Reasonable Doubts Blog

What Creates Holiness?

Posted in holidays by Cheryl Berman on the September 13th, 2010

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have always been two of the most complex days of the year.  They don’t try to hide that fact…  they present themselves that way – full of dizzying dichotomies.  But the one thing that stands out about both these days, the one undeniable fact, is their palpable holiness.  It’s in their nigunim (tunes).  It’s in their tefillot (prayers).  It’s in the foods.  It’s in the fast.  It’s in the molecules of the air.  The holiness is transformative (if you allow it to be).  But what is it?  What is holiness?  And what creates it?

Rav Soloveitchik discusses the unique quality of the holiness of the chagim (holidays) in an essay in his Divrei Hashkafa.  He explains that the chagim are intrinsically different from Shabbat.  The chagim were established by bet din (court); Shabbat is pre-established by creation.  The Rav points out that the midrashim are full of praises of the Jewish people who are in control of the calendar to the extent that they can overrule God himself in deciding when to establish a chag.

The holiness of chagim does not stem from God; it stems from the Jewish people.  Holiness in Judaism is not  innate to an object or a time.  It is an expression of a relationship the Jewish people have toward a certain time period or place.  There is nothing magical about holiness. We make things holy by perceiving them a certain way, and utilizing them in the service of God.  The Bet HaMikdash was a holy place because the Jews served God there.  The moment that service was annulled the spot lost its sanctity.  Rabbi Meir of Dvinsk writes

…Do not think that the Temple and the Mishkan are holy of their own accord, God forbid! God…dwells among his children, but if they like Adam transgress His covenant, all holiness is removed from them, and they become like mundane utensils…. Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute, and was not harmed, for its holiness was removed…”

Rav Soloveitchik continues to explicate the concept of holiness.  Man is not expected to remain on one level his entire life like an angel.  He goes through different stages of life, various moral highs and lows, spiritual cliffs and canyons. He has moments of religious enlightenment and instances of bleak obscurity.  But it is precisely during those awe inspiring moments of religious experience, where man encounters God, that engenders holiness.  Man is the sanctifier of holiness and it is through a religious experience that he is able to do it.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur aren’t just days where we encounter holiness; they are days in which we produce holiness.  The holiness that overpowers us on those days comes from within us.  It is the result of a religious experience that we have created with God.

I think many of us who read this will probably immediately acquiesce to its message.  We have all experienced years in which we have better Rosh Hashanot than others.  What differentiates one year from the next?  Is it the chazzan? The person sitting next to us?  Most likely not.  Usually the differentiating factor is something within us, something perhaps going on in our lives, or as Rav Soloveitchik s aptly describes, our own various lows and highs that determine what type of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will have that year.  By far my most perplexing ones were the ones that I encountered in the midst of faith crises.  There is no more perplexing time of year for a faith crisis sufferer than  this time of year.  But as I recently stated in my Rusty Mike radio interview (how’s that for a smooth plug?) there is also no greater opportunity for a faith crises sufferer.  Religious experiences are in abundance for anyone who is willing to set aside his skepticism for a day (admittedly, not an easy thing to do – nothing this important is).  Letting yourself be enveloped by the tefillot and the nigunim will allow you to create your own pocket of holiness and that might go a long way in terms of resolving a crises of faith.   The important thing to remember is that it comes from within us – and what we are willing to put in, we will surely get out.

  • Share/Bookmark

One Response to 'What Creates Holiness?'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'What Creates Holiness?'.

  1. on September 14th, 2010 at 11:56 am

    I have received requests for the link to the radio interview. Here is the link to the podcast:

    Just scroll down to the podcast entitled “Reasonable Doubts; questioning faith”

Leave a Reply

Theme Tweaker by Unreal