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Elusive Holiness

May 9, 2009 | by Lawrence Kelemen

Curtailing materialism can raise you to spiritual heights.

At Mount Sinai, when God first hinted to us what it would be like to live Torah lives, He promised: "You will be a kingdom of priests and a goy kadosh -- a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

Now, 3,300 years later, what adjectives most accurately describe our daily experience? Many might sum up their existential reality with terms like "harried" and "pressured." A few might describe their lives as generally "joyous" or "fulfilling." A tiny minority might go so far as to say that their lives are often "moral" or even "heroic."

But how many of us feel that significant chunks of our existence are kadosh -- holy? Is it possible that we unknowingly live lives of kedusha -- holiness, or are we a generation that has begun to lose contact with the very essence of what it means to be a Jew?


What exactly is kedusha, holiness? A superficial survey of Talmudic sources lends the impression that kedusha is the opposite of tuma -- spiritual impurity. However, this does not clarify matters much since we also feel difficulty defining tuma in any concrete or practical fashion.

Rashi offers an extremely helpful clue to defining both terms. In his commentary on Leviticus 1:1, Rashi reveals that God spoke to the gentile prophets using loshon tuma -- impure language -- but He spoke to Moses using loshon chibah -- affectionate language.

Both chibah -- affection -- and kedusha are the opposite of tuma. Therefore affection and kedusha must be related. Perhaps kedusha is some sort of closeness or intimacy.

Holiness is a state in which there are no distractions.

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (Ramchal) reinforces this impression in his classic, "Path of the Just." He defines kedusha as a state in which a person, "even in the midst of performing those physical acts necessary to sustain his body, never strays from the highest intimacy." According to Ramchal, kedusha is a state in which there are no distractions. It is an experience in which two beings become so fully united that all else is irrelevant. It is the state described by King David, "My soul clings to You" (Psalms 63:9).


If kedusha is intimacy, then its opposite, tuma, would be distance and disconnection. Loshon harah -- speech that destroys relationships -- is inherently tamei, impure, and during biblical times the act of impure speech produced visible leprous lesions requiring quarantine and ritual purification (Leviticus 13).

Similarly, whenever a human ovum or sperm is discharged separately, instead of coming together to form a new unity, there is tuma (Leviticus 15). When body and soul part there is tuma (Numbers 19).

In a comment far deeper than we likely comprehend, the 14th century kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Recanati observed: "Kedusha is the preservation of the unity of the worlds, and tuma is the 'troublemaker who separates close-ones.'"

The reference to a "troublemaker who separates close-ones" is borrowed from Proverbs 16:28, and classical commentaries offer various interpretations. According to Rashi, this is a gossiper who separates himself from God. According to Ibn Ezra, this is one who inspires violence and causes a breakdown in all social relations. According to the Vilna Gaon, this is one who destroys a relationship between a man and his wife. According to all, kedusha is closeness and tuma is distance.


Paradoxically, creating intimacy requires separation. First we must remove all potential barriers between us and our beloved. In Leviticus 20:26, God proposes, "Be My kedoshim, -- My holy ones." Rashi explains: "If you separate yourselves from the other peoples, then you will be Mine."

For marriage, a man draws a woman close through kiddushin, a process which forbids her to all other suitors. According to Ramchal, we take the first step towards personal kedusha by separating ourselves from those physical indulgences that would distract us from the One we love.

Absolute connection requires two surgically sterile surfaces.

The common theme in all these initial steps towards kedusha is the removal of distractions and elimination of interference. Absolute connection requires two surgically sterile surfaces.

Achieving kedusha seems to be a two-step process, however. Ramchal explains: "Its beginning is labor and its end reward; its beginning is exertion and its end a gift. It begins with one sanctifying himself and ends with his being sanctified."

By actively removing distractions, we create a space in our lives for real intimacy. All we can do is prepare the ground. The closeness that is kedusha -- be it between man and God, between human beings, or between body and soul -- the Holy One bequeaths.


It is beginning to become apparent why we might feel a lack of kedusha in our lives. There is not a lot of space for intimacy. There is not a lot of room for closeness. Never has a generation been more bombarded with distractions; with troublemakers who separate close-ones. In a word, with tuma.

