Friday, May 13, 2016

Parsha Kedoshim: Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Holiness

Justice. Love. Fairness. Decency. They are lofty concepts, but all too often, people capriciously throw them into conversation without having an appreciation or a sense of what they mean. I would throw the word "holiness" into that category. We can talk about the holy of holies, "the Holy Book," Holy Days, but how well of a grasp do people have on the concept? The mere existence of those who are "holier than thou" has to make me wonder: is there a working definition of holiness? Can there be multiple definitions? Is holiness a mere abstraction or something more?

This week's Torah portion opens up with a command to be holy:

קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני הי.
You shall be holy for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy. -Leviticus 19:2

The rest of the Torah portion proceeds with a list of laws, which is considered the apex of the Holiness Code. These laws vary quite considerably, from keeping Shabbat (19:4) and not mixing wool and linen (19:19) to loving your neighbor like yourself (19:18), not stealing (19:13), or putting a stumbling block before the blind (19:14). This question of what is holiness has not escaped our Sages. If anything, they have thought about the question to the point where there are different schools of thought on the matter. 

Let's start with Rashi's interpretation. Since the directive to be holy immediately follows the laws around sexuality in Leviticus 18, Rashi views holiness to be a form of self-restriction, specifically in the area of sexuality. Ramban (Nachmanides) takes Rashi's interpretation a step further. Ramban believed that one could still be a "scoundrel within the letter of the law," e.g., binging on kosher food, excessively partaking in permitted sexual relations. For Ramban, holiness was not simply following the letter of the law, but elevating ourselves by going beyond the letter of the law and taking the spirit of the law into account, as well. R. Yaakov Zvi Meklenburg views the separateness in holiness differently in the sense that one removes themselves emotionally from the mitzvah. The only joy that one should derive is that of performing a mitzvah. Any other benefit derived is a byproduct, and should be ignored if one is to achieve true holiness. These more aesthetic interpretations, while in the Jewish tradition, do not speak to me as a traditional Jew who is living in the twenty-first century.

R. Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern-day Mussar movement, emphasized the aspect of money matters within Leviticus 19 that engender one's holiness. For R. Salanter, how one deals in work, commerce, and interpersonal relations reveal a lot more about one's level of holiness than simply doing mitzvahs because of "the fear of G-d." Holiness, from R. Salanter's view, was ultimately viewed on how we interact with other human beings. The Chatam Sofer points out that the reason why G-d wanted Moses to speak to the entire community (19:1) is because holiness does not exist in isolation. It is meant to be actualized by interacting with others.

How do we take these traditional interpretations and translate them into a less abstract concept of holiness? Holiness does not come through osmosis. It does not come from sitting around and "feeling spiritual." It is not a process that comes instantaneously like high-speed Internet or fast food. This week's portion reminds us that holiness comes through effort. How we deal with that holiness depends on whether we view holiness in terms of separateness or distinctiveness. I prefer the latter approach since it brings in the more aesthetic views together with the more interpersonal interpretations.

While many of the laws in this week's portion have to do with interpersonal relations (bein adam l'chavero), that is strictly not the case. There are still laws about keeping Shabbat, not mixing wool and linen, fearing G-d, the prohibition on magic and occult practices, and having a general respect for rituals. The juxtaposition in Leviticus 19:3 between honoring one's parents and Shabbat reminds us that both rituals and ethics make for holiness in the life of a Jew. Judaism has a universalistic view on ethics, but the rituals are what distinguish the Jew from a non-Jew. Without rituals, the Jewish people lose their unique way of connecting to G-d.

That being said, I do realize that Judaism is a Jew's way of connecting to G-d, to becoming holy. Judaism is not easy, and I believe that it is not for everybody. I do believe in G-d as Infinite Oneness and practice Judaism as a religion, but I also recognize that G-d provided non-Jews with ways to tap into holiness. In more general terms, holiness is how we connect with transcendence, regardless of what label we want to attribute to said transcendence, and how it makes us better people as a result. Major world religions, I have found, generally operate on the Golden Rule and are in pursuit of connecting with "the Ultimate Being."

For a Jew, that idea is embodied within this week's Torah portion. We are meant to work at obtaining a connection with G-d through mitzvahs. We are meant to have ritual be a conduit in which we become closer to G-d and fellow human beings. R. Salanter's interpretation reminds us that ritual is to be an action-based meditation that is to be translated into proper treatment of other human beings. In conjunction, Ramban's interpretation reminds us that holiness means that we shouldn't accept legal minima, and that we should strive to do more and connect more whenever possible. Our actions are meant to be a form of imitatio Dei, a reflection of G-dliness on this planet. That is what the Torah teaches us about holiness. It is not meant to be found in a monastic, isolated situation. We are meant to find it in our daily lives. We are meant to take every seemingly mundane action and imbue it with holiness. We are meant to separate our lives from mundanity and elevate it to a higher plane. Holiness is to remind us that our actions have impact and meaning. It reminds us that with G-d in our lives, we are to focus on G-d and how our lives on Earth play a role in that. Holiness is a series of actions that illustrates our spiritual progress and connection to G-d, and that continuum is the loudest and clearest theological statement we can make about the role G-d plays in our lives.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Holiness is about the perfection of the community and our relationships with others. One of the traits I admire about Judaism is how it suffuses holiness and prayer into every day and every action: mindfulness of G-d and worship of G-d is not confined to synagogue walls or just once a week.

    The immense discipline required for an Orthodox life is something that gives me pause about entering into the covenant. I believe I lack discipline and the capacity for self-denial, and have too great a love for indulgence and excess. LOL.

    Don't you think that the Haredim isolate themselves in a quasi-monastic way, and are rather unfriendly to outsiders? Their idea of kedoshim seems like a very narrow one, rather than seeing kedoshim as an aspect of larger community relations.