In our recent Winter 2021 issue TRADITION published a new essay by the renowned educator and author Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “Of Love, Holiness, and the Other,” which will appear later this year in her The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on Leviticus (Schocken Books). In the essay she discusses the “morality of aspiration” as a path to holiness, especially as it should guide interpersonal relationships.
In his magisterial discussion of the aspirational requirements of Judaism, R. Aharon Lichtenstein…with a fine sense of paradox, declares, “The Jew is also commanded to aspire.” Even though aspiration takes one beyond the bounds of the legal requirement—lifnim mi-shurat ha-din—the extra-legal is itself commanded. The classic texts for such commandments, however, are to be found in the Talmud and the Midrash and their commentaries, as well as in classic Jewish commentaries on the Torah. In other words, they are located in the larger world of Torah literature, where biblical texts are interpreted as invoking the morality of aspiration.
Ramban, for example, classically describes “holiness” as the aspiration to go beyond the letter of the law. In the end, the sinews of the law do not provide sufficient nurture for the spiritual life. “One may be a sensualist (naval) without stepping outside the law.” A gray area that is not forbidden makes space for personal fastidiousness. To navigate this area, one needs the inspiration of an idea like that of holiness. This area is illuminated by the notion of imitatio Dei: “Be holy, for I God am holy!” This is an elitist ethic, which is yet not wholly voluntary.
Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg teaches Torah at several Jerusalem institutions and throughout the English-speaking world, and has published five critically acclaimed books of literary-midrashic-psychoanalytic exploration of biblical texts.