Sometimes we allow technology to get in the way of kedusha. Once upon a time, women only had to battle the TV and newspaper for their husbands' attention. Today the Internet holds the attention of all but the most devoted spouses, and Palm Pilots routinely scan the stocks and headlines in the middle of meetings. Cellphones and pagers, ostensibly created to enhance connectivity, follow us into restaurants, the synagogue, and most private quarters of our homes, shattering the intimate moments that make life worth living.

Too often we are so distracted by the chocolate chip cookies that we don't notice who made them for us.

Sometimes we allow food to get in the way of kedusha. We "love" sweet things; we "love" fattening foods. We use that word without realizing the frightening truth it conveys. Too often we are so distracted by the chocolate chip cookies that we don't notice the spouse who made them for us. Too often we are so distracted by the myriad restaurants and products available to us -- and the gustatory experience they promise -- that we don't notice the real Chef behind the banquet.

Often we allow clothing, housing, career, and an endless list of other troublemakers to come between us and real intimacy.

Perhaps a normal Jew living in the 21st century can only experience kedusha by stepping back from these distractions. It is possible that the ancient formula for achieving connection -- "Kedoshim Te'yu, Prushim Te'yu" (through separation you can achieve holiness) -- never deserved more attention than in this most modern of generations.


The sober reality is that we cannot have the best of both worlds. Selfish indulgence raised to the level of addiction interferes with closeness. Those involved in the treatment of alcoholics, narcotics addicts, and compulsive overeaters have long known this.

We need to create more space and time for those whom we want to love. We need to break modernity's mesmerizing stranglehold so that we can refocus on relationships. We don't necessarily have to make sweeping changes in our lifestyle tomorrow. Indeed, almost without exception, real spiritual progress happens in tiny but consistent steps forward. But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by the enticing onslaught of "progress" and expect to focus simultaneously on a significant other.

Real spiritual progress happens in tiny but consistent steps forward.

The pursuit of kedusha doesn't demand that we rid ourselves of cell phones and pagers, although it might require that we turn them off during certain crucial hours every day. If used intelligently, certain technologies - like answering machines and voice-mail services -- can even help create the privacy and quiet necessary for kedusha to flourish.

Breaking our food-fascination doesn't require abandoning Chinese cuisine or Ben & Jerry's, but it might help to limit such indulgences to Shabbat, holidays, and other simchas that help us focus less on the repast and more on God and our loved ones.

Many Jews already concentrate their clothing purchases in the periods around the holidays, and more rigorous adherence to this regimen would free us from ritual puttering around the mall and chronic rifling through clothing catalogs and advertising supplements during the interim months. Although we don't need to walk away from a successful career in order to live a sanctified life, we might need to make room in our professional schedule for prayer, daily Torah learning, and perhaps even dinner with the kids.

This is not an exhaustive or universally applicable list of recommendations; neither can all of these be instituted at once. But we could make it a family custom to take one small, practical step towards kedusha every year, perhaps on Rosh Hashana. The effects of such a custom over a 5- or 10-year period are probably beyond anything we can imagine.


Several years ago a secular, single woman had a Shabbat meal with my family. It was Friday night. She sat very quietly watching us talk, laugh, and sing. At the end of the evening, she turned to me and with burning seriousness asked how I managed to have such warm relationships with my wife and children. Like many people growing up at this point in human history, this woman had never seen kedusha, and it shook her.

The truth is that virtually every Jew has the potential for real kedusha in his or her life. We have Shabbat. We have holidays. During these special times, we do withdraw from distractions and try to focus more on God and family. Kashrut limits our culinary indulgences.

The intricate Torah system creates time and space for closeness. God told us "You will be a kingdom of priests and a goy kadosh", and we often experience the fulfillment of that promise. Now we would just like to experience it a bit more.

If we make a courageous commitment today, perhaps next year we will look back and declare: "Its beginning was labor and its end reward; its beginning was exertion and its end a gift. It began with our sanctifying ourselves and ended with us being sanctified."

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