“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” the sequence of these three sidrot in the book of Leviticus are used as a moral teaching in their own right – “After death, holiness speak”
I don’t know where this ethical teaching originates in the Rabbinic sources- it seems to have a folkloric life of its own. But I do know that while it sounds like a Hebrew version of Chilon of Sparta’s 6th Century BCE epigram “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” “Of the dead, nothing unless good” it is in reality quite a different formulation and comes from a very different understanding of the world.
“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” does not mean, as some would like to have us believe, that we cannot ever speak ill of the dead and only say good things about them. Nor does it mean that we should rework the historical truth, so that after a death one has to suddenly say that the deceased was holy. The aphorism does not instruct us to speak only about sacred things rather than about the ordinary realities of life, once a death has occurred. Nor does it imagine that holiness is a state to be achieved only after a life has been lived, something that is not possible in the mundane ordinary world of our life.
In fact, the three central sidrot in Leviticus whose names make up this epithet, all deal with the laws of Kedushah, of holiness, which are precisely not about a heavenly ethereal righteousness – they are about practical ordinary detailed and everyday goodness. So when we say that after death one should speak holiness (kedushah) we are talking not the sacral and not the saintly, but the real meaning of kedushah – the dynamic, practical, societally cohesive and caring activities that imitate God’s being and that we try to emulate.
Kedushah/Holiness in Leviticus is far from the saintly spirituality it has sometimes come to mean to us. Look at the commandments in these three sidrot and you will see all of our lives come into their purview. There are commandments about giving a fair and living wage on time for the worker to be able to support themselves. There are commandments about respect for others, about the fairness of weights in trade, about not trying to gain advantage through another’s weakness or vulnerability. There are commandments about sexual behaviour and about limitations of power. About what we choose to eat and about how we kill the animals we consume. Commandments about caring for the poor and ensuring there is food, shelter, clothing, respect for all in society. There are commandments about using time and about mandated rest for us, for those who work on our behalf, for the land and the animals we have in our control. Holiness becomes an organising principle of Judaism, and if one had to boil it down to one sentence it would be something like “do not hurt others with your behaviour” or “love your neighbour as yourself” – itself of course, a phrase found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, later quoted by Mark in the New Testament, and which for me is summed up in the idea that I have never put a limit on how much I care for myself, never decided that I have received all I deserve, never seen myself as ‘other’, and this self awareness should critically inform my thinking about the ‘other’ and what they deserve or need.
We are about to start reading this trio of sidrot, and all week we have been reading about and listening to the reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and this has set me thinking. I have been caught by the level of vitriolic personal attack on a woman not yet in her grave; the venomous rhetoric, the anger stirred up and directed towards a woman who is a quarter of a century out of being in political power, and who has died. I hold no candle for Margaret Thatcher nor for many of her policies, but I wonder a little if, instead of feeling it taboo to speak ill of the dead, or else feeling the need to break that taboo and speak very ill indeed, we followed the Hebrew dictum we might find ourselves in a different place. For if after death we spoke Kedushah – not kind or unkind or hurtful but truthful and healing, this might be a better response. The laws of Kedushah are designed for everyone in society to have an obligation to behave well towards each other and towards those over whom they have power – be it land, workers, livestock, vulnerable people, students…. There is in Leviticus what has been called a democratisation of holiness, in that it is something all of us must participate in, all of us are obliged to do, not something we pass up the hierarchy to rabbis or priests, politicians or other leaders. If both before and after death we use the organising principle of kedushah – of each individual and each family and each company doing their best not to inflict hurt upon others for their own gain then maybe the biblical ideal of a world where everyone tries to care for their neighbour would be reached. Before death there is always the imperative of the code in Leviticus which teaches us and requires from us ordinary active unhurtful behaviour in everything we do – that is a given and one we either choose to live by or not. But after death there is both a greater vulnerability of the powerless, and a greater power of the living to damage and hurt the deceased and those who are close to them. And so it is the greater imperative to do this, as it is so easy to ignore. Acharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor – After a death, when there is nothing the dead can do or say to help themselves, it is all the more important that we promote a healing in the breaches made or left by that person, rather than rent the fabric of our society even further.
ואהבת לרעךך כמוך אני יי