Monday, September 05, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - September 2005 - Sanctity

(In writing this brief essay on kedusha or sanctity, I am cognizant that the subject is beyond my reach, both in terms of intellectual capacity and knowledge and personal conduct. The concluding paragraphs discuss how contemporary conditions affect the ability of religious Jews to attain a state of kedusha and this is a subject that is within my reach. I ask forgiveness if I am trodding on ground that should be off limits to me.)

In our religious vocabulary, perhaps no word is as frequently used or is as expressive as kedusha. The sanctity of marriage is referred to as kiddushin. We sanctify Shabbos by making Kiddush, our dead are memorialized through the Kaddish prayer and Kedusha is central in our daily liturgy. In the blessings before the performance of a mitzvah, we assert that we have been sanctified by the commandments.

For all of its strong presence in our religious life, kedusha is an illusive term and concept. We who are observant appreciate that Shabbos is made holy by being separated from the other days of the week. But how are we transformed by this holiness, especially when as sunset approaches on Saturday, too many Orthodox Jews are literally jumping out of their skin for Shabbos to end? Are we transformed during the week by the 20-30 second rote repetition of Kedusha or by the blessings we say as we prepare to do mitzvahs? It is easier to understand how transgressing a negative commandment deprives us of sanctity than how performing a positive commandment makes us sanctified.

In the concluding paragraphs of the discussion of the laws of forbidden sexual relations, Rambam underscores how difficult it is for most to refrain from behavior that is antithetical to our obligation to be a sanctified people, how monetary greed and certain desires expand our zones of impurity by being nearly constant companions in life's journey. It seems that a neutral state in which we avoid improprieties but do not attain a state of kedusha is a significant achievement.

This dilemma posed by Rambam is perhaps addressed, albeit indirectly, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in the concluding chapter of his epic discourse on ethical behavior, Mesilas Yesharim ("The Path of the Righteous"). He posits that the initial manifestation of kedusha arises from an individual's purposeful effort to overcome moral defects. This effort is rewarded in turn by kedusha being imparted as a gift from G-D. There is a feedback reaction in that the striving to overcome what is incompatible to kedusha results in the attainment of kedusha, again as a gift, further intensifying thereby the individual's determination to achieve an even higher state of sanctity.

Another formulation of this idea was expressed by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, in a notable letter to a student in which he cautioned against the common error of believing that our people's spiritual giants were born in a state of holiness and did not have to struggle to achieve the spiritual eminence that we identify with them. What we see is the reward for their effort and struggle.

All efforts to attain kedusha are characterized by separation, but not merely separation from what is hostile to sanctity but also from what is worldly and permitted. Each mitzvah is, in a sense, an act of separation because it entails a limitation on how we employ our capabilities, including time, speech, thought, emotions, physical functions and our resources. Each mitzvah is a barrier or separation point, pulling us away from the profane and ordinary and bringing us closer to kedusha and G-D. As we become servants of G-D, we become free because we are freed of the mundane impulses that are hostile to kedusha.

In every period, for Jews the attainment of kedusha has been a challenge. We sense, though, that there was greater fulfillment - meaning greater piety - in previous generations, perhaps because poverty and hostility toward us from those amongst whom we lived created what might be called automatic barriers or separation points. While kedusha was certainly not imparted to us on a silver platter, it was more readily within our reach.

We are fortunate that we are far more comfortable and we are fortunate that we are far less confronted by those who despise us. We are less fortunate because modernity impels us toward all kinds of engagements and away from the havdalah or separation that is the inescapable precondition for kedusha. This is evident in the lure of popular culture and the powerful pull of hedonism. It is no mitzvah to be poor, yet constant preoccupation with monetary matters - which is nearly inescapable under contemporary conditions - is scarcely a path toward piety and sanctified living.

Less obvious but as potent are social processes arising from technological advances that are inherently morally neutral and yet serve as the enemy of separation. In this respect it is necessary to underscore once more, as the Talmud teaches, that the obligation to be sanctified which generates the need to separate ourselves is not to distance ourselves from what is forbidden but from what is permissible.

Although social scientists have correctly noted that people are far less connected in a fulfilling sense than they once were - we only need to look at what has happened within families - there is a powerful yearning for togetherness and for shared experiences that we hope will make life more pleasant. Of course, we do not have hermits or monks in our religious tradition, yet the herd instinct or the desire never to be apart creates ersatz or fleeting experiences of togetherness and also undermines the prospect for kedusha.

The cell phone is illustrative. It is obviously a hugely valuable device and still its escalating abuse is an issue that must be acknowledged. Too many Orthodox Jews are addicted to the cell phone. In the recent period I saw a rabbi respond to a call during Kedusha and also a fellow davening near me answering his phone during the silent Shmoneh Esreh. It is now common to see Jews with talis and tefilin chattering away on their cell phones.

Even when the motivation may be appropriate, the desire for connectedness can drive us away from sanctity. There is a growing number of quickie trips by religious Jews on a fast track to see Torah leaders in Israel; there is the mass exodus to Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah; and we have an endless stream of publicized events that purport to inspire via video messages from Torah leaders hundreds or thousands of miles away.

These occasions are usually sincere and they may be inspiring as they are being experienced, but even if they are not accompanied by an improper urge to have bragging rights, they certainly are not transformative. They are occasions of instant gratification, of a powerful desire to satisfy a religious impulse that arises not from one's spiritual nature and wanting to be separate but from one's physical nature and wanting to be together.

Transformation is the key to the attainment of kedusha and this requires a lot of hard work. We are not required to move to an isolated island, although Rambam recommends this as an option under certain conditions. We are allowed and even encouraged to be engaged with the world but also to be separate even as we are engaged.

By all means, we should go to see Gedolei Torah, always mindful of the enormous demands on their time and strength, and we should visit places that are vital parts of our religious heritage. However, these occasions should not be tainted by the glitz that informs so much of contemporary society and contaminates much of our religious life.