(Wayikra 19:1 – 20:27)
Miriam Klimova Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and Rabbi at the “Shirat ha-Yam” congregation in Haifa.
Imagine a perfect morning: the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the singing of spring birds outside the window. You open the door to your apartment, you grab a fresh newspaper brought by the mailman already before dawn, you sit at the table, the paper rustles nicely as you open it and you read the latest news. And suddenly it becomes obvious – a perfect world doesn’t exist, and there are no perfect people…
Similarly we open our weekly Torah chapter.
We see that it begins with a surprising commandment: kdoshim tihju, “You shall be holy!”, but right away we face a difficult question – how can humans be holy?! If being holy requires us to become perfect, then most probably this has nothing in common with the reality which surrounds us.
Parashat Kdoshim forces us to reflect on what holiness is. Is it a certain emotion, or an experience, or maybe you need to be born “holy”?
The commandment to sanctify oneself and to be holy appears in many places in the TaNaCh and it usually refers to sanctifying yourself from something or to making someone holy. For example in II Samuel 11:4: “for she was sanctified from her uncleanness”; in the Book of Joshua: “sanctify the people”. We know the commandment to sanctify the name of God, we also make the Shabbat holy. So the concept of “holiness” has different definitions.
One of the most famous researchers of this concept is Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher and theologist, who wrote a famous book entitled “The Idea of the Holy”, in which he tried to define this concept and the way in which holiness is experienced by humans. Being a protestant theologist, he was worried by the tendency of liberals to reduce religion to ethics. He was trying to prove that there is a religious element in human nature which is inherently independent from the ethical element. It is a part of ourselves which reacts to that which is mysterious and surprising, to the reality which is both stunning and fascinating, which cannot be neither appropriately understood nor rationally explained. According to Otto the word “holy” and its counterparts point to a sense of a “mysterious” divine reality which evokes fear, respect and humility. This feeling in its simplest and most primitive form is terrifying, shocking and horrifying. In his opinion holiness is a combination of two forces: fear of the sublime character of this thing, and also a longing to draw close to it.
Others describe holiness as a sublime and highest dimension transcending reality. Perhaps there is some truth in these definitions, but it’s difficult to combine them with the commandment “you shall be holy” – here and now!
The commandment “you shall be holy” also states a reason for it: “for I, your God, am holy.” Holiness is an attribute of God, and therefore we must understand how a physical person can be close to the One who doesn’t have any flaws?!
I suggest that we look for an answer in the words of Midrash Avot de-Rabi Natan 27:
“Rabbi Tarfon taught: Do not keep away from a measurement without boundaries, or from work without end. A parable: To what can this be compared?… to someone who is supposed to take water from the sea and put it on dry land. The sea gets no smaller and the land is not filled up with water. So he becomes frustrated. Say to such a person, Empty one! Why are you so frustrated? Every day you are paid a golden dinar!”
Seeking that which is unreachable can be a means to achieving it. The distance between the sublime perfectness of God and our earthly limitations is infinite just like the waters of the sea, but the Torah encourages us to strive to reduce this distance.
The key to understanding the concept of holiness in Judaism is the statement that the path to reaching holiness is following the path showed by God. In Rabbinic literature we find many ways through which one can achieve closeness to God and thereby become a holy person:
“וכי אפשר לאדם להלך אחר השכינה? אלא להלך אחר מידותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא: מה הוא מלביש ערומים – אף אתה הלבש ערומים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ביקר חולים – אף אתה בקר חולים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ניחם אבלים – אף אתה נחם אבלים; הקדוש ברוך הוא קבר מתים – אף אתה קבור מתים” – (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת סוטה דף יד)
“But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothes the naked, so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, so too, should you bury the dead.” – Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, 14.
Humans can be holy when they walk the paths of God, when they do good deeds for others and when they work towards the existence of the world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that several verses later we find another well-known and often quoted commandment:
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ…
“Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”
In Judaism holiness is not an experience, it’s not an emotion, and you don’t have to be born holy. In Judaism holiness – is an action!
So let’s go back to the perfect morning: again, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, birds singing, a newspaper, the latest news… and suddenly it becomes clear: the world needs holiness, your holiness!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
 English translation according to the Polish version [translator’s note].