Holiness Made Practical

For Yom Kippur, a rabbi offers this functional definition to apply to all your relationships


In the Jewish yearly cycle, Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, is most holy. On Yom Kippur, we Jews simulate death, in order to stimulate life. We refrain from such life-affirming activities as eating and drinking, creative work (as we do each Shabbat) and sex. Our rituals nudge us to focus on the value of our lives in this world.

Leviticus 19 teaches: “Be holy, because I, the Eternal God am Holy.”

(A rabbi, a priest and a minister are discussing their own funerals. The priest imagines a eulogy about his compassionate listening, his sage advice and his encouragement of the poor. The minister hopes for words about his work for civil rights, peace and health care. The rabbi wants those at his funeral to say, “Look, he’s moving.”)

Seeking a definition

To “be holy,” we need a functional definition of “holy” — a practical way to live it. Nechama Leibowitz teaches that holiness is not a category, where one person is holy and another is not, where we are holy at one moment and unholy the next. All of God’s creatures possess some level of holiness at all times. The challenge is, how can we raise our level of holiness?

Martin Buber takes us the next step: Holiness can be achieved through relationships. Buber describes a spectrum of relationships between people, from the I-It to the I-Thou. If we treat a person as a machine, as an object, we form an I-It bond. In contrast, when we show respect, love, trust and caring for another, we move towards I-Thou. And if that other person treats us that same way, then we reach the I-Thou, the ultimate level of holiness.

By the way, we can also move from “I-It” towards “I-Thou” within ourselves, within groups and between groups.

MORAL factors

I propose five factors to judge the holiness of our relationships. (Though since our holiness derives from God’s holiness, which has no limits, we can undoubtedly imagine more factors.) For these five, I suggest an acronym, MORAL — an unsubtle hint that holiness and ethics overlap.

To “be holy,” we need a functional definition of “holy” — a practical way to live it. Nechama Leibowitz teaches that… all of God’s creatures possess some level of holiness at all times. The challenge is, how can we raise our level of holiness?

M reminds us to raise our level of mission, to live not just for survival but for the sake of higher values such as love, peace, justice, beauty and creativity. A marriage or close friendship that exists only for the sake of connection may be far better than a lonely life — as connection makes life possible — but to make life worthwhile, we need to shape our relationships to enhance our mission.

O represents openness — honesty and its companions, trust and loyalty. Holy relationships require intimacy, the closeness we achieve when we are able to be open as a result of gaining the highest levels of trust. The new jargon for openness with group relationships is transparency, and its companion word, accountability.

The third factor is respect, the R word. I’ll pause while we all hear Aretha Franklin’s voice in our heads. As we show more respect, grant more dignity, our holiness grows. As our connections become more mutual, more interdependent, we move to a higher level. As we respect ourselves more or less, we move up or down.

Those first three factors — mission, openness, and respect — are made possible by the fourth and five ones.

Fourth is attentiveness. On Yom Kippur, as at any time we pray, we pay more attention. We seek to become more conscious of our choices. We strive for deeper awareness of our thoughts and feelings and drives. We reach to understand the consequences of our actions.

The fifth factor enables the other four and combines the other four: Love. The same chapter, Leviticus 19, which starts with a call to be holy, ends with a call to show love for others as we show love for ourselves. Love will need to overcome its rival, fear — that force which drives us to all forms of evil. (How love and fear interact is a story for another setting.)

Applying these factors in real life

By the way, Jewish mystics, often called Kabbalists, created a sophisticated system explaining these factors. They call them sephirot, aspects of God’s reality, which we can mirror as divine images in our own lives, applying these factors in the complex, real life situations we encounter each moment.

The MORAL model I propose here is a much-simplified version of the sephirot, and does not address the inevitable conflicts between these five factors. While we seek more holiness, Kabbalah and Talmud — the best learning from Jewish mystics and mainstream rabbis — help us work out the tensions and unavoidable conflicts, such as between justice and mercy.

For now, imagine simply than in each encounter we try to add more MORAL — more mission, openness, respect, attentiveness, and love. If we do this, we will achieve more holiness.

L’chayim tovim u’l’shana tova. To a good life and a good year.