Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes — the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God’s majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our “utter creatureliness” and God’s frightening “tremendum.”Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.
In Hebrew, the word for holiness is kedusha. Thisis the key term in this week’s Torah reading: “Kedoshim tihyu — Youwill be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).Trace that word in our experience, and we arrive at a very different– and very Jewish — idea of holiness.
A family, a havurah, a community of friends,gathers at a Shabbat or holiday table to celebrate life together, toshare our stories, our laughter, our tears, the triumphs and failuresof our lives. We raise a cup of wine and recite a prayer ofsanctification. But it isn’t the wine that is sacred. The prayeraffirms the holiness of the circle around the table — the bonds thathold us together as family and friends. That prayer is called”Kiddush.”
Two separate, independent individuals — fromdifferent families, different cultures, even different planets, hefrom Mars, she from Venus — find wholeness in one another. Theypledge to share life together. A ring is placed on a finger, a ringwhole and unbroken so that their lives, their dreams, their pain andtheir joys will be wholly intertwined. The tightly drawn circle ofthe self is unlocked to include another, whose happiness becomes “myhappiness,” and whose suffering becomes “my suffering.” And “we”recite: “Haray at mi-kudeshet lee” — “With this ring, we aremi-kudeshet, bonded in sanctity.” This miraculous process is calledin Jewish tradition, Kiddushin.
When a loved one dies, we refuse to let thecatastrophe of death be the last word. We will not sever our bonds ofloyalty and love. We will not lose our memories of shared wisdom,warmth, strength, vision. We rise in synagogue — in the midst of ourpeople — to recite a prayer that affirms the triumph of life overdeath, of hope over despair. The prayer is called “Kaddish.”
Rudolf Otto, like the builders of the greatcathedrals, found holiness in the God’s awesome distance. We Jewsfind it in God’s warm closeness. We find it in the bonds that uniteus. We find it in shared laughter and shared tears.
I used to listen faithfully to “Religion on theLine,” the radio talk show featuring a rabbi, priest and minister.Each week, whatever the scheduled issue, the panel would inevitablyreceive the same question from a caller: “Must one belong toorganized religion to have a relationship with God?” It is a sincerequestion. But I wonder where it comes from. What a lonelyindividualism that sees community as a trap and belonging asconfinement. What a cold and solitary spirituality that has nolanguage to share the insights of faith. What kind of human lifefears belonging?
This is more than theology; it is personal. I layin a hospital bed this past January, facing the most frighteningmoments of my life. And then I felt the warm hands of friends whocame to offer support. They prepared meals for my family, cared forour children, donated their blood on my behalf, and offered theirprayers for strength, healing and hope. In the warmth of their love,I have felt the Presence of God.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.