Thursday, 22 Apr 2021

Written by Eleanor Davis

What does a holy person look like?  You might think of someone specific that you’ve met, with or without an actual halo over their head, who seemed to you to embody holiness.  You might be even more likely to think of examples like the beer-brewing Trappist monks featured in the recent documentary ‘Brotherhood,’ whose white, hooded robes visibly mark them as men who have dedicated their lives to a daily routine of prayer and holy service.

For those of us who have this past year experienced being cloistered with our families, this glimpse into their life of brotherhood, removed from the secular world and living happily together in peace and harmony in rural Leicestershire, might seem impossibly holy.  In one scene rich with metaphor, a novice is shown being taught by an older monk how to handle clay, developing the patience, sensitivity and gentle strength needed to throw pots.  Yet hearing the Abbot, the head of the community, admit to feeling that he often fails to live up to the ideals of monastic life and is still only becoming a true monk, might leave us wondering: the vast majority of us do not opt into a 24/7 ‘religious’ life – do we have any hope of being holy?

Parashat K’doshim seems to suggest that we do, for “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2) is addressed to the whole Israelite community, not just the priests.  The verses that follow then prescribe specific behaviours, beginning with revering one’s mother and father, suggesting a vision of holiness that is surprisingly mundane.  Many of these prescriptions deal with ‘profane’ topics like leaving gleanings for the poor and prompt payment of wages: here, being holy seems more connected with the earthly relationships humans have with one another than with the Divine.

While commentators have used up much ink interpreting these verses as instructions for holiness via good ethical behaviour towards our fellow humans, it’s easy to overlook the fact that in Parashat K’doshim there are actually three very similar commandments to “be holy.”  The second of them (Lev. 20:7-8, a chapter after the first) might dull our keenness to define holy living based on its surrounding verses, for it is nestled among death penalties: for giving one’s seed to Molech or consulting ghosts; for showing filial disrespect or transgressing sexual prohibitions.  The third commandment to be holy (Lev. 20:26) is in not much cheerier company, coming between an instruction to divide clean animals from unclean and a reminder of the death penalty for consulting ghosts.  Even if being holy means avoiding all these potential misdeeds, that doesn’t exactly make inspiring reading: “be holy or risk a death penalty!” is unlikely to become a modern synagogue motto.

Thankfully the wording of the second version of the commandment, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy… I the Eternal make you holy” (Lev. 20:7-8), is slightly more inspiring and even suggests that we may have a little help towards holiness.  It seems that when we attempt to sanctify ourselves by virtuous actions, then God also acts by reaching out to sanctify us: these verses reminds us that those righteous but mundane acts that we attempt in connection with our human relationships also create opportunities for us to experience connection with the Divine.

The third version of the commandment to be holy might also encourage us to think about what we mean by ‘holy.’  “You shall be holy (k’doshim) to Me, for I the Eternal am holy (kadosh), and I have set you apart (va’avdil) from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26), reminds us of the Jewish idea of holiness as meaning set apart: not completely removed from the world, just set aside for something or someone specific.  The Kiddushin element of Jewish weddings uses this idea of holiness, setting someone apart as specially dedicated to one person – which might make wedding rings a surprising substitute for monks’ robes as a visible reminder of living in holiness.

Being holy is not something we can delegate to a small select few, but a challenge for all of us, whether we live in monasteries or busy family homes.  In our ethical behaviour toward one another, but also in our commitment to a specific person, we create opportunities to experience something beyond our mundane lives even while we remain within them.  Hooded monks and even bushy-bearded rebbes may indeed be holy, but holiness isn’t only for professionals: a real holy person looks just like us.


Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.