Forbidden Foods: Holiness
What is God?
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Most of us really haven’t a clue as to what holiness is. We throw around the term (at least those who actually do throw around the term) like we know what we are talking about but we might as well be talking about string theory or the ancient Minoan language. It’s just a buzz word. Just try defining the word ‘holy’ without using the word ‘holy’. It will probably have something to do with God or spirituality or sanctity. In the end you’ll probably just be rehashing the same vague ideas around, using different words to gain equal unclarity.
So what is holiness anyway? What does it have to do with God, if anything? Is there really such a thing as holiness or is it just a bunch of religious hype – a throwback to the Dark Ages when people actually believed this nonsense? To answer these questions we’re going to have to look at what is probably the most ancient source for term as it is used today. This, of course, is the Bible, and in a few places right smack in the middle of Leviticus we find a repeated theme that give us a surprisingly vivid window into what holiness is.
The first of these comes up in the eleventh chapter. This chapter starts with a long series of commandments dealing with the species of animals that could or could not be eaten. The chapter ends with an equally long series of commandments going into the intricate laws of spiritual impurity via contact with the corpse of a dead reptile or rodent. The last few verses summarize the whole idea with the following statement: ‘For I am Hashem your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and become holy, for I am holy…For I am Hashem who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be for you God, and you shall become holy because I am holy’ (v.44-45).
Next we have in the beginning of chapter 19 an introduction to a long and seemingly haphazard collection of commandments dealing with a wide variety of matters. The introductory statement is: ‘Speak to the congregation of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your God, am holy”’ (v.2). One chapter later in a short section dealing with the prohibition of a form of idolatry or necromancy that was prevalent at the time it concludes: ‘And you shall sanctify yourselves and become holy, because I am Hashem your God’ (20:6).
Finally at the end of that same chapter, following another long series of commandments dealing with sexual prohibition there is a general summing up of why these laws are necessary. The theme is one of remaining distinct from the common practices of the peoples that surrounded ancient Israel. The condition for remaining in the Holy Land as a people is to separate from the customs of their idolatrous neighbors. Similarly, they must distinguish between the pure animals (those that can be eaten) and the impure animals to avoiding making themselves spiritually impure. As a final statement: ‘And you shall be holy to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy, and I separate you from the other nations to be to Me’ (20:26).
There’s a lot of holiness going on here. Holiness covers topics as different as forbidden sexual relations, idolatry, contact with reptile carcasses, and eating spiritually impure animals. Is there a common element to these topics? What do any of them really have to do with holiness? Furthermore what is this repeated rationale: You shall be holy since I am holy? What does God’s holiness have to do with the potential holiness of people? For that matter, what does it mean to say that God is holy?
On a basic level, almost every Biblical use of the word ‘holy’ or kadosh - the most common of the many forms in Hebrew – has a common connotation. They mean ‘sanctified’, or dedicated to God in some way. There is, however, a second definition that is derived from the first, which has been emphasized by rabbinic texts through the centuries. This second definition is ‘separate’ or ‘distinct’. Thus something holy, whether it be a time, a place, a person, an object, or a procedure, means that any of these things are separate or distinct from everything else in some way.
In many of the cases it is not so difficult to understand how this is so. For instance, a holy time, like Shabbat, is distinct from all other days in that work is forbidden, and so on. A holy place, like the Mishkan, was distinct from all other places in that it had to be treated different – not just anybody could go there, special purification procedures had to be observed, etc. A holy object, like the Ark of the Covenant was distinct from all other objects in its uniqueness and power as a conduit to God.
A holy person, according to this approach, would be one who is distinct from others in some specific way. Right off the bat, we have to point out that mere ‘distinction’ is too broad of a definition. Like in the cases of time, place, object, and procedure, it wasn’t just any old distinction that grants the title of ‘holy’. It has to be a distinction from some godly angle. The Shabbat was distinct from other days in that it was to be dedicated to God. With a person, the same definition should hold. That person is distinct from other people in that he or she is dedicated in some way to God.
What about God? How could God be distinguished? Is it through dedication to God? This is where the definition breaks down. God, it would seem, cannot be distinguished by being dedicated to God. How are we to solve this problem?
