Hi from the Holy Land
Rabbi David Walk
Every year when we get to parshat Kedoshim, we try anew to define 'holy'. I try to say something clever and meaningful, but somehow I usually feel that I've missed the mark. 'Holy' is one of those things that's hard to define, even though we do believe that we recognize it when we encounter it. There are certain people and experiences that have some ineffable quality that we sense is holy, but the term remains difficult to exactly explain. Just yesterday, at the Kotel, one of my students who isn't usually in to praying wanted to know if it would be okay to put on tefilin for the afternoon service. The look on his face during mincha was definitely 'holy'. It's wonderful that we encounter more 'holy' here in Israel than we tend to bump into back in Connecticut. Look, I don't think that I'll get any closer to a definite definition this year, but I hope that I'll contribute something that someone will find 'holy'.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993, the Rav) wrote and spoke a lot about holiness in the context of the individual. The Rav tended to believe that kedusha (holiness) was a result of human activity. 'Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood (Halachic Man, p. 47).' He wrote that even in Israel the 'soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 150).' He wrote about the Lonely Man of Faith and Halachic Man (today I'd feel more comfortable saying Halachic Person, but times and sensibilities are always changing). I often had a bit of a problem with that because in our parsha the holiness seems to be expressed in a context of interaction with others, loving others, not bearing grudges, not bearing tales, etc. However, I recently saw an article in the Tradition Magazine archives by Professor Gerald Blidstein (I saw it recently, but he wrote it in 1989; I'm not always up to date.), in which he discusses the Rav's view of holiness in the context of a community. I'd like to present some of his material with, perhaps, an observation or two of my own.
The Rav asks 'Is the individual an independent, free entity who gives up basic aspects of his sovereignty in order to live within a communal framework or is the reverse true: the individual is born into the the community which invests him with certain rights (Community, 1978)?' Usually when we ask this kind of question the answer is 'both'. In this particular instance the answer is 'neither'. The Rav believed that the community or tzibur transcends the individual and grants certain powers of forgiveness and acceptance before God, but it is 'constituted by virtue of the ontological loneliness' of the individuals in it. Kinneset Yisrael is a metaphysical entity because of the 'complementarity of the individuals' within it. It's the spiritual strivings of the individuals that gives power to the community. 'The Jews who believes in kineset yisrael...hurts with her pain and rejoices in her victories…(and) is the Jew who joins himself as an indestructible link to kineset yisrael of all generations (Al Hateshuva, p. 98).' Rabbi Soloveitchik claims that this eternal connection comes through Torah, which, of course, creates the continuity through its study and eternal message.
Before I get to the point I want to emphasize, I must share one idea about, perhaps, the greatest expression of Jewish community made by the Rav, and that is the majestic speech he delivered in 1956, Kol Dodi Dofek (The Voice of my Beloved Knocks). He stated that there are two models of Jewish existence, one of fate and one of destiny. Fate represents the situation where Jews are victims to the tides of history, and destiny is when we are captains of our fate. The Holocaust, which we commemorated last week is among the greatest examples of the fate phenomenon. Thank God, this week we celebrate the inception of the State of Israel which is the paradigm of taking our fate into our own hands. What the eighth graders from Bi-Cultural Day School, who are with me in Israel, are finding out is that those two momentous events are frankly bound together. We experienced that when the whole country came to a standstill as the sirens wailed last Thursday. In the Diaspora we chronicle Jewish history; in Israel we live it.
So, the Rav believes that kedusha is a creation of people. How does this happen? He wrote: If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds...Therein is embodied the entire task of creation and the obligation to participate in the renewal of the cosmos. The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself (Halachic Man, p. 108). Last night our group met with Livia Bitton-Jackson, who wrote I've Lived a Thousand Years, a remarkable memoir of surviving the Holocaust. One of our very bright young women (They are all bright.) observed that she was inspired by the fact that everyone was moved by the book, but each individual in their own way. The same was true when we stood silently through the siren, everyone together but alone in our thoughts. It's like that when praying in a minyan. We are all, individually and uniquely, creating and sending our own thoughts to God, but we feel power in the reality that we're doing this together. The 'ontologically lonely' individuals are creating themselves in the context of simultaneously creating a holy tzibur.
I think God informed us of this reality during the birth of our religion at the foot of Mount Sinai. When God informed Moshe that we would become a 'kingdom of priests and a holy people (Exodus 19:6). Our God was teaching us, I believe, that we each minister to God in our own idiom, but we do it together forming a communal bond that is strong and loving and holy.