Judaism’s Three Voices
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Chapter 19 of Vayikra is about the right, the good, and the holy. It contains some of Judaism’s greatest moral commands. But it’s also surpassingly strange. It contains what looks like a random jumble of mitzvot, many of which have nothing to do with ethics and holiness. To understand this seemingly random combination of laws, we have to engage in an enormous leap of insight into the moral/social/spiritual vision of the Torah, which is unlike anything we find elsewhere.

Western society has made many attempts to define a moral system. Some focus on rationality, or on emotions like sympathy and empathy. They all try to simplify it, in order to understand it. Judaism insists on the opposite: moral complexity. The moral life isn’t easy. Sometimes duties or loyalties clash. Sometimes, reason says one thing, emotion another. More fundamentally, Judaism identified three distinct moral sensibilities each of which has its own voice and vocabulary. The ethics of the King, the ethics of the Priest and the ethics of the Prophet.

Kings and their courts are associated in Judaism with wisdomchochmah, etzah and their synonyms. Wisdom is practical and pragmatic, based on experience and observation; it is judicious and prudent.

The prophetic voice is quite different, impassioned, vivid, and radical in its critique of the misuse of power and the exploitative pursuit of wealth. Prophets speak on behalf of the people, the poor, the downtrodden, the abused. They think of the moral life in terms of relationships between God and humanity and between human beings themselves. The key terms for the prophet are tzedek (justice), mishpat (retributive justice), chessed (loving-kindness) and rachamim (mercy, compassion). The prophet has emotional intelligence, sympathy and empathy, and feels the plight of the lonely and oppressed. Prophecy is never abstract. It responds to the here and now of time and place. 

The ethics of the priest, and of holiness generally, is different again. The key activities of the priest are lehavdil – to distinguish and divide – and lehorot – to instruct people in the law, both generally as teachers and in specific instances as judges. The key words of the Priest are kodesh and chol (holy and secular), tamei and tahor (impure and pure). The task of the priest is to be like God at creation. To make order out of chaos. The priest establishes boundaries in both time and space. There are holy times and holy places, and the kohen’s protest is against the blurring of boundaries so common in pagan religions – between gods and humans, between life and death, etc.

The strange collection of mitzvot in Kedoshim turns out not to be strange at all. The holiness code sees love and justice as part of a total vision of an ordered universe in which each thing, person, and act has their rightful place, and it is this order that is threatened when the boundary between different kinds of animals, grain, fabrics is breached; when the human body is wounded or fed the wrong foods.

The priestly voice is therefore central and essential. It is the voice of the Torah’s first chapter, the voice that defined the Jewish vocation as “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” It dominates Vayikra, the central book of the Torah. And whereas the prophetic spirit lives on in aggadah, the priestly voice prevails in halachah. And the very name Torah – from the verb lehorot – is a priestly word.

In fact, ecology, one of the key discoveries of modern times, contains a similar message of honouring the deep structure of the known universe. The priestly vision and its code of holiness both see ethics not just as practical wisdom or prophetic justice. An ordered universe is a moral universe, a world at peace with its Creator and itself.

desert wilderness landscape moon stars sand mountains night landscape

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Around the Shabbat Table

Let’s consider the voices of the king, the prophet, and the priest throughout Tanach. 

  1. Can you think of times where you hear each different perspective shine in different ways? 
  2. Why do you think having a more nuanced approach to laws of holiness is important?
  3. Which “voice” do you identify with the most when making decisions? Ethical, passionate, or discerning?
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Parsha in Passing

Kedoshim opens up with a powerful directive: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” 

This introduction sets the stage for numerous mitzvot that guide the Jewish People in sanctifying themselves and connecting with the holiness of God.

The mitzvot given in this week’s parsha cover a wide range of ethical and spiritual areas, including the prohibition of idol worship, the duty of charity, upholding equality under the law, keeping Shabbat, maintaining morality in relationships, practicing honesty in commerce, respecting and honouring one’s parents, and cherishing the sanctity of life.

Also featured in Kedoshim is the significant teaching, esteemed by the great sage Rabbi Akiva as a fundamental principle of the Torah - to “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

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Parsha People

First fruits sapling trees young farming crops orchard

Your Neighbour: Love thy neighbour, share your spice, and holiness in kindness is oh so nice. 

