Off the Pulpit: What is holiness?

By RABBI DAVID WOLPE

The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, which also means separate. In some sense the realm of the holy is the realm set apart – the Sabbath that is kadosh from the week, or the couple bound in kiddushin, the rites of marriage, sharing a unique intimacy.

Yet holiness cannot be fully separate. For we are told God is kadosh and God is both above all and yet in all; and we too are told to be kadosh, to attain the state of both distance and closeness, separation and embrace. Holiness involves goodness – one cannot be holy without being good – but it is more than goodness.

Holiness touches the realm beyond ourselves and brings it into this world. A mundane action charged with mission, passion and sanctity, becomes holy. When Israel is called a holy nation and a light, it is a reminder both to separate and to bring the fruits of that separation to others.

The idea of holiness is awesome, full of mystery and wonder; it exceeds our ability to comprehend. Yet it can be expressed in a simple blessing, an act of extraordinary kindness, a congregation elevated together in prayer. For a moment we experience the presence of God, and call that moment holy.

(Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.)

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