Choosing Holiness

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03 Jul 2018

Recently, I wrote about the importance of having a variety of people around from whom to learn. I joked to friends that it was just a cover to allow me to complain about people in my “village” teaching my kids things I don’t want them to, but I did also mean it.

To prove my sincerity, I’ll offer an example: the Reform student with whom I was privileged to learn over the past year as part of a lay leadership program which required him to spend time learning with a Jewish educator. He’s not part of my children’s village, at least not directly, but he did become part of mine.

(It’s always weird referring to adults as my “students,” when so often they know so much more than I in every area but the one I happen to teach. Sometimes they’re older than I am, which makes it even weirder. And always, I learn from them in the process – as in the case I’m about to describe. So who’s the student now?)

The first time Jeremy (name used with permission) and I sat down to learn together, he took out a kippah and put it on, noting that he likes to wear one while studying or praying. This remark echoed approaches that I had occasionally heard from other members of Jewish denominations where regular kippah use may not be so common: that putting on the kippah was a way to mark the moment as holy, elevated above the mundane. Setting aside for the moment the specific question of kippot and whether or not there is an actual requirement to wear one all the time – in my (mostly Ashkenazi) circles, it is certainly a norm for men. Against that framework of what I’m used to, I was struck by the comment, as it sounded like he was basically saying “until now, there was no holiness in my life; now, I will engage with holiness for an hour; then I will remove it again.” That seemed oddly demarcated to me, implying that Jeremy’s regular life didn’t involve much holiness.

As an Orthodox Jew, with halacha permeating my life – if I could put the pursuit of holiness on and take it off at will, when would I ever find a chance to take it off?

My perspective (colored heavily, perhaps, by having read Halakhic Man when I was 18) tends, rather, toward uniting the holy and the mundane, bringing holiness into every aspect of life. I mean, certainly, we make havdalot (distinctions) between kodesh and chol all the time (like every Saturday night!), but always with an eye toward bringing more kedusha into the chol. Living an Orthodox life is, inherently, a constant attempt at holiness; it cannot be stopped and started at will.

It would be easy to feel superior because of that, as if this constant attempt automatically translated into success. I didn’t want to feel that way; I generally pride myself on not being a judgmental sort, realizing that delusions of holy grandeur don’t become me. But there’s a fine line between believing in one’s own rightness, and believing others’ perspectives must be lesser. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at another’s practice, or lack thereof, and assuming we know all and they have nothing to offer.

In my defense, though – and to his immeasurable credit – I quickly realized that was way too simplistic. Jeremy’s life, too, is permeated with attention to our holy traditions, and though his practice of Judaism looks different from mine, there are elements to his approach that could teach me a thing or two about my own observance.

I remember one conversation we got into about keeping kosher, when I was surprised to discover that Jeremy separates meat and milk. He’ll mix milk with poultry, in accordance with early views that poultry isn’t “meat” and because, since birds can’t produce milk, there would be no possibility of actually cooking their offspring in their milk – but weighing against that leniency was his discomfort with using fake meat or fake cheese to create a cheeseburger. (I would never put cheese on a turkey burger, but have zero qualms with cheese on a (recognizable) veggie burger.) I asked if he waits between meat and milk or simply refrains from mixing them, and he shared a bit of his thinking in trying to determine a meaningful length of time to wait and in guiding his children to give the same thought to their meals.

Fealty to the halachic system will always come first for me – but I would be lying if I said that conversation about kashrut didn’t replace any latent superiority complex with maybe a little jealousy and maybe a little inspiration.

How often do we Orthodox Jews, so confident that we’ve got it all right and that we are doing G-d’s will on this earth, think that deeply about what it is that we are doing? We have our separate dishes, and maybe our separate sinks and dishwashers and even ovens, and we pay careful attention to all the minutia. We check off our lists of halachic requirements: we get our clothes checked for shaatnez and we light our Shabbos candles and we say the words of our prayers just like our ancestors did for generations. But how often do we pay attention to it? How often do we think about the process and meaning behind whichever number of hours our family waits? As we rejoice in new foods that mimic mixtures of meat and milk, do we give any thought to the meaning of the mitzvah we’re trying to kind of sort of cheat? Do we even think about the underlying concept of an unexplainable divine chok, as we determine whether or not to eat that bite? Or are we too busy with the routines and technicalities?

A friend once objected, when I said I would be ready soon but “have to daven first”: “You don’t have to daven. You choose to daven.” I wanted to argue with her that I don’t view it as a choice, that I understand twice-daily prayer to be my binding obligation even if she doesn’t agree. But maybe I should give the aspect of personal choice more thought – like Jeremy does. Maybe there is value in learning to relate to each religious act – even if ultimately we do it because we’re obligated – as if it were a deeply meaningful personal choice. As if I chose each act, not as part of my obligatory routine but because I found it meaningful.

“Make His will like your will,” we are told in Avot 2:4. Learn to relate to mitzvos with zeal, as if we were doing them of our own choice – even though ultimately, we must also “nullify your will in the face of His will,” and fulfill our obligations even if we don’t (yet?) find them meaningful.

I’m reminded of a comment my mother once made. She was good friends with a Reform coworker and once pointed out that she had no way of knowing which of them was actually more “religious”: maybe she was better with the Shabbos and the kashrus, but maybe her friend did a better job honoring her parents or giving tzedaka.

It seems obvious, once you think about it.

There are things we all do better or worse, things we can all learn from each other.

The last text Jeremy and I studied together was part of a passage in Avot 6:5-6 that lists 48 “things” necessary to acquire Torah. One of them is humility, and Rav Pinchas Kehati explains why that is a necessity: “for with this, he will not be embarrassed to learn from everybody.”

What I learned from Jeremy, though I was supposed to be the teacher, is that it’s easy to be self-righteous about going through the motions. It’s easy to call that “holiness” and imagine that you sustain that holiness more, and more consistently, than people who don’t go through as many motions as consistently. But maybe, just maybe, they have motions too. Maybe they do a better job on the quality, on the thoughts and intentions behind the motions they choose to do, and maybe we can stand to learn from their holy example.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.