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Who is Holy?



Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

People today love spirituality, mysticism, and Kabbalah. Great! 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?”

This week’s Torah reading in Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20) begins with the injunction that you shall be holy. Then it launches into a litany of biblical laws from religious to ethical – respecting parents, elders, charity, 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 not normally associated with becoming spiritual.

It seems clear that while we 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 ordinary everyday things than in mantras and metaphysics. Self-restraint, discipline, honesty, decency, doing the right thing – these are the things that lead us to holiness. You don’t need a guru with a guitar, séances, incense, or long, flowing robes. You need to be a mensch (person of integrity), 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. Holiness means distinctiveness. A Jew must march to a different beat. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world is doing. We are a people apart.

The same Torah that reminds us to keep Shabbos 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 Torah 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, nor anyone else’s wife.

Yes, there is something noble and holy about a young couple exercising self-discipline and waiting patiently until their chuppah in order to express their love for one another. And I have no doubt they will confirm that it was worth waiting for. I think married couples who work hard to keep their marriages and family life intact, as difficult as it may be, 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 try the bread-and-butter stuff of Judaism first. Let’s live with honesty, integrity, respect, honour, dignity, and discipline. Then we’ll be holy.

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