November 19, 2018

Holy, holy, holy: Haftarat Yitro: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

I have done my work.

–John Stuart Mill, on his deathbed, 1873

Darling, you send me.

–Sam Cooke, 1957

Like most American Jewish kids, I grew up hating Hebrew School, but I always enjoyed the Amidah, at least the Kedushah, for a very elementary-school-boy-sort-of-reason: when we said Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, we would, as ancient practice dictated, stand up on our tiptoes. I didn’t know that it came from Isaiah chapter 6, where the prophet sees the seraphim proclaiming the Holy One’s, well, holiness. But I liked it. Maybe it was just shaking the wiggles out; I never really thought about the concept of holiness.

Maybe that is just as well, because we rarely engage with the central question: what does it mean to be holy, anyway? And what does it mean for God to be holy?

The Hebrew root קדש means holy, but it also means to be separate or cut-off.  That makes sense for much traditional theology, which posits a transcendent deity totally separate from human experience. For the great early 20th century theologian “>Thomas Merton (1915-1968), whose 100th birthday was marked last week, certainly led a life one would regard as holy, but it was one given to writing and prayer, not really service to others (a source of not-so-occasional frustration to Merton himself). The point is that it has to be something: as Jason asks, what do you believe in?

To briefly unpack a key phrase in the definition: “your considered, most firmly and consistently felt beliefs concerning life’s purpose and meaning.” We often feel split between what we want and what we feel we should want. In my experience, at least part of what we feel we should want begins to eat at us in a way that takes it from simply something that we feel we should do abstractly to something that drives us, that we cannot avoid, so that we feel incomplete without pursuing it even though we don’t really “want” it.

I once attended a concert by David Carradine (yes, “>Aharon LIchtenstein. Lichtenstein is one of the great contemporary Orthodox authorities, for many years the Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. Rav Lichtenstein was asked which modern beliefs he would regard as the most opposed to Judaism. Lichtenstein is a conservative man, not given to political controversies, but after giving it some thought, he responded that the most anti-Jewish belief is that associated with