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Who is holy?

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Who is holy? Is it the mystic in the mountains, the monk in the monastery, or the guru in the garage? Perhaps it’s the lady with the crystal ball or the meditating yogi?

People today have fallen in love with spirituality, mysticism and Kabbalah. Great! I’ve given lots of lectures on Kabbalah myself. Judaism is certainly rich in spirituality, and the mystical perspective helps us to a deeper understanding of our faith and its practice. But how would Judaism define “holy”? Must one be a mystic to be holy?

The parshah of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20), begins with the injunction, “You shall be holy.” Then it launches into a litany of biblical laws from religious to ethical – respecting parents; elders; charity to the poor; honesty in business; observing the Shabbat; not dabbling in the occult; the famous “love thy neighbour”; not taking revenge; the forbidden relationships – all kinds of things that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with becoming spiritual.

So it seems clear from our parshah that though we do most definitely believe in the spiritual component of Judaism, the road to holiness isn’t so much ethereal or otherworldly but practical and pragmatic. Holiness is to be found more in the ordinary everyday things we do or don’t do than in mantras and metaphysics. Self-restraint, discipline, honesty, decency, doing the right thing – these are the things that can lead us to holiness. You don’t need a guru with a guitar, séances, incense, or even long, flowing robes. You need to be a mensch, control your passions, and behave correctly. And that, as opposed to all the spooky stuff, is what constitutes holiness.

At the end of the day, the Torah is telling us to be different from those around us. Whether it was the Egyptians and Canaanites of old or the hedonists and sensualists of today, the message is the same. Holiness means distinctiveness. A Jew must march to a different beat. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world is doing. We’re a people apart.

Our differentness is expressed in many ways. The same parshah that reminds us to keep Shabbat also cautions us to keep honest weights and measures in our shop, not to lie, to pay our employees on time, and not to gossip.

The same parshah that declares boldly, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” also warns us not to get too lovey-dovey with everyone – not with your daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, father’s wife, anyone else’s wife, and so on.

Yes, I do think there’s something pretty holy about a young couple exercising self-discipline and waiting patiently until their chuppah to express their love for one another. It shows character, nobility, and I have no doubt that they will confirm that it was worth waiting for. Yes, I think married couples who work hard to keep their marriages and family life intact, even though it may sometimes be difficult, are acting in a G-dly manner. That, too, is holy.

Far be it from me to make light of holy men and miracle workers. I’m a great believer. But before we run to faith healers or buy red strings and holy water, perhaps we ought to consult the Torah and try the bread-and-butter stuff of Judaism first. Let us live with honesty, integrity, respect, honour, dignity and discipline. Then we’ll be holy.

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