Holiness is a goal, not a given

Rabbi Davidson

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we witness a type of politics to which we American Jews have become accustomed. You see, Korach feels that Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership has become entrenched, that it is rife with elitism and nepotism and that it is insulated from the general population whom they lead. 

Moses and Aaron, as part of the establishment, in Korach’s opinion, have become stale and out of touch and, as a relative outsider, Korach and his band feel that he is more qualified to assume the role of leader. In order to make his case, to demonstrate the entrenchment, the elitism and the insulation of Moses and Aaron, Korach declares to Moses, Aaron and to the entire peopled, “You have gone too far, for all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)

In order to counter the elitism of 

Moses and Aaron, Korach makes a populist argument. All of the people are holy, each and every one of them, not just you two!”

As noted in his commentary on this verse, Yshayahu Leibowitz sees in this statement of universal holiness something that is antithetical to the spirit of Torah and of Judaism. In the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, as Chapter 19 (vs. 2) begins, we read, “You will be holy,” not “You are holy.” Holiness is an aspiration, a goal, not a state of being conferred upon an individual or a people. Following the statement that “you will be holy” is a list of actions that one can take to become holy. Without taking these and other actions prescribed by our Torah and the rabbinic tradition that comes out of it, one is not holy.

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What, after all, is the meaning of the word “holy?” What constitutes holiness? The root   in Hebrew means set apart, special, separate. Whenever it is used in Torah or by the rabbis, it is an active verb, noun or adjective, not passive. 

For example, the Shabbat is Kadosh only if we make it so; otherwise, it is just another day of the week. By reciting Kiddush, which itself means sanctification and by changing our behavior and refraining from work, we set Shabbat apart from the rest of the weekdays. We make it special and separate, a day unto itself, unlike any other during the week.

In the language of Judaism, marriage is called Kiddushin, a word that comes 

from that same root. As all of us who have been married for some time know, that holy, special relationship between two people is not conferred on them from above. Rather, it is an active pursuit on the part of each partner and of them together to set the relationship apart from any others into which they may enter, either separately or as a couple. Their relationship is Kiddushin so long as they make it so, so long as they continue to live up to the mutual responsibilities that they have taken on themselves as a married couple, and not just two people sharing living space.

So it is with the Jewish people. While it is true that we often call upon our Yichus, our connection with our ancestors, it alone does not make us an Am Kadosh, a holy people, nor does it confer holiness upon us as individuals. We are not holy; we take holy actions that then set us apart, which then distinguish us from other people. 

In the Conservative movement, actions such as Kashrut, adherence to a special diet, a holy diet, as it were; observance of Shabbat and Holy Days, days set apart each week and each season, distinguished from all other days of the week or year;  thrice-daily communal prayer during which we connect with the Holy One and with one another in a special manner; and study of Torah, our unique heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation and serves as the very foundation of all that we do to attain a state of Kedushah or holiness – these are representative of the actions that one takes in order to aspire to become Kadosh, holy. 

Korach argues from a position of complacency, Leibowitz says, not from a position of challenge. Korach makes holiness a state of being, not a desired state reflecting action and will. In appealing to a certain populist mentality, he is oversimplifying the concept of holiness. Holiness is not genetic. Holiness is in the here and now and in all that we do now and into the future.

Korach misleads those who follow him into believing that they are holy because of who they are. While every human being is unique and, therefore, holy, there is more to the type of holiness to which Korach alludes in his declaration that the community, all of them, are holy. 

Korach’s agenda is clear: He is out to unseat Moses and Aaron. After that, he has no constructive plan other than to install himself as the new leader. While Moses and Aaron are attempting to inculcate holiness into the lives of each and every one of the people, Korach does not see that as a priority. 

Korach’s argument appeals to many precisely because it asks so little of them. If we are already holy, then we do not have to live with 613 obligations to fulfill daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually or over the course of lifetime. Korach’s argument is seductive but also seditious, for it takes away all aspirations toward achieving a level of holiness. It is content with the Yichus of the past.

It is not that we are a holy people, but that we are always becoming one, through the observance of Mitzvot and through adherence to values that truly set the Jewish people apart from all other people. In the end, as you know, Korach and his band are buried beneath the earth. Their way is destined to be a dead end for our people. 

Moses and Aaron, on the other hand, continue to teach, to model and to promulgate an active Judaism and a life of holy actions leading to a life that is holy. 

Shabbat Shalom!