Acts of Holiness

Leviticus 16:1-20:27

By Lore Segal

Published April 30, 2004, issue of April 30, 2004.
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When Jews strike the breast for each item in the comprehensive list of human sins it is a communal confession; it was of the nation that holiness was required. I ask leave to think personally and tell an anecdote I’ve told before.

In the bitterly cold winter of 1938 I sat in the vast glass-and-iron dining hall of a camp on the English Channel coast, one of 400 Kindertransport children waiting to be distributed to English foster families. I was in the middle of a letter home to my real family in Vienna when two English ladies in fur coats and carrying a clip-board stopped in front of me and said, “How about this one?” They asked me if I would like to live with a nice Orthodox family. I said yes. I beamed at them. The English ladies walked off, and I returned to my letter. “What is ‘Orthodox’?” I asked my father. By the time his answering letter urged me to not to go to an Orthodox family whom I would annoy with my ignorance and all the things I would be doing wrong, I was already living with the Cohens in Liverpool, and learning the rules of kashrut and Shabbat. I took to it. Where so much was strange, I liked the strenuous clarity of do’s and don’ts and annoyed the maid by telling her all the things she was doing wrong.

My life as an observant Jew lasted from December 1938 till July 1939, when, by the vagaries of refugee life in war-time England, I was sent to live with the next one of four more foster families, all of them, as it happened, Christian.

I want to think about this portion’s featured word, “holiness,” but I don’t know how. It is by definition, beyond our definition. “Righteousness” is one alternative translation of the term Abraham used in bargaining with God for Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s a word we know how to define, but it is not a word in modern usage. “Virtue” and “goodness” embarrass us even though, I think, we yearn toward them. The prevalence of hypocrisy is the proof. Would we pretend to the world and to ourselves that we possess what we have no value or desire for? We content ourselves with hoping to do “right” — the “right” that’s opposed to the “wrong.” Which of the biblical commandments do the nonobservant among us oblige ourselves to observe?

I have another anecdote. Setting out, years ago, to teach the English novel to my first freshman class, I wondered how the young, who — one assumed — were exposing a great deal of nakedness, were going to understand plots that turned on the idea of chastity. I devised a poll with four rubrics: What do Fielding and Richardson hold to be Right and Wrong and what do you hold to be Right and Wrong? I was surprised that “chastity,” at least as an idea, came as naturally to my Bennington students as it did to yesteryear’s Amelias and Pamelas. There was one student who had abandoned the do’s and don’ts of her Judaism in favor of the 600 rules of a peculiar strain of Buddhism. Not one gave so much as a nod to the first Commandment, the one that underpins every other: the communal duty toward a godhead. Most expressed a strong sense of political rights and mostly lefts. All accepted the basic prohibitions: no killing, no robbing, no lying, etc., and probably without introspection, the commandment to not want what somebody else has got. My students, and I, too, were most at home with the rules that tell us what to do unto others but our motivation was not the same as the Bible’s. We don’t honor our fathers and mothers because God is God and so that we may live long in the world; if we struggle to be decent and loving to the elderly it’s because we are sorry for them.

Is the command to leave gleanings for the widow and her orphans, and to return the debtor’s cloak, come nighttime, for his use as a blanket, asked of our justice, or our pity? There is one beautiful instance where it is the victim’s feelings that make the argument against wrongdoing. How does Nathan teach David the sin of taking a man’s wife and covering it up by taking the man’s life? The prophet tells the king a story about stealing a lamb for a dinner party. It is a political lesson: How ugly for the richest to steal from the poorest. And it educates the king’s imagination: Ask yourself, he is commanded, what it would feel like to lose a pet for which you have a fatherly tenderness.

I have wondered what made many English people in 1938 and 1939 take a Jewish refugee child into their homes and lives. Between my 10th and my 18th year, I lived with the Cohens of Liverpool, the Gilhams in Tonbridge and the family of the munitions worker whose name I have forgotten and who, when his factory moved him out of town, lodged me with his elderly father, a milkman. The next six years, before I moved to London to go to the University, I lived with two rich ladies, Miss Ellis and Miss Wallace, in Guildford. Taking us in, taking care of us for better or for worse, for as long as they could put up with us — weren’t these acts of holiness?

Lore Segal writes novels, essays and children’s books, most recently “Why Mole Shouted.”

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