Nahmanides – Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (d. 1270) – was particularly troubled by the possibility that some Jews might observe the laws of the Torah only to be miserable human beings. He referred to such a scoundrel as “naval birshut HaTorah” and explained that this conduct is specifically forbidden by the general injunction to be holy (Leviticus 19:2). The Torah, according to Nahmanides, does not (and could not, without being overly verbose) legislate for every variant of human conduct. Hence, there are some bad behaviors that might escape attention. An example might be gluttony. The Torah restricts the kinds of foods that Jews may eat but does not restrict the amount that might be eaten. To forestall the possibility of gluttony and other examples of bad behavior, the Torah includes the overarching command to be holy.
Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe (d. 1859), saw in Exodus 22:30 a composite command. The Torah has God saying: “You shall be to Me a Holy people.” In Hebrew, the expression is “anshe kodesh.” The Kotzker sees a great lesson in this construct. The word “anshe” – people – precedes “kodesh” – holy. From this the Kotzker learns that prior to being holy, a Jew first has to be a human being, or better, a mensch – the Yiddish word for a noble person. For the Kotzker it is impossible to be spiritually holy without first being an exemplary person: empathetic, helpful, kind, and generous.
The Kotzker is not disputing Nahmanides. He is clarifying. Menschlikhkeit – the quality of nobility – is a prerequisite for holiness. Translated into a program of character development, the Kotzker insists that interpersonal relationships must be perfected or at least elevated before a spiritual relationship can be cultivated. Good relations with God cannot be detached from good relations with people.
In a world in which people believe that religious behavior has nothing to do with worldly behavior, Judaism comes to set things straight. The two cannot be compartmentalized. In fact, the route to a spiritual life includes ethical practice.