Rabbinic Reflections: Grounded holiness

When something in life is unfair, or even just feels it, we are likely to cry out for some redress. Do we merely lament that someone got something that we did not or do we demand it be taken away from them? Do we argue for an equal or equivalent share or do we wallow in our misery? All of these reactions, and more besides, are deeply human. I am curious what kind of reaction would reflect our best, dare I say our holy, selves.

The temptation is to read that holiness as more than human, after all, God is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6:3). I believe firmly that holiness is attainable, even if it is not at all simple to be humanly holy. We just need to understand what it might look like, to practice it, and thereby to embody it.

Admittedly, I do not think about human holiness often. I was reminded of it by the Torah reading chanted yesterday in synagogues around the world which opened with the levitical command for us to be holy: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). What follows is a whole range of laws ranging from theological and sacrificial to business and agricultural and from legal and moral to carnal and spiritual. The opening sequence of these laws ends with “love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). The text switches quickly from holiness as an indication of divinity or sacrality to something much more relational.

While I often talk about the importance of relationships, it has been a long time since I explored where holiness shows up in them. Lately, I have found many people struggling to be in relationships with others. It is very hard to be holy (whatever holy means) when it is hard to be in a relationship. In his new book, Judaism is About Love: Recovering the Heart of Jewish Life, Rabbi Shai Held reminds us that Biblical holiness is sometimes about ritual purity; other times, about separateness, which he interprets as “countercultural;” and also as “inextricably linked to love” (319).” Maybe connecting love and holiness can help bridge the gap.

This idea of holiness as love and loving one’s neighbor got me thinking more about holiness less as something that might uplift us and rather as something that might ground us. Going back to unfairness, the temptation is to see the world as a zero-sum game; if you get, I lose, and vice versa. It takes an awareness not just of my values but of others’ values to get out of the zero-sum mindset, from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking. While recognizing the Divine in someone else or holding a theological claim that humans are all created equal can get us to a level playing ground; we need more to get to abundance. Love gets us to that expansive holiness; as Held puts it, “Love is a way of being, but it is also a way of seeing” (121).

Even with love, it can be hard to navigate the world. Seeing with love, we may be able to call out unfairness without begrudging someone else’s good fortune and still be challenged to be in a relationship to someone expressing a polarizing difference. The Torah takes human holiness a step further here to ask us to love not just folks like us, not just kin, not just neighbors. We are asked to show loving concern for the stranger (often translated as resident alien). Much has been written elsewhere about dialogue across differences; I am just noting here that even as we are commanded to love as ourselves, we are asked to extend that love in expanding circles. To be clear, the Jewish tradition is not naive about this love; I think it tells that each circle is named. We must take care of ourselves to find our worth, to love ourselves; then, we must practice loving others even with their faults, better fortunes, or challenges; and we must recognize, too, the challenge of extending that love to those whose difference from us could distance us. The more we are grounded in holiness-as-love the easier it is to bridge the distance or, at least, to try. Even when I do not succeed, I feel affirmed in my value by trying. Let’s see, with love.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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