‘For I am Hashem your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and become holy, for I am holy…For I am Hashem who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be for you God, and you shall become holy because I am holy’. There is a two step process at work here. ‘You first sanctify yourself, and then you become holy. There is a step before holiness that you must do to yourselves. I cannot do it for you. You must sanctify yourselves. If that is through not eating certain animals or through not having contact with the carcasses of rodents or reptiles, so be it.’ Sanctification can happen through many means. These are two of them. Staying away from stuff that won’t bring you any sanctity is a crucial step in sanctification. The world, for those who seek holiness, is not a free-for-all with no rules. It entails partaking of certain things and not partaking of others. Whether the distinction between the two makes any rational sense or if it is simply a rule decreed by God is immaterial. Sanctity and spiritual purification begin with abstention, difficult as it may be.
That’s just the first step. The second is to become holy. This is really an automatic outcome of the first step. Something happens when a person embarks on the long journey of sanctification, of abstention for the sake of holiness, of Kedusha. Slowly but inevitably, they begin to change. The change may happen through the brute power of the will or it may happen from ‘outside’, or some combination of the two. They begin to develop an attitude of distinction. Not that they see themselves as a person of distinction, but that they are simply no longer as much a part of the everyday world of hamburgers, money, and sex. They can still have all that, but they sense that there is something that is more important that puts those things into a more mature perspective. This is where God comes in.
‘And you shall be holy to Me, for I, Hashem, am holy, and I separate you from the other nations to be to Me’. This is how the holiness step happens. ‘You have a goal to shoot for, a bar for which to aim. You have Me. I am the ultimate in holiness.’ There is nothing so dedicated to God and to godliness as God. God exists to be God. We may have other agendas in our lives, agendas that may conflict with our inner purpose. God has no such agendas. If one is looking for an example of dedication to godliness and all that it stands for, the direction to look is God.
God is holy. God is distinct. While it may be true that every single thing in existence is permeated by God, that doesn’t make God any less holy or distinct. It just makes those other things a good deal holier and distinct than we thought they were. A rock is not just a rock if it has godliness within it. It is holy. A blade of grass is not just a blade of grass if God’s essence gives it life. It is holy. A time, a place, an event – they are not the same once we realize that they have been infused with godliness. They are holy. A person who strives to inculcate their very being with godliness is not the same person any longer. That person is holy. It is the godliness within anything that makes it distinct and no longer the same old mundane humdrum who-cares-about-it thing. ‘I am holy, so you can become holy. Let Me in you, sense Me in you, bring yourself up to Me, and you will become like Me, holy.’
Perceiving the Image
This is a classic image that most of us imagine God to be like, whether or not we believe in God. We may not have the foggiest idea of what holiness is, but we still think that if God is anything, it is holy. Now that we may have gained a little clarity on what holiness actually is according to the Bible, perhaps this image of God can be cleansed of a little of its murkiness. To be holy does necessarily not mean to meditate on a mountain top with no contact with the world. That may be a path to holiness but it is not the only one. There is another path which is a little more familiar but also has considerably more obstacles. It is the path of distinction.
To distinguish oneself in holiness one need not succeed in some spectacular achievement that leaves everyone else behind. The path to holiness is to dedicate oneself to God. This is quite a distinction. The average person is not doing this. This path is achieved in the midst of the world, right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of society. It happens during eating, during sports, during entertainment, during business, while driving, while texting. It can take place in the course of a conversation or while engaged in sex. It can be there when surfing the web or when reading a book or riding the bus. Its opportunities are endless as are its rewards. It is the path of always looking for God’s holiness, for God’s distinct godly footprints, in everything.
Every little thing in the world, every place, every time, every person, every activity, even every thought, has its element of godliness. It can frequently be extremely difficult to detect this godliness because it may be hidden behind multiple layers of non-godly camouflage. Those will have to be peeled away somehow. But the godliness is always there somewhere. If it takes abstention from certain foods, or certain contact, or certain sexual activities, or certain religious beliefs, so that’s what it takes. If it takes separating oneself from the mainstream in order to align oneself with God, so that’s what it takes. This image, this lens of holiness, is how we see godliness in the world. It invariably brings us up and never brings us down. It may seem like a difficult lens through which to view the world, but it can be done. We can become holy, because God is holy.
It seems like the natural state for us to want to be is anywhere but on the holiness track. If it’s so tough, is it really worth it?
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