In his commentary to the command with which our sedra begins - 'You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy' - Nahmanides makes a famous observation: “The meaning is as follows: the Torah has warned us against immorality and forbidden foods, but it permits sexual relations between man and wife, and the eating of certain kinds of meat and wine. Since this is so, a person could think that it is permitted to be passionately addicted to intercourse with his wife, or many wives, and be 'among those who guzzle wine or glut themselves on meat' (Proverbs 23:20) and speak freely of all profanities, since this is not explicitly forbidden. The result is that he will become a scoundrel within the permissible realm of Torah [naval bi-reshut ha-Torah]. Therefore, after listing the specific conduct that is forbidden, the Torah continues with a general command that we practise moderation even in matters which are permitted.” Nahmanides goes on to explain that this is a general feature of Jewish law: detailed examples followed by a general command. Thus in the case of ethics the Torah explicitly forbids certain kinds of conduct, such as theft, robbery, and overcharging in business. But it also contains general rules such as, 'You shall do that which is right and good' (Deut. 6: 18) - which include and going 'beyond the strict requirements of the law' and a willingness, for the sake of equity, to forego the full extent of one's legal rights. Maimonides arrives at a similar idea, though from a different source: For Lord will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d, and walk in His ways. (Deut. 28: 9)
From this, he inferred (Hilkhot Deot, ch. 1) that we are commanded to develop certain traits of character - to be gracious, merciful, and holy, as G-d is gracious, merciful and holy. As his son, Rabbi Abraham, explained in one of his responsa (no. 63), Maimonides holds that in addition to prescribing or forbidding specific actions, Judaism requires us to develop certain virtues - what Alexis de Tocqueville called 'habits of the heart'. The Torah is concerned not only with behaviour but also with character; not just with what we do but also the kind of person we become. The point is fundamental. To put it technically, Maimonides and Nahmanides oppose halakhic reductivism and positivism. The first, reductivism, is the idea that halakhah [Jewish law] is all there is to Judaism: the belief that if we have obeyed every law in the Shulhan Arukh, we have done all that is required of us. There is nothing else. Judaism is a set of laws, a code of conduct, a choreography of behaviour and no more. The second idea, halakhic positivism, is that Jewish law is a self-contained, self-sufficient system with no underlying logic other than obedience to the word of G-d. It has no further purposes, no ultimate aim, no rationale - at least none that can be known to us. Maimonides and Nahmanides believed otherwise. They held that there are matters of great religious significance which lie beyond the scope of precise legislation. They cannot be spelled out in terms of exact, exhaustive rules, because life does not obey exact, exhaustive rules. You can keep all the laws of kashrut, implies Nahmanides, and still be a glutton. You can drink only kosher wine and still be a drunkard. You can be faithful to the laws of marriage and still be a sensualist. He calls such a person a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah, meaning, one who is coarse, crude, self-indulgent but who justifies his conduct by claiming, perhaps sincerely, that he is a strict observer of the law. Likewise, Maimonides was concern to refute the idea that you could be an observant Jew and at the same time arrogant, insensitive, tactless, prone to anger or pride. Both believed that such people profoundly fail to understand the nature of Judaism. The law itself points to something beyond the law. Nahmanides located this in the command, 'You shall be holy'. Maimonides found it in the phrase, 'and walk in His ways'. Both, however, were convinced that there is a dimension of the moral and spiritual life that cannot be specified in the form of precise legislation. It has to do with self-restraint, moderation, gentleness, sensitivity, and the thousand other forms of emotional literacy which you cannot learn from a book of rules, but only from experience and example. The Talmud says (Berakhot 62a) that Rabbi Akiva followed R. Joshua wherever he went, to see how he behaved. One of the great Jewish mystics, Rabbi Leib Saras, used to say that he travelled to Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch, not to learn biblical interpretations but to see how the Rabbi tied his shoelaces. The Talmud (Makkot 22b) speaks of the 'foolish' Jews of Babylon who 'stand in the presence of a Torah scroll but not in the presence of a great human being'. A great sage is a living Torah scroll. There are textbooks and there are textpeople. We learn rules from books. But we learn virtue by finding virtuous people and seeing how they behave.
