We often think of scrolls, clergy and the synagogue as physical representations of the realm of holiness in the Jewish conception. But is the work of all Jewish communal leadership holy? Is there anything that we can do — those in leadership and those in the community — to achieve an ultimate sense of holiness among us? In searching for a compelling Jewish notion for the holy — the emphasis of this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot — let’s appraise several approaches of leadership that encourages holiness to bloom.
Communal ethics. Holiness is foremost about community. Jewish law requires a minyan for prayers concerned with specific holiness. It is not only about giving to others, but also seeing value in all others. Moshe tells the people: “vli’hi’otkhah am kadosh l’Hashem Elokekhah” - That we be a holy nation to the Lord (Deuteronomy 26:19). There is an individual ethic as well, of course: “Kedoshim ti’hiyu” - You shall be holy (Leviticus 19:2). This latter point is a mandate that each individual should be a holy nation through emulating God’s ways.
Separatism and asceticism. For Ramban and Rashi, holiness is more individualistic, concerned with separatism and asceticism. For Ramban, attaining holiness is about going beyond the letter of the law and avoiding excesses. Holiness as asceticism goes further. The Vilna Gaon was the exemplar of the concept of “pat bemelach tochal,” that one should subsist on bread and salt. Here we might ask ourselves where materialism outshines our spiritual and intellectual pursuits in our lives.
Coming close to the other. For others, holiness simply means anything having to do with encountering the other or the ultimate Other. In the human realm, the late philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes: “Holiness represents the moment at which, in the human…the concern for the other breaches concern for the self.” For Chassidim and Kabbalists, many rabbis were known as HaKadosh (the holy one), since they achieved a spiritual and cognitive level closest to the Divine (as compared to other approaches of holiness dealing with the behavioral realm).
Holiness for its own sake. It has been claimed by some that the land of Israel is essentially holy, and thus the Jews must fully own and possess it. Others argue the opposite: that because the land is holy, it is God’s and no person or group can ever fully take ownership of it; holiness cannot be a made into a commodity. Rather the holy is good for its own sake, not to achieve some other benefit. For example, Jewish law says that one cannot pass through a synagogue because it is a faster route. The holy is an end in itself, not an instrument for quick satisfaction or material fulfillment.
None of these models are mutually exclusive; we may or may not buy into them. Yet we could favor aspects of these approaches if our community is to thrive for generations to come. All in the community have a unique purpose and a way to contribute to building the holiness of shared values through partnership. A call to action for the leaders in this community is this: Embrace the “meta-holiness” and provide the space necessary for a synthesis of different approaches of holiness. Whether one is a rabbi, educator, director, philanthropist, academic, social worker or volunteer, one nurtures a system that enables the actualization of holy potential; leadership actualizes a role of meta-holiness.
While we should strive to live as individuals along the holy path and contribute to holy communities as we see fit, we can also play a role of actualizing meta-holiness, providing others the opportunities to think, grow and have an impact. This is perhaps the pinnacle of holiness when we embrace humility to create spaces for meaningful holy expressions that allows everyone to spread their wings and soar. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.