Quick: if I ask you to think of something holy, what comes to mind?
I am going to guess that you thought of something religious, something that is deeply embedded with meaning by those who are believers in the tradition, the Holy grail, the Torah, a church, Mecca, maybe the Pope.
Did you think about that time when you gave tzedakah (charity)? Did you think of that time when you judged someone fairly, paid someone on time, or when you showed respect for an older person or welcomed a stranger?
This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, weaves together religions rites and social behavior as it lays before us a path towards holiness. According to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, self-transcendence is when the sense of self melts away, and we feel uplifted, elevated. Could this be what the Torah means to be holy, to find transcendence, to surpass the self and feel connected beyond one’s own personal boundaries?
Where or when do you experience transcendence? In nature? Listening to music? In Art? In love? I often experience transcendence in deep connections with other people: in the moments of pride and joy that I experience with my children and my family, in moments of witnessing, receiving or giving empathy, compassion, and generosity, when sharing stories with a good friend. I experience it whenever I can let go of my self-consciousness to move or be moved by others.
In the Torah, the secular, and the sacred actions that might invite transcendence or move us in that direction have not yet been separated into those different spheres of life. By intermingling many different types of human experience under the heading of becoming a holy people, the Torah also opens the possibilities for all kinds of ways that we may experience holiness and transcendence.
The Hebrew Kedoshim, a plural word, implies a community of holy people. The plurality of the word also suggests that we all have the capacity to be holy. Recently, I have been reflecting on the way we live, so separate in our individual homes, with our own orbits, and how we live not connected to many other people at all. We see people as we go about our daily business, but when do we really connect? We are so busy working, and doing activities, when do we take time to invest in building connections with each other? How often do we say to each other that we should get together, but then don’t find the time. And, subsequently, when we could use a friend, support or help from each other, we don’t know how to ask, or how to engage in providing support.
In this Torah portion, religious rites and ethical behavior are both necessary for becoming a holy people. If we open the term holy to mean those moments of spiritual uplift, of self-transcendence, then how do we pursue a life that gives us those opportunities?
Perhaps, it can be useful for us once in a while to collapse our definitions of secular and religious, to move forward not with the linguistic labels for categorizing experience or defining our feelings and actions, but with an openness to experience without language naming it and interpreting it for us.
Perhaps as we read the moral code embedded in this chapter, we can view it as a compass for directing us towards moments of self-transcendence, of something holy. Maybe if we do so, we can find each other and build a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.