Holiness, What Does It Mean?



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Holiness and Judaism

By Avi Lazerson

In each religion there is a concept of being holy. We have witnessed the Christian religions and their ministers, and their concept on being holy. They basically understand holiness as being separate from the worldly influences. We see in extreme examples that some of the men in the Catholic religion become priests and separate from women, some become monks and live in monasteries while some of the women become nuns and live in convents separate from the rest of the world. In Eastern religions we have seen that the concept of holiness also entails separation from the world and meditation in an environment that promotes peace and tranquility. In every religious group the concept of holiness entails a separation from the world.

The Torah beseeches the Jewish people to be a holy people as it states in Leviticus 11:44 and 11:15, "...be holy because I am Holy." The question here is: what is "holy"? We are instructed to be holy because G-d is Holy - but what is the connection between His Holiness and us? After all, our abilities to achieve a semblance of sanctity are severely curtailed by our own G-d given human desires and drives. If G-d wants us as Jews to be holy because He is Holy, then what is the point of comparison?

Perhaps the understanding of what is "holy" is needed to really harness our inherent and G-d given abilities to achieve this goal. We must accept as a given that G-d would not give us a task that we could not carry out.

To understand the meaning of the word "holy" we are fortunate that we understand the Hebrew language and do not rely upon translated texts. The word "holy" is in Hebrew "kadosh". A principle in Hebrew is that all Hebrew words are related through their spelling - different words using the very same letters have connections in meanings. We find a very interesting connection based on the story of Judah, the son of Jacob, who saw his daughter-in-law wearing a veil, disguised as a harlot. The Torah relates that he thought that she was a "kadasha." (See Genesis 38:21) The word for a harlot in Hebrew is "kadasha" and the word for holiness is "kadusha".

This is a difficult thing to understand. How can the same letters (which in Hebrew convey similar meanings) be used for such completely opposite meanings - holiness and prostitution??

But the concept can be understood simply. A "kadasha" was not a prostitute, but merely a woman who was living with out the bounds of the normal worldly conveniences of marriage. She lived without regards to the worldly laws of conduct. Her conduct was in effect oblivious to the normal rules and boundaries. Her life was not bounded.

G-d also lives with out bounds. On one side of the picture, he is the infinite, totally with out beginning and with out end. He existed before the world existed and will exist after the world ceases to exist. He created time and space. The world and all that is in it is a created place and by virtue of being created, they are limited in time and space - meaning that in time they have a beginning and an end. In space they have limits, boundaries and ends. Two objects can not occupy the same place at the same time.

Can a finite box contain an infinite amount of objects? Obviously not! How can the finite contain the infinite?

Can the world, which is finite, contain the infinite of G-d?

Yet, if we say that the world can not contain G-d, we have placed a limitation on G-d and we know that G-d is unlimited and has the ability to do all. This means that G-d, the infinite, certainly can fill the world and at the same time not be contained by the world.

This is the definition of G-d's Holiness: He is not bound by the world, yet he fills the entire world with no place void of his presence - even the lowliest places. Never the less, he is not affected by the world. All that we do can not cause a change in G-d, to G-d, the world is nothing and has no effect upon Him. Yet He is immediately present in every aspect of the world in a manner that He can not be separated from the world.

This is a bit of a dichotomy, He is actively involved in the running of the world, yet, totally unaffected by the world - and yet our prayers He hears and answers!!

That is Holiness!

This is our holiness also. As Jews, we must occupy ourselves in the betterment of the world through carrying out His directives. This means living in this world, marrying, procreating, working and at the same time not to be affected by the daily worldly occurrences.

That is the holiness of the Jew in this world. We do not separate ourselves from the world! We must involve ourselves in the betterment of the world. Yet through this entanglement in the mundane we will see the hand of G-d effecting the changes that we strive to achieve.


from the January 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine




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