Yourself: See yourself in the mirror’s face, and treat “you” with kindness in every place.

A Holy People: A holy people, set apart, performing mitzvot together for God, with one heart.

First Fruits: We are the first-fruits
of the land, offer me up in a gesture
so grand.

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Parsha Practical

Parshat Kedoshim is full of practical mitzvot, many of which contain profound teachings on holiness, particularly through the lens of our interpersonal relationships. Giving tzedakah to those in need, for instance. You can’t get much more practical and effective in your actions than that!

Rabbi Sacks goes on to emphasise that the essence of becoming a holy people lies in our nuanced approach to life’s challenges. We don’t adhere to rigid, black-and-white rules; instead, we navigate our decisions with a blend of ethics (kings), emotion (prophets), and discernment (priests).

Okay, so some of the mitzvot we follow in the Torah are very clear. For example, in parshat Shemini, we learned the halachot about kashrut. However, navigating our actions with a balanced perspective is still of utmost importance. 

As Jews, we strive to integrate moral principles, emotional intelligence, and careful judgment into our everyday lives. By cultivating such a multifaceted approach, we truly embody the spirit of holiness, promoting a more ethical and compassionate society. 

This is the core of what it means to be a holy people, continually striving to reflect the Divine in our everyday lives. 

  • Can you think of a mitzvah you do that contains some nuance depending on the situation?

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Parsha Playoff

Let’s have a “three-legged race!” This is a fun way to love your neighbour as yourself - especially if you’re “sharing” a body part! Participants tie one of their legs to their partner’s adjacent leg, creating three legs between them instead of four. Each pair must synchronize their steps and race together towards the finish line without falling. The key to success is for the partners to coordinate their movements carefully. The first pair to reach the finish line without separating wins the race.

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Parsha Philosophy

Rabbi Sacks sets out to contrast the nuanced ethical landscape of Kedoshim with the more straightforward moral systems typical of Western philosophy. 

He identifies three key perspectives within Judaism: Kingly Ethics, which focuses on practical wisdom and prudent decision-making; Priestly Ethics, which stresses the importance of holiness and maintaining clear societal boundaries; and Prophetic Ethics, which is centred on justice and compassion, particularly advocating for the needy and condemning injustice. The mitzvot in Kedoshim, despite their seemingly random grouping, couldn’t be farther from that. All of them together contribute to the preservation of a holy and orderly society. One that values interpersonal relationships, spirituality, and personal growth.

  • What does being “holy” mean to you? How can you build on this, to make even better choices in your day-to-day?
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Parsha Parable

On the Right Track 

At a high school track and field championship, Elan and Itai, two seasoned sprinters, were gearing up for their final race. Throughout high school, their rivalry had pushed each other to excel, and now, as seniors, they were racing not just for victory but for college scholarships. It was make or break time. 

During the trials, Elan noticed Itai struggling with his form. Should he help, or use this to his advantage? Despite their competitive history, he respected Itai’s dedication, which had always driven him to improve. He wrestled with the decision for a few moments, and then he took a deep breath. This was the final week of training, after all. Whatever happened next could be life-changing!

And so Elan approached Itai with a smile, offering tips and running techniques he’d learned from his coach, a former Olympic sprinter. Appreciating the advice, Itai listened carefully and then began practicing with the new method.

One week later, it was time for the final race. It was an electrifying moment, with both athletes faster than ever. Itai, utilising Elan’s advice, narrowly beat him to the finish line. And Elan was the first to shake Itai’s hand. He was genuinely happy for him, and proud of his success.

Their exemplary sportsmanship caught the scouts’ attention, and both runners received scholarship offers! Elan’s willingness to help his rival, prioritising sportsmanship over competition, showed the true importance of “loving your neighbour as yourself.”

elan and itai two runners training for their sprint race running helping with advice and student scholarships
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Parsha Ponderings

How do you keep the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamochaha - loving your neighbour as you love yourself - with someone you truly dislike?

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Parsha Puzzle


Most of the book of Vayikra is about holiness, and our parsha is even called Kedoshim (holiness). Where is the first mention of holiness in the Torah?

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

Bereishit 2:3 - “Vayekadesh oto” – when God made the Shabbat day holy. This is the first and only mention of holiness in the book of Bereishit.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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