Vechai bahem: “You shall live by them.”
Leo Baeck: “The greatest mitzvah for a Jew is to live.” The readings in this week’s linked parashahs overlap with what Bible critics call “the Holiness Code,” a stenographic list of rules, many related to sexuality, punctuated by injunctions toward “holiness.”
The notion of a Holiness Code, compiled by writers known as H, should not mislead us into imagining that the book derives from or points toward a class of people, defined by exemplary behavior, who have thereby achieved “holiness.” The haftorahs, with their repeated denunciations of the continuing transgressions of Israel, make it clear that we are dealing, in these chapters, with an ongoing struggle.
Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in fact insist that the term “kedushah,” or holiness, should be understood not as static essence but rather as dynamic process — not as the condition of “holiness,” but rather as the action of “hallowing.” We are “holy” not characteristically but only insofar as we strive to hallow, work that is never done.
Why this striving? Achrei Mot-Kedoshim suggests that we must sanctify because God sanctifies. But H also provides a more this-worldly reason for the work of sanctification in Leviticus 18:5: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.” Or, in the Hebrew, “asher ya’aseh ha’adam vechai bahem.”
The last two words, “vechai bahem” (and you shall/will live by them), simple as they appear, have been read in radically different ways, as the promise of a reward for following the code, or as the description of a natural consequence. If you keep these laws, God will reward you with life; or, alternatively, if you keep these laws, your society will be strengthened and individuals will lead better lives.
As the medieval commentators parsed this last thought, restraining sexuality leads to longer lives because it builds stronger family units and reduces the danger from angry cuckolds. Restraining sexuality is thus both spiritually “holy” and socially functional.
But the rabbis derived yet another meaning from “vechai bahem.” As Sanhedrin 74a puts it, “Live by them, but do not die by them.” That is, follow these laws, but not to the point of endangering your life; this is the proof text for such injunctions as sick people refrain from fasting on Yom Kippur. The laws point to the only important thing, which is beyond these details and trumps all: life.
Many of the rules recorded by “H” seem odd and ancient, hardly temptations: “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind”; “Do not allow any of our offspring to be offered up to Molech.” But one continues to haunt us, and echoes in our lives louder than all the others put together: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22).
Only H mentions this, but that has hardly diminished its impact, far beyond the Jewish world. It has been suggested that 18:22 forbids not “homosexuality” — such a term is of course anachronistic in this context — but rather relations shaped by hierarchy, domination or even violence (however helpful this reading is for encouraging loving homosexuality, it leaves intact the assumption that hierarchy is “natural” in heterosexual relations).
I want to suggest that we leave aside the parsing of 18:22 and rather read the verse in the context of the chapter, and in particular of “vechai bahem,” as the rabbis understand this term. H’s prescriptions for the ongoing work of sanctifying the world are directed to the greatest value of all, which trumps all others and toward which all rules and prescriptions must aim: life.
The warrant for such a reading is available from the rabbis themselves: If the rules of the Torah endanger one’s life, with few exceptions you are free — even obligated — to refrain from keeping them. Whether we understand life here as physical existence, or expand the notion to include thriving, experiencing and continually sanctifying all of life’s rich dimensions, it can hardly be denied that the reverberations of 18:22 threaten life in both these meanings, destroying lives and diminishing life.
The time has come to recognize that the Bible itself, a few short verses earlier, already helps us see a better way: “vechai bahem.”
Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.