2016-06-30
Let's say you have a leaky faucet, and you call a plumber to come and fix it. The plumber arrives, fixes your faucet, and gives you a bill. You gratefully write out a check and hand it to the plumber. Do you feel holy? Probably not. It would most likely surprise you to discover that this is exactly how this week's Torah portion evaluates your behavior in this situation.

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When is the last time you felt holy? Happy? Yes. Busy? Yes. Excited? Yes. Even deeply moved? Yes. But holy? Take a moment and think about it: Was it last week, last month, last year--perhaps never? For us, such times are rare indeed. In our culture, "holiness" is reserved for someone else, usually a religious leader like Mother Teresa who devotes her whole life to helping others. We don't tend to think of our own lives, our own experiences, as holy.

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.

According to Shulweis, the most important part of prayer is not so much about praising the transcendent nature of God, but about emphasizing for ourselves which godly behaviors are spiritual and holy. Prayer is a lesson in how to live in a godly way, not just at rare moments, but as we live our day-to-day normal lives, even when we write a check to the plumber or auto mechanic.

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The Torah spells out this philosophy in Deuteronomy 30:11-14: "The commandments I command this day are not extraordinary, not far away, they are not in the heavens.... Not across the sea, rather the instruction is very near, in your mouth and in your heart."

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.


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