This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, proclaims a different cultural norm. It begins, "Be holy (kedoshim), because I, Adonai your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). That God is holy is fairly self-evident, but how does that make us holy? According to Torah, we are created in the image of God, b'tzelem Elohim (Genesis 1:26). In Jewish tradition, being created in "the image of God" doesn't refer to a physical likeness, but rather a moral possibility. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the doctrine of imitatio dei, that God is a role model for human behavior. Thus when God sends angels to visit Abraham after his circumcision, this is a sign that it is holy for us to visit the sick. Jewish theology believes that we approach God not only through meditation, faith, and study but through godly moral acts. Being holy is largely about how we treat other people.
Rabbi Harold Shulweis expands this concept of actively emulating God to all of Jewish liturgy. He maintains that when we recite the prayer "Oseh Shalom," praising God who makes peace, what we are really saying is that the act of making peace is godly, or sacred. When we pray that God is just, we know that justice is holy. Shulweis calls this theological insight "predicate theology," meaning that the most important part of prayer is our description of what is godly, the predicate rather than the subject of the prayer.
This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, is the how-to handbook for the religious concepts of imitatio dei and predicate theology. It teaches that we mere human beings are holy because God is holy, and that we find our holiness through performing godly acts. But the godly acts described in Kedoshim aren't superhuman. Holiness consists of ordinary everyday godly acts, such as taking care of our families or looking after the rights of the poor and strangers. Choosing honesty and truth--that's godly. Paying workers, treating disabled people with respect, refraining from malicious gossip--that's holy. Honoring elders, taking time for study and reflection, forgiveness--that's sacred.
In our society, we imagine that only other people are holy. They live in faraway places and are fundamentally different from us. In this way, we distance ourselves from both the responsibilities and the joys of the sacred. We distance ourselves from our own identification with God. But the Torah teaches that you don't have to be Pope John Paul II or the Dalai Lama to be holy. God--or at least the experience of Godlike holiness--is available to all of us in the most mundane of acts.
Holiness is a spiritual discipline but one that is available to us at any moment. It is more a matter of mindfulness than dramatic behavioral change. So next time you take a walk on Saturday instead of doing errands, remind yourself that you are doing something sacred. When you say something good about another person, or even just greet a stranger at a meeting or party, appreciate your spiritual feelings. And next time you have a leaky faucet fixed, as you pay the plumber, take a moment to appreciate that you are both holy.