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On holiness, etc.


If you want to skip my meanderings about holiness, Hebrew, and the dictionary, you can click straight through to poetry: here. Otherwise….

In the last handful of weeks, we’ve read about the fiery deaths of Nadav & Avihu at the hand of God; a warning (after the fact) not to drink wine before taking up one’s priestly duties; the rules for kashrut – which creatures to eat and which to stay away from; persons whose nakedness you should not uncover; guidelines for dealing with oozing skin, clothing, and houses; and guidelines for all manner of human messiness – disease, childbirth, menstruation, and sexually-related emission.

This animal: eat! This animal: an abomination. This skin eruption: outside the camp for you! This symptom: you’re okay, come a little closer. There’s a whole lot of either/or, this/that. This Shabbat, the ante is upped. First we are instructed in the ritual of communal atonement: slaughter one goat and send another off into the wilderness laden with Israelite sins. Two goats, two fates. Also, here’s a more or less complete list of folks whose nakedness you are forbidden (and by inference, allowed) to uncover, and the Holiness Code, God’s many-versed proclamation on how to live a holy life with everything from theft to bestiality to ghosts (no, no, and no).

So what is holiness, this type of people God would like us to be?

Merriam-Webster defines holy as “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” Good and righteous. Pure. Venerated or sacred. This is the meaning we usually have in mind. We speak of holy people, holy times of the year, holy community – all having to do with that which is somehow above the ordinary. Shabbat is holy time, cleansing the dead before burial is holy work, the Torah is our holy book. (Gang, I’m not sure what to make of holy mackerel or holy smoke.)

But this widely accepted translation of the Hebrew qadosh comes from the old English halig or hol, meaning whole. Healthy, free of defect, entire and one. Unbroken: like the recovered leper or the house once covered with scales and blotches. However, in Hebrew the word for whole is shalaim, akin to peace (shalom) and paying one’s bill (m’shalaim).  The several words relating to health are a whole other matter, and righteousness – that’s the word tzadik, related to the Hebrew for justice, wise person, charity, and the verb “to-be-right.” Exalted in Hebrew is related to hallelujah. Goodness comes from the same root as okay.

So. I’ve spent the better part of the morning trying to discern from whence comes qadosh. Good and righteous, sacred and exalted – yes – but there’s a hidden ingredient the scholars agree on, though they don’t tell me linguistically why: separation. Holiness has to do with separating the exalted (hallelujah!) from the mundane, the proper from the improper. The whole world, it seems, is not whole – but rather, divided into yes and no. Everything, every moment in life, becomes a choice. We can behave like the rabble or we can live up to Divine expectation as we understand it.

This – and I’m getting to the end here – is all well and good, but inherent in such a system is our division, our separation, not just of our higher and lower selves (however loosely defined), but also from other peoples. From such a system can come the belief  that our way of living is qadosh, holy, and the way of those others is not. That we’re the one and only chosen, even if destined – of course – to fail over and over at behaving like the holy people we are meant to be. Generally speaking, I’m in favor of moral guidelines and right living – I’m just a tad uncomfortable that a) our way is the way and b) that these criteria are the criteria. Read the code and decide for yourself.

I tried to work some of this out in Holiness for Moderns. It may raise more questions than it settles, but what’s a poor confused poet to do but dump some more words out into the universe?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria permalink
    04/19/2010 7:48 pm

    I’m with you on this; I have the same concerns.

  2. judith rose permalink
    04/20/2010 4:54 pm

    Holiness for moderns is one of your very best! this weeks portion and the past few weeks are so black and white – I crave some gray. all these rules that end with “I am the Lord your God’ seem so intimidating – where is individual choice? As usual, whatever I am reading seems to fit right in to the weekly portion. currently reading Chutzpah by Alan Derschowitz – and he speaks a great deal about the evolution of halacha — and how in order to keep judaism alive – and those born jews from rejecting judaism – we must make it somehow ‘alright’ to pick and choose which rules are important; while still at the same time making it alright for others to follow all the rules with no questions. we are an unruly rabble.

  3. sue swartz permalink*
    04/20/2010 7:48 pm

    We ARE an unruly rabble – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even as it is oh so confusing… Thanks for the compliment on the poem. I kinda like it myself.

  4. Aviva permalink
    04/22/2010 7:12 am

    Great post!

    I think qadosh doesn’t ust mean separate, but set aside designated, as in the speial parts of first fruits etc that were designated for the temple. So for me the aspect that is most important isn’t the rigid rule following (no wool with linen! no sex during your perioid!) but the separatateness of designated time and activity. It’s the intentionality of setting things aside and making them special and different.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      04/22/2010 8:46 am

      Yes, yes, the intentionality matters. Certainly to us moderns – and for many of the commentators over the centuries. But I gotta believe that the text was actually serious about acceptable/abomination in the literal sense as well. There’s always something behind the metaphor.

      Anyway, I looked up the Hebrew root for separate – also entirely different from qadosh. No clues there. Perhaps holy is holy is holy.

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