Kiddush Hashem and Kedushat Yisrael

When a Jew commits certain sins, he does more than transgress on an individual basis.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

There is a notion in Jewish tradition that God, who is the source of all sanctity, can impart sanctity to various aspects of his creation.  Jews thus proclaim during religious occasions, that God sanctified the Sabbath or the Festivals.  God also sanctified the land of Israel, the Temple Mount, and the Holy of Holies.  Above all else, God sanctified the people of Israel.  

A corollary of this notion is that Israel had the ability to sanctify God.  They did so by maintaining the sacredness with which they were imbued, and this is called Kiddush Hashem, i.e. the sanctification of God’s Holy Name. 

We have discussed in a previous article, that the Rambam developed a philosophical understanding of general categories.  In a direct challenge to Plato’s theory of ideas, the Rambam in his Moreh HaNevuchim, repudiated the Platonic system and adopted the Aristotelian formulation.  He considered all general categories as merely thought constructs or forms of speech which lacked an ontological reality.  What truly existed in the natural universe were only individuals.  See Moreh HaNevuchim, Section 3, Chapters 17 and 18.  

If the above formulation is correct, then we are at a loss to explain how the Rambam expressed the most important concept in Jewish law, the concept of Kiddush Hashem.  He states,

The whole House of Israel (Beit Yisrael) is commanded to sanctify this great Name (God) for the text states, “and I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.”  Vayikra, 22:32 and they are warned not to desecrate the name of God for it says, “and do not desecrate my Holy Name.”  Ibid. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 5:1. 

What exactly is “Beit Yisrael,” the “House of Israel.”  Does it have a physical reality, or is it merely a theoretical construct?  Would it not have been better for the Rambam to state, “every individual who is a member of the people of Israel” (Kol echad v’echad B’Yisrael) is commanded to sanctify the name of God?  Would this not have been more consistent with his repudiation of general categories which according to him did not possess reality? 

The Rambam’s formulation is especially difficult when the very text that he cites states, “the children of Israel” i.e. actually living individual Jews.  It is true that Jewish law distinguished between commandments given to individuals and those given to the community, or Tzibur.  The community, however, was always understood as an aggregate of individuals.  We see that concept (i.e. that the community is an aggregate of individuals) in the discussion about whether the Paschal sacrifice can be offered by a community which was in a state of impurity.  That question was determined by whether or not those in the state of impurity were the majority of the people.  The terms majority or minority can only apply to the number of individuals.  Finally, when the Rambam discussed the specific laws or conditions dealing with the nature of Kiddush Hashem, they all deal with action or lack of action of the individual (and not groups of people).  

With the exception of formulary prayers, there is only one case within an Halakhic context where the Rambam used the term “Beit Yisrael.”  That case had to do with the laws of Teshuva. 

Because of this situation (where a preponderance of good deeds can tip the balance to save the world) it was the custom of the whole House of Israel (Beit Yisrael) to increase charity, good deeds, and to be involved in Mitzvot from Rosh Hashana until Yom HaKippurim, more than the rest of the year.  Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuva, 3:4.  

By analyzing these two situations, we may arrive at a clearer understanding of the Rambam’s intent in using the term Beit Yisrael.  

With regard to Kiddush Hashem, Jews must forfeit their lives rather than commit the three cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder.  Similarly, in a situation when a Jew is ordered to commit a sin publicly for the sole purpose of violating the Torah, the he must forfeit his life.  

When the Rambam uses the term Beit Yisrael to describe the requirement of Kiddush Hashem, he does not describe a group of people who are merely identified as Jews.  Rather, he describes the essential  attribute that each Jew possesses: the sanctity given to him by God.  This concept is more than a theoretical construct which lacks a physical definition.  It is rather an attribute which defines the nature of every individual Jew.  It is no less a part of him than his hands, feet or hair color. 

The recognition that the individual Jew, whose personal identity is rooted in the principle that he belongs to Beit Yisrael, is the most crucial element that he can possess.  It is this element which provides the individual Jew with sanctity.  By being part of Beit Yisrael, the Jew develops his unique sense of self consciousness.  

Although thoughts or ideas are intangible, they nevertheless exist in individual minds.  They motivate actions, emotions, and a host of responses to physical stimuli.  Not only are they the  source of self-consciousness, but, most importantly, they allow for consciousness of the existence of God.  

When a Jew commits acts such as adultery, idolatry or murder, or if he publicly violates the Torah for its own sake, he betrays and destroys the definition of his Jewish identity.  He destroys the purpose for his existence in this world which is to sanctify God.  In this sense, it is better for him to die rather than commit those violations, and his death becomes the ultimate sanctification of God.   

Similarly, a Jew who cannot or will not do Teshuva also betrays his Jewish identity.  A Jew cannot receive the sanctity of God if he is not willing to admit his sins, ask for forgiveness and literally, return to God.  Conversely, God will not allow Himself to be sanctified by such a person. 

Thus, the Rambam does not only indicate how to behave as a Jew, but explains the very definition of what it means to be a Jew.