human life.

    • Genghis Cohen

      Rabbi Coleman: Both you and Jonathan Sacks would do all the world a service by studying Samuel Noah Kramer’s truthful book entitled, “History Begins At Sumer.” This is said because the era of mythology as the source of world morality has passed. The Tanakh derived its tales in Genesis from Sumerian cosmogony which was written two thousand years earlier. The tale of Job and that of the Flood were likewise taken from Sumerian literature. God did not relate the acts of creation to the scribes of Judah, unless you are ready to argue that God did not know that before there can be light, there must be a Sun. Genesis has it that God ordained light on the first day but did not create the Sun until the third day. The tale of Moses being plucked from a river was plagiarized from that of the Akkadian emperor Sargon. Men, not God composed all of the texts worshiped as holy writ, unless you still insist that the Earth is the center of the cosmos as the Tanakh states. My point in this very Jewish response to rabbinical worship of long-proven useless devotion to an unknowable deity, is that such worship creates unbridgeable divisions among mankind. At the outset of the Nuclear Era, only a universal commitment to a scientific standard of truth can end the jeopardy of religion. Jews led humanity into monotheism. Are we too timid to lead the way out?

      • DACON9

        SO, you want everyone to read kramers book for
        ”the truth” and not Torah.
        According to you the ‘wrtiters’ of Torah studied every culture,every era in time, every myth, every religion then wrote a NEW BOOK BASED ON THE GENERATIONS OF MYTHOLGY.
        According to you we should read kramers book as truthful…according to you….

        According to me I find that what Rabbis teach that each generation gets less and less wise. Reading your comments I find the Rabbis are correct.

        First thing you should do upon wakening is look in your mirror and apologize to the world for being so stupid.

        • Genghis Cohen

          Please, Mr. Dacron, at least get my name right. It is Genghis Cohen, not Genghis Khan. My comment was not directed at you, but only at the two rabbis who impress me as rational people, while you seem to be an emotionally charged meat-head. The history and fact related by Samuel Noah Kramer, after a life-time as a cuneiformist and a leading professor of Sumerology at the University of Pennsylvania–this historian, in addition to translating the world’s first literature, also pin-pointed the origin of Abraham in the Sumerian city of Ur. This may come as a shock for you, but Judaism did not spring out of a vacuum. It evolved, and if Judaism is to survive, then further evolution is required else it becomes only dacron.

  • steven L

    “A President guilty of sexual … in contemporary Jewish life.” only indicates that before being Jews they are humans!
    What are secular Jews? Agnostic or atheist?

  • Isaac Barr MD

    As Jews, We Must Hold Ourselves to Higher Standards is utterly incorrect. Israel showed higher standards when a president, PM were convicted. How many countries did that. I remember one: US impeached president Nixon and it was high standard to do so. US has many governors congressmen who are crooks and are jailed. Yet we have Al Sharpton who owes 4,5 million to IRS and Charlie Rangel a congressman who owes a million….They should have been jailed.

    • Phil

      I agree with dr. Barr. As Jews, we have to obey the law and lead a moral life–as all decent people must do. Holding Jews and Israel to a higher standard really means holding them to an impossible standard and that is often the case with those who are anti-Israel. No matter how democratic Israel is and no matter how careful the IDF is to observe the rules of warfare, one slip and Israel is condemned. Talk to Jews who advocate punishing Israel and what you get are ignorant people who attack Israel for not being perfect and ignoring Israel’s enemies for all kinds of barbarity.

  • Joel

    Superb piece. Could not be more timely. Thank you Rabbi.

  • Horatio

    Well, Mr. Sacks … as Tonto said to the Lone Ranger: “What’s this ‘we sh*t’ kemosabe?” You shouldn’t assume that all Jews are like your errant politicians. It just makes U look stupid and it IS stupid to pick your pimples in public. If you want to preach like a rabbi, then go for it, but right now U sound rather arrogant, and yes, stupid for assuming that all Jews need to hear your preachments.

    We are the Secular Christians for Zion (SC4Z) and we salute the the Patriots of Israel who stand like boulders on the path of Islamic imperialism.

    Be mindful of that, Mr. Sacks, and please understand that part of the problem is that many Jews are too busy working to pay attention to self-serving politicians. We here in the US have got the same problem and we have got to solve it at the ballot box.

  • Leo Toystory

    Blah, blah, blah. What Israel and the Jewish people need to do is to destroy Iran’s capacity to wage war. That’s all.