First impressions
Beginner's mind

As God is holy

In a comment on this post, I told Mis-nagid that I see no disjunction between the idea that the Torah as we know it was written  by (multiple) human hands, and the idea that there's holiness encapsulated in Torah and that studying it can lead us to holiness. He emailed me afterwards and asked, reasonably enough, what I meant by holiness. My first thought was that, like art (or porn), I know it when I see it. But that seems glib, and his question got me wondering whether I have a better answer.

Predictably, I started my exploration by looking at what other people mean by holiness. The incredibly cool Online Etymology dictionary has a lot to say about the English word "holy." At its heart, it may once have meant "that which must be kept whole" or "that which is inviolate." My first sense that holiness relates to wholeness came from Wendell Berry, who writes (in The Art of the Commonplace), "The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy." He's talking about the deeper meanings of health, but I think his list has bearing on the deeper meanings of holiness, too. And indeed, Webster's Dictionary tells me, among other things, that "holy," applied to a person, means "spiritually whole or sound."

In Hebrew, the root  kadosh (or qadosh, as some transliterations would have it) means "sanctified." Though it bears no etymological relation to the root of  l'havdil, "to separate," some heavy hitters have argued that the two concepts are linked. This page holds a relevant section of Leviticus, followed by commentary from Rashi and Nachmanides which addresses the relationship of holiness and separateness. (The Wikipedia entry on holiness begins with "Holiness means the state of being holy, that is, set apart for the worship or service of [God]...") I have to admit, that's a connotation I'm not crazy about. The religion major in me understands the power of setting apart; the egalitarian ecumenicist in me wants holiness to connect, rather than separating.

For another perspective, check out this essay by Avi Lazerson, which drashes the etymological relationship between holy (kadusha) and harlot (kadasha) in order to argue that God's holiness resides in God's un-bounded-ness. God exists beyond boundaries, as harlots exist beyond social conventions.

Okay, enough about what the tradition means by holiness; what do I mean by it?

For the last ten years we've belonged to a local community-supported farm. A couple of summers ago I ran into a minister friend there, who like me was picking his week's share of cherry tomatoes. "This is some of the holiest ground I know," he said. I agreed wholeheartedly. What makes the ground of Caretaker Farm holy? Not its tremendous spiritual/edible abundance, but the precursor to that abundance: the kavvanah (intention) with which it is farmed. I wouldn't rule out that some places may be innately holy, but on the whole I think we make holy places together.

Holiness is something we both make and find. True in our dwelling-places; true in text study. Is Torah inherently holy? Depends on who you ask. I'd say there's some holiness in Torah, and that further holiness accrues through our study. Holiness is that which aligns us with God.  (Here, as always, I'm using "God" as shorthand. I'll try to explain what I mean by "God" another day; "holiness" is proving slippery enough!) As it is written in Etz Hayim, "The Torah is holy not only because it comes from God but because it leads to God."

We're instructed to be holy as our God is holy. So how is God holy? God is fundamentally whole; God is aligned with righteousness; God balances this and that, yin and yang, mercy and judgement, with perfect equanimity. Are we capable of that? Maybe not, but it seems worth trying. To me, that's at the heart of the instruction to be a holy community unto God. As this commentary argues, holiness is an essentially communal phenomenon. We're supposed to work together at creating and embodying wholeness. The goal may be impossible, but the journey is worth the work.

The people I know who strike me as holy are engaged in that. Though some of them happen to be rabbis or ministers, senseis or roshis, what makes them holy in my eyes is not their rank or ordination but how fully present they are in every interaction. They know who they are and where they're going. They're deliberate, focused, and awake. They're doing the important work of improving creation.

And that's part of why I have no trouble believing simultaneously that Torah was written down by people, and that there's holiness to be found in studying it. Working righteously with kavvanah, mindful of our Source and our ideals for ourselves, makes holiness: in people, in places, in texts. Holiness may be one of God's essential qualities, but through the choices we make in our lives, we can also make it our own.

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