The Sanctification of G-d’s Name – An Idea with a Remarkable Reach

The reader of this week’s Torah portion (Emor; Leviticus 21-24) cannot help but be struck by the following imperative: “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified among the Israelite people” (22:32). Now, this twin notion of “sanctify” and “don’t profane” has a long, fascinating and surprisingly ramified history. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs notes in his remarkable Leviticus commentary, this notion has ripened over time into a vast array of ideas, of “do’s” and “don’ts.”

A narrow but perfectly plausible interpretation flows from the subject matter of Leviticus 22 itself: an imperative for the priests who are charged with maintaining a pure sanctuary so that G-d will remain present to the people. In the hands of the prophets, the notion took on explicit ethical implications, not just for the sanctuary officiants, but for everyone: “Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl and thereby profane My holy name” (Amos 2:7). Later still, the prophet Ezekiel thinks of the Babylonian Exile itself … and the sad situation of the Jews … as a source of profanation for “the very fact of exile constitutes a desecration of God’s name because the fact that He had punished His people by letting them be conquered was interpreted by the nations as [the result of] God’s inability to protect them. What looks like retribution to the Israelites looks like weakness to the world” (Sachs, Covenant and Conversation, p. 319).

Here we note that “name” equals “reputation.” And when G-d’s reputation is sullied, G-d and all that G-d is and stands for … order, justice, compassion, empathy, hope … are also sullied. G-d’s good name is central as a carrier, as a symbol of optimism’s challenges and commitments. Note, as well, how the notion of “a good name” has striking application to our daily lives. I well remember my father telling his sons that the good name of our family depends significantly on our own behavior. “Our family’s good name is in your hands,” he would tell us.

Yet a further application of this idea emerged during the persecutions of Jews by Antiochus in the 2nd century BCE in Israel and by the marauding crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe; namely, the imperative to die a martyr rather than succumb to the desecrations of the rampaging throng. To succumb, to convert in order to avoid death, so the reasoning went, would be to compromise the dignity of Judaism. And though life and its preservation is one of the supreme values of Judaism, in times of deep peril, something more important is at stake: the power and honor of our ultimate concern.

And there is one further extension of this fertile idea, and a remarkable one, at that. And that is the imperative to enact the spirit of the law and the spirit of ethical admonitions. Here is how Maimonides puts it in his Mishneh Torah: “There are other things that are a profanation of the Name of God. When a person, great in the knowledge of the Torah and reputed for his piety does things which cause people to talk about him, even if the acts are not express violations, he profanes the Name of God. As, for example, if such a person makes a purchase and does not pay promptly, provided that he has means and the creditors ask for payment and he puts them off; or if his mode of addressing people is not gentle, or he does not receive people affably, but is quarrelsome and irascible. The greater the person is, the more scrupulous should he be in all such things, and do more than the strict letter of the law requires. And, if a person has been scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow-creatures, affable in manner when receiving them, not retorting, even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain, conducting his affairs with integrity … doing more than his duty in all things … such a person has sanctified God.”

And yes, the more the person is identified with, and carries, in his or her vocation, the reputation of Judaism, the greater the imperative to sanctify the name of G-d. But all of us who deeply care about preserving and strengthening Judaism’s values are also charged to act in ways that reflect the powerful ethical and spiritual commitments of Judaism.

Rabbi Roger C. Klein