In the late 1960s, Chabad Hasidim in Brooklyn had a problem. Relatively recently settled in the city after fleeing the Holocaust, they were suddenly facing tremendous pressure to leave.
Predatory real estate speculators, known as “blockbusters,” were manipulating racial fears to encourage white ethnic groups to sell their homes and flee to the suburbs before “undesirable” elements – i.e.: African Americans – moved in. In some cases, it took only weeks for middle-class white neighborhoods to empty out, with each sale prompting others to leave before property prices dropped even further. The effects of these racist policies stay with all of us till today.
Jewish communities of all denominations left, with some, such as the Satmar Hasidim, leaving en masse to transplant their Brooklyn communities upstate, often to Rockland County. In addition to this external pressure, some of the more prosperous members of the community were also interested in moving to more comfortable neighborhoods.
However, in the midst of this urban exodus, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rabbi of the Chabad Lubavitchers decided that his community was going to stay. In 1969, Rabbi Schneerson urged his followers to preserve their neighborhoods by strengthening the institutions which comprised Jewish communal life – the synagogues, schools, and charities. The community was not just the people who lived there, he said, but the life they built together and the institutions by which they supported each other.
If the community was to decamp, the loss would be most acute for the weakest members of the community, who could not afford to move and who depended on these institutions for support. Therefore, the community wasn’t going to move. The concern was not simply the material well-being of the widow, the orphan and the stranger but their inclusion in the broader community.
There are many complicated reasons why the Lubavitchers decided to stay in Brooklyn and many consequences: at times, the community’s relations with its African- and Caribbean-American neighbors have been tense. However, in some respects, the community’s rabbinic leadership was embodying the central message of Parshat Kedoshim, which we read this coming Shabbat, in which Holy One instructs Moses to say to the entire Israelite community: “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.” The instruction is addressed in the plural, not to Moses and not to the elite, but to the entire community, because holiness is a project for the group, not the individual. The command is not for an isolated ascetic on a remote desert island nor is it written for a lone Jew in suburbia; it is written as a blueprint for an entire community—the priests, the common folk, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers.
After that first overarching ambition: “All of you - Be Holy!!” the Torah’s laws come fast and furious, each offering another seemingly random instruction – revere your parents, reprove your kinsman, leave the surplus of your crops for the poor and the stranger. And the list continues – don’t steal, don’t lie or take false oaths, don’t mock the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Do this, but don’t to that. Do not profit from the blood of your neighbor and love your neighbor as yourself.
Taken as a whole, these apodictic instructions say very clearly: “Be in Community!” More than any given dictate, the core of Parshat Kedoshim and perhaps the entire Torah is the idea that the Jewish people are to form a holy society and recognize the obligations each one has to the other. Although it is very important, the community’s role is not simply to provide for the material needs of the indigent, but to build a social structure which includes everyone.
This holy society is not a federation of individuals who have come together because it’s an efficient way to work for their various goals; rather, being part of a community, whether rich or poor, is part of what it is to be holy.
Parshat Kedoshim tells us that holiness is not, and cannot be, an individual activity. None of us can operate without regard for the weakest members of our community and think we are doing right and good in the eyes of God. A religious community that is not concerned with the widow, the orphan and the stranger is neither religious nor a community. It is a group of loners playacting as Jews.