In chapter 21 of Leviticus we read, regarding the Kohanim (Priests):
They shall be holy (Kedoshim) to their God and not profane (Lo Yechalelu) the name of their God; for they offer Adonai’s offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy. (Lev. 21:6)
Similar language is found in chapter 22, where we read, regarding the Israelite people as a whole:
You shall not profane My holy name (Techalelu), that I may be sanctified (VeNikdashti) in the midst of the Israelite people—I, Adonai, who sanctifies you… (Lev. 22:32)
These words might remind us of the famous language of the Holiness Code of Parashat Kedoshim, where we read:
You shall be holy (Kedoshim Yihiyu), for I, Adonai your God, am holy… (Lev. 19:2).
Part of this discussion will be the precise meaning of the word “Kadosh.” We usually translate it as “holy,” but what does that mean anyway? Also, our translation is also missing a certain kind of magnitude other words might offer.
For now, let’s recognize a significant difference in the language of our week’s verses. We are prohibited from being the opposite of Kadosh. The Hebrew word for the opposite of Kadosh is “Chol,” what Emil Durkheim and Max Weber (among others) called “the profane.” In the last blessing of the Havdalah ceremony, we bless God for being
HaMavdil Bein Kodesh LeChol / the One who makes the difference between Kodesh and Chol.”
And so, whatever it means to be Kadosh, it is the difference between God’s involvement and God’s non-involvement, perhaps also the difference between God’s Presence and God’s absence…
Let’s now look at the word “Kadosh.” Even if we translate it as “holy” it remains ambiguous. How does a person actualize holiness? Given the wide range of biblical rules that utilize the language of Kodesh and Chol, there are far-reaching implications in our day-to-day activities. Therefore, the way to more fully understand these terms is to examine the impact of their related actions.
Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, France) translates Kadosh as “separate” – ie., the command to be holy is a command to be distinct from others. According to this understanding, Jews keep Kosher in order to be different, and thereby identifiable to others and to ourselves. Interestingly enough, Kadosh is also used by partners, as they become covenanted under the wedding Chuppah by reciting the ancient formula:
Harei At/Atah Mekudeshet/Mekudash Li. (Behold, you are holy to me.)
The same word that Rashi translates as separateness also points to intimate connection when used in a wedding ritual.
The most satisfying translation of Kadosh I’ve heard comes from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who teaches that the term means “intense.” Following this approach, the command to be Kadosh is the call to live an intense life. A powerful “proof” for this meaning is the description of God found in Isaiah Chapter 6, which we recite during the Amidah – we rise up on our feet and call out that God is
Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Three times intensity! God, according to this interpretation, is the most intense experience there is. And we are Godly when we imbue acts with intensity, when we elevate our actions, reaching toward the Source of Intensity.
It might also be instructive to name a few conventionally used antonyms for Kadosh, like “impure,” “profane,” and “ordinary.”
The difference between Kodesh and Chol is God and the definition of a Kodesh act is the doer’s intention to connect with God, to elevate this earthly dimension into contact with the next, to transcend mundane activity, to intensify the ordinary.
Here’s where the conversation can get ticklish for some: If the difference between an act being Kadosh or Chol is the the doer’s commitment to living intensely, then we are in a precarious position vis a vis Jewish law. Intention can take many forms. Why conform to traditional rules if any act can potentially be holy? Furthermore, there are intensely bad things in this world.
It is therefore crucial to place a qualifying condition on our working definition: Kedusha can only be found in that which creates, not within that which destroys. To choose the Jewish way is to choose life. Every time.
Let’s apply our definition of Kodesh and Chol to some everyday things, beginning with simpler ideas and ending in more complicated territory.
- A flame can be used to destroy. Or it can be connected to God by sanctifying moments in time.
- A hand can hang at a person’s side. Or it can be used as a weapon. Or it can be connected to God by elevating someone else’s life.
- A piece of cloth can be used as a rag. Or it can clothe someone. Or it can be connected to God by being elevated into a Tallit.
- A car can be an ordinary thing. Or it can be a vehicle of connection to God. Not only through the obviously acceptable use of driving someone to the doctor, a mitzvah beyond compare, but a more common usage: Driving to shul.
I’ll say it in one sentence: If you drive to shul on Shabbat or a holiday, then the key that starts the ignition should be no different to you, and in the eyes of Jewish tradition, than the Tallit you will put on once you arrive.
(Most American synagogues have made clear statements about driving to shul on Shabbat and Holidays by opening their parking lots on those days.)
Yes, if someone were to ask me, as they were preparing to buy a home, what should influence their decision, I would indicate that they should live within walking distance of the shul.
If I believe that I am supposed to go to shul, and I have no choice but to drive (yes, a highly subjective decision), then how should I consider the act of driving? What is the act of placing the key into the ignition? A step towards Jewish community and a step towards God! What is the act of placing a tallit upon my shoulders? A step towards community and a step towards God!
Perhaps the difference is that we haven’t focused on all of our acts equally. We haven’t consistently imbued ordinary (chol) acts with the creative intensity of Kedusha!
Years ago, upon sharing similar thoughts to these, I was lovingly and respectfully confronted by a shul member who disagreed and proceeded to tell me that he drives to shul every Shabbat, but that he isn’t a pious person. “Don’t call me a tzaddik, rabbi” he said to me. I acknowledged where he was coming from and tried to show him how he appears in my eyes – he comes to shul every Shabbat! He davens! He gives of himself to adults and to children by his very presence! He is a gift to others and strengthens his Jewish community by just showing up!
What is the definition of piety, of holiness, of Kedusha? – connection to God.
This might be a difficult topic for those who do not drive to shul on Shabbat, but it is crucial. How can we look at holy people gathered together to celebrate or comfort or learn and see anything other than a place where “Nikdashti,” where the gift of God’s Presence is made even more intense?