The Virtues of Moderation

Kedoshim t’hiyu – You shall be holy. How does achieve kedusha?” Rashi explains:

“Separate yourself from the “arayos” (i.e., prohibited sexual relationships) and from sin. Because wherever one finds the Torah establishing a restriction (“geder”) against sexual immorality, one also finds [reference to] holiness.”

The arayos to which Rashi appears to be referring are the prohibited relationships delineated in chapter 18 at the end of Parshat Acharei Mot (which immediately precedes Parshat Kedoshim). As proof for his interpretation that kedoshim t’hiyu refers to separation from arayos, Rashi cites two verses. First, Parshat Emor (21:14-15) where the Torah prohibits the Kohen Gadol from marrying any woman other than a virgin on pain of his children becoming “chalalim” (defiled) – “Ki ani Hashem mekadesho – For I am Hashem who sanctifies him.”  Second, Parshat Emor (21:7) where the Torah prohibits regular kohahim from marrying certain women (e.g., divorcees) – “Ki kadosh hu l’elokav – for each one [i.e., kohen] is holy to Hashem.

What is perplexing is why Rashi cites marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim, and the Kohen Gadol, as proof that the average Israelite achieves “kedusha” by avoiding prohibited sexual relationships.  Specifically, it would appear that the priestly marriage restrictions have nothing to do with immorality (indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with marrying a divorcee or widow – such marriages are permitted to non-kohanim). Instead, the marriage restrictions applicable to kohanim appear to be unique prohibitions designed to highlight the special status of kohanim.

In contrast, the rationale repeatedly cited by the Torah for avoiding the prohibited sexual relationships specified in Parshat Acharei Mot is to raise the morality of the Jewish nation above the debased cultures of Mitzrayim and Canaan (see Achrei Mot 18:3, 24-30). Indeed, the Jewish nation is warned that engaging in such prohibited relationships will cause the Land of Israel to “vomit” them out as it did the prior inhabitants.

Does someone achieve kedusha simply by refraining from sexual immorality? Certainly not, and therefore achieving holiness clearly requires much more than simply avoiding Biblically prohibited relationships. Significantly, there is no reference to “kedusha” in any form in Chapter 18 of Acharei Mos.

It is perhaps for this reason that Ramban rejects Rashi’s interpretation, and explains “kedoshim t’hiyu” as a more general command to practice moderation and self-restraint even in areas that are permitted. That is, avoid becoming what Ramban famously calls a “naval b’reshut haTorah – a hedonist within the confines of the Torah.” As Ramban explains, while the Torah permits the relationship of husband and wife, specific types of meats and wine, and other forms of physical pleasure, there’s a risk that individuals might abuse what the Torah permits and pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. As such, to protect against excessive self-indulgence, the Torah instructs its adherents to practice moderation – limiting physical pleasures as needed, for example, to fulfill a mitzvah.

But does Ramban’s interpretation truly differ from that of Rashi? Perhaps it is possible to explain Rashi in a manner that makes his interpretation consistent with that of Ramban.

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