Growing up, there was a way in which I always felt excluded from holy things. There was the holy: blessed water, sacred oil, priestly blessings, consecrated priests, pilgrimage sites, religious buildings and communion to name a few and then there was everything else including me. Yet, I was a good kid who always (or almost always) did as I was told. Doing good works is not contrary to a Catholic childhood or education. In fact, it is an integral part of Catholicism, but there is also a competing notion that good works are in a different ontological category from holiness. While goodness merits salvation, salvation is not connected to being holy. Holiness was granted; salvation was earned. In addition, holiness also seemed more distant because men had more access to holiness than women did. Only men could be ordained and priests consecrate the Eucharist, celebrate the sacraments and bless people and things. These are all holy things and the closer one interacts with holiness, the more holiness is bound to transfer onto the person coming into contact with them.
The same cannot be said about the Jewish concept of holiness and I think this childhood exclusion from the holy is part of why I am so drawn to the Torah concept of kadosh, holy in Hebrew. In the Torah, it comes from two events: the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the subsequent giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Because G-d freed the Israelites from slavery and they accepted the covenant at Sinai, G-d expects certain choices, actions and behavior.
Imagine the covenant between G-d and humans as a path, perhaps like the one our ancestors took through the desert. G-d, through liberating action, set the Israelites on their way. Now Israel could lead holy lives because it had a clear relationship with G-d who is holy as Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:2 says, “Speak to the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy for I the LORD you G-d am holy.”
Yet, those first Israelites didn’t really get it, did they? They didn’t really understand what following G-d’s ways entailed. They worshipped golden calves. They messed up. Nonetheless, while they were not allowed entry into the land promised to them by G-d, they were still on G-d’s holy path.
What are the requirements of walking this path with G-d? Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:17-18 says “You must diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your G-d and G-d’s decrees and the statutes G-d has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, so that it may go well with you, and so you may go in and occupy the good land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you.” Another quote that sets a path before us is Micah 6:8 which reads, “G-d has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” Accepting the covenant with G-d requires doing, requires action, requires responses orientated toward justice, loving-kindness and righteousness. There is a high value placed on responsibility to do the right thing.
But what does it mean to say G-d is holy? What does it mean to be holy like G-d? What exactly is holiness?
As we have already seen, holiness requires action. One could even say that part of the reason G-d is holy is because G-d acts, and our covenant with G-d requires action of us. For example, most of the Torah commandments have to do with how one treats other people. Even the aseret ha’dibrot (the Ten Commandments) are more preoccupied with how the Israelites should treat each other than how they should treat G-d. Throughout scripture, there is a common refrain orientated towards justice and care for those on the fringes of society: the poor, widows, orphans and strangers. There is something more than just commandment observance required of us. We must fix the world as well.
This brings to mind the most admired person in Judaism, the tzadik/tzadeket (masculine/feminine forms) whose name comes from tzedakah, צדקה, the Hebrew word for justice. The just person is both wise and holy. However, the tzadik/tzadeket does more than just follow the commandments, or mitzvot in Hebrew. She or he is a role model of justice, wisdom and action in accordance with tikkun olam, repairing the world.
From the example of the tzadik/tzadeket, it is clear that for Judaism there is a close connection between justice, wisdom and holiness. While there are pillars of righteousness, holiness is still attainable for the rest of us. After all, the covenant was made with the whole of Israel present, even those who were not alive yet. Holiness is accessible to all just as G-d is accessible to all.
In many ways, we are still a people wandering in the desert but it’s clear we have a path to follow. This path requires not only action but attention, awareness and purposeful intent to stay on track. That is what I think G-d is really asking of us when we are commanded to observe the mitzvot as well as repair the world. Pay attention to humanity and care for it. Follow my example and liberate those in slavery. Give rights to those who don’t have them. Feed the hungry as I fed you with manna in the wilderness. Protect those who are too weak or too powerless to protect themselves as I did when I heard your cries in Egypt. Make peace as I made peace in the heavens. Comfort the scared and downtrodden as I did when I made myself present to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness through pillars of clouds and fire. Be holy as I am holy says G-d and I made you in my image, b’tzelem Elohim.
Envisioning holiness as a path means that everyone has one but, as unique individuals, all of our paths are different. For some, the path may consist of full Torah observance. For others, social justice concerns alone will mark the trail. Some may take the scenic route through the trees. Some may journey further down their path and some may never make it more than a few steps on theirs, but all of G-d’s people walk on the path of holiness. Each one of us is made in the image of G-d who is holy and therefore we can live holy lives. Who are we to judge the paths of others? G-d gave each a little bit of G-d’s holiness, our divine spark, when we were created in G-d’s image, and we all have the potential for more holiness as we combine who we are with our actions of tikkun olam. Adding more holiness to our lives requires a response from us and a commitment to repair the world through just and wise actions. We are capable of doing the right thing. We just have to choose to do it.
May we all have the strength each and every day to walk humbly with our G-d performing acts filled with loving-kindness, justice and wisdom, repairing the world along the way. May we be the holy people we were born to be and the holy people we chose to be at Mount Sinai. To which we all say: Amen.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).