It’s a word that immediately sets up barriers. We say “holier than thou”, and right away, you’re better than someone else. Is that what “holy” has become, the start of a spitting match?
This week’s parasha (weekly portion of the Torah) in Leviticus is called “Kedoshim” the plural of “kadosh”, holy. The plural part is there, because the chapter starts out with Moses saying to the community, on God’s behalf, “You (pl) will be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy”.
The word, “holy” in Hebrew does mean separate, apart, something or someone that is differentiated from other somethings or someones. In Bible-talk, there is holy space, holy time, holy vessels with which to do holy rituals, holy nations. Holy cow. (Actually, that’s not Biblical; holy goat is, see last week’s portion.)
How did “separate/differentiated” come to be translated as something holy, which to our post-modern minds, implies something spiritual, other-worldly, and not altogether relatable? Well, play along with the next exercise. Wherever you read “holy”, substitute “separate” or “differentiated.” Does that change things?
You all will be separate/differentiated because I, Adonai your God, am separate/differentiated”. You will have separate/differentiated spaces, time, vessels, rituals, and you will be a separate/differentiated nation.
Even now, how can this be good for a community? Isn’t it more “spiritual” to see ourselves as united with others, certainly not better than anyone else?
At this point, I am now reminded of a particular song from “Oklahoma.” For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that I consider Broadway lyrics as much of a source of wisdom as I do Torah text. In the number, “The Cowhand and the Farmer Should be Friends”, Aunt Eller sings, “I don’t say I’m better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good.” And that’s it. Aunt Eller doesn’t say cowboys and farmers have to become each other. No, they stay differentiated and separate, but for the community to become stable and productive, they must respect each other. (We can talk another time about the fact that the composer and lyricist of this show are both Jewish. Coincidence? I think not. I have a lecture about this in fact, but I digress.)
It’s the same way with this chapter of Torah. Very carefully, if somewhat randomly, the Torah sets out ways in which a community and individuals can act in holy ways, distinguishing themselves from other communities and individuals. This is a good thing, because the result of such distinction is respectful co-existence. We read of things like: don’t show deference to either the rich or the poor in court cases, don’t cheat in business, make sure you pay wages when they’re due, leave gleanings at the edges of your fields for the poor and the stranger, and treat the stranger among you as if s/he were a citizen, reminding us that we know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land (i.e, Passover, being slaves in Egypt…it all ties together, doesn’t it?) These are good ideas for any smooth-running, moral society.
But Torah doesn’t stop there; we are also told about ways individuals can act with holiness/differentiation: honor one’s parents (i.e, strive for a peaceful family life), don’t lie to your neighbor, don’t bear grudges, don’t sleep around, and take a break once a week for Shabbat.
Without holiness, life becomes an undifferentiated mush. We need to make distinctions in our lives, and our communities need to be distinctive, so that we may know when we’ve fallen out of sync with the standards that Leviticus has so eloquently set out for us.