Law is not the whole of Judaism. That is why the Torah contains not only law but also narrative, and why the rabbinic literature includes not only halakhah but also aggadah: stories, speculations, and ethical reflections. Along with commentaries and codes, medieval Jewry produced ethical treatises such as Bahya ibn Pakudah's Duties of the Heart (Hovot ha-Levavot) and R. Judah of Regensburg's great work of German-Jewish spirituality, The Book of the Pious (Sefer Hassidim). The tradition was continued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Hassidic movement in one direction, and R. Israel Salanter's Mussar movement in another. To be holy, for Nahmanides, or to walk in G-d's ways for Maimonides, is to undergo an extended process in character-formation and moral growth. In this sense, ethics is like art. There are rules for constructing a sonnet, but obeying them does not turn you into Shakespeare. It is also like leadership. There are a few basic rules, but beyond that, leaders have little in common. Halakhah defines the basic parameters of a Jewish life. It is within those parameters that the search for moral wisdom takes place. Halakhah is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a life lived in pursuit of the ideal. That is why we have such works as the Mishnah tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and why Maimonides composed his Laws of Ethical Character (Hilkhot Deot). To be conscious of the presence of G-d is to become a different sort of person from one who believes that the physical world is all there is, that there is no authority beyond mere power, and that there is no meaning to existence. There are people who are successful, clever or powerful - but there are also people who are holy, and you can tell it by their demeanour, their way of relating to people. They seem to point to something beyond. That, says Nahmanides, is the challenge in those simple words at the beginning of Kedoshim: 'Be holy'. Holiness is not just what we do but also the kind of person we become.
One who isn't in my image is still in G-d's image.
Address by Chief Rabbi Holocaust Memorial day – Belfast 27 January 2004
In the beginning, we read: "And God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life" - to teach us that when we do good, we are little lower than the angels. But when we do evil, we are dust, lower than the beasts. Tonight we have remembered two dark nights of evil, when humanity descended into the depths of hell. Which of us will forget 9/11 when 3000 people were murdered on a single day? During the Holocaust, on average, 3000 people were murdered every day, 365 days of the year, for five and a half years. And in Rwanda, in the spring of 1994, three times as many, for 100 days. How do we begin to imagine evil on such a scale? The only answer is to think of individuals. Each of the victims was a human being like you and me, with hopes for the future, fears, dreams. Every one of them was like us. And evil happens when we forget that other people -- whose faith or way of life is different from ours - are still people like us. And their deaths are no less evil because they happened long ago or far away. Three things connect Rwanda and the Holocaust. Those who died were killed not because they did anything but simply because they were born into the wrong religion, the wrong tribe, because they were different, because someone said, they're not like us. Secondly, in both cases genocide became possible because for years, people were taught to see other people as less than human. The Jews were vermin. The Tutsis were inyenzi, cockroaches. They weren't just demonized; they were dehumanized; so that people could believe that killing was a kind of decontamination. And thirdly, people knew in advance what was going to happen. In 1939 Hitler had been in power for six years, making no secret of his plans.
In Rwanda months, years beforehand, people had been warning of the bloodshed to come. And the world wasn't listening. People sometimes ask me: where was G-d in the holocaust? But the real question is: where was humanity? G-d was in a voice that has been speaking since man first walked on earth. In the words, Thou shalt not kill. In the words, Do not oppress a stranger. In the words, Your brother's blood cries to me from the ground. G-d wasn't silent in the Holocaust. G-d wasn't silent in Rwanda. But when G-d speaks and we don't listen, even G-d can't save us from ourselves. And still we aren't listening. Throughout the world today preachers of hate are still pouring out their poison, demonizing their opponents, inciting their followers to violence. Even today the world is silent while the viruses of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia mutate and claim victims one by one. Which is why we must never forget what happened if we are to prevent it happening again. How? By telling the story, as we've done tonight. By remembering heroic individuals - people like Raoul Wallenberg and Nicholas Winton - who saved lives and showed us how in the dark a single candle can give light. By remembering how people like Mary Blewitt have worked with the survivors, helping them rebuild their shattered lives. Above all by teaching our children that it doesn't have to be this way. That one who isn't in my image is still in G-d's image. That humanity lives in the face of a stranger. That difference doesn't threaten, but enlarges our world. Our children are capable of great courage; every act of courage gives birth to hope; and hope has the power to defeat hate. Let us honour the memory of those who died by teaching our children to honour life and never forget that the people who are not like us, are still people, like us.