You Can Still Be Holy

hero image

The Torah’s sublime challenge to the Jewish people – Kedoshim tihiyu, “be holy,” – is a remarkable demand, compounded by the fact that the Torah does not give us any overt guidelines as to how a person becomes holy. We have some clues; Rashi comments that holiness is a byproduct of abstention from immorality and sin. But that is still not a definition. It is certainly possible for a person to abstain from immorality and sin and not be holy. So what is it that we are being asked – and clearly something at the very essence of Jewish life?

The injunction, “Be holy,” for all its inscrutability, demands one thing of us that is in very short supply today, and at the heart of the moral malaise in society, the meanderings of our youth and to some extent all of us, and much of the discontent we feel: the obligation to create and nurture an inner world, an olam hapenimi, where the soul is really expressed and our values are located – the point of connection between the human being and G-d. For much of society today, Jewish and non-Jewish, the inner world is dormant, or worse, dead, and we have to revive it.

What does it mean to lack an inner world? Take the Secret Service scandal, for instance. The problem was not their desire to expand the definition of “Service,” but their lack of understanding of “Secret,” the first word of their agency. This, and the rest of the shenanigans across the country, is a product of what Dan Henninger (WSJ) labeled our “Age of Indiscretion.” People are indiscreet not only in the sense that they don’t cover their tracks well, but rather that many people today choose to live their lives on public display. Many feel no need to cover their tracks, because their self-esteem is dependent on their public lives – on people reading about them and hearing about them, and knowing their every inconsequential thought and action.

This refers not only to celebrities but to all of us and our children. It is easy to blame the technology, and undoubtedly technology has enabled greater access to private places than ever before. But technology is a tool – it’s morally neutral – and the limits and effects of the technology are choices that we make. Personally, I think that Facebook and its offshoots are some of the most harmful phenomena in our world today, not that my disapproval will cause them to lose a nickel off their impending IPO. Facebook and friends breed indiscretion, induces bad behavior, propagates superficial and artificial relationships – and, worst of all, they rob people of their inner world, their inner sanctum of thoughts, feelings, emotions – of the capacity to think, to be private, to look before you leap, to be a real person, and especially to connect to G-d.

Do we wonder why davening (praying) is so difficult – for all of us, but especially for young people? Because we have no inner worlds. Kavanah (concentration, focus, intention) is all about an inner world, and without cultivating an inner world, kavanah is impossible. Without an inner world, davening becomes all about “saying words,” and “saying words” will have a diminishing impact on people over time, especially saying the same words again and again. That is why people get easily distracted in prayer, seek comfort in inane conversation, and simply congregate in the halls. There are no “actions” in prayer, nothing to post about or tweet about; it is function of our inner world, and so it is rapidly being lost. Too often, our outside shakes, while our inside is inert.

In another realm, what is tzniut, in a modern term, but discretion? – judgment, reticence, the yearning to keep private what is private. Tzniut recognizes the dignity of every person; it is the veneer that shields our inner world, our holy of holies, from the prying world. So tzniut can nurture a real relationship of real people – i.e., people who relate and interact appropriately, not through texts and emails, but through actual conversation, not with flamboyance or braggadocio, but with humility. The extent to which people choose to communicate indirectly, through technology, and thereby avoid human contact, is astonishing, and debilitating to the nurturing of real human relationships.

And what a disease is a lack of tzniut – indiscretion – whether it is found in adults who act like children and broadcast it, or in young people who know no limits and bare their deepest secrets (and more) to a world of strangers.

Rashi continues that “wherever you find boundaries against indecency, you find holiness.” I.e., wherever you find boundaries, period, you will find holiness, maturity, and responsibility. And wherever there are no boundaries, human beings can descend to great depths.

The Rambam wrote (Shoresh 4, Sefer HaMitzvot) that “Be holy” is not one of the 613 commandments, because we don’t count the “commandments that subsume the entire Torah.”  “Be holy” is not something to do, but something to be. It is that something that defines our lives as individuals, separates us from the nations, and is the hallmark of our people – to build an inner world that can connect directly to G-d. It is that uniqueness that can fortify our lives and give it depth and substance, as assuredly as it will render us worthy of the rebuilt Holy Temple, speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of nearly 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is a member of the New York and Federal Bars and is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayan on the Beth Din itself. He also is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and served as the American co-spokesman for the International Rabbinic Coalition for Israel. He presently is on the Board of Directors of Pro Israel and the One Israel Fund.

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