A Jewish-Buddhist Understanding of Holiness
Leon Wieseltier, in a recent column in The New Republic about diversity at Harvard, commented about the church bells he heard growing up on Avenue O. Wieseltier found it difficult to appreciate the beauty of these bells, hearing instead a persistent reminder that he was a member of a minority. He recognized, though, that
Christians who heard the bells religiously, in their ancient role as a signaling device, also did not attend to their beauty. When the bells sounded, it was a time for prayer, not music. Art demands detachment, but religion forbids it (April 3, 2008, 56).
As Wieseltier observed, church bells play an important role in the religious mindset of Christians. Their primary role is as a call to prayer, to inspire a state of mind; the bells encourage the desired disposition for entering prayer and ritual.
In Judaism, kavanah is the word we use for this desired disposition. Rabbis, since the time of Yavneh, have focused on the importance of frame of mind when approaching religious acts, but their conceptualization focuses primarily on whether prayer or ritual is considered legally valid. If a ritual is completed with the proper frame of mind (kavanah), then it is effectual; if not, then questions are raised as to whether one needs to repeat the prayer or ritual. As an innovation of the early rabbis, kavanah is limited primarily to ritual and liturgy, but the life of a Jew extends beyond the walls of the synagogue or the home.
This leads us to our essential question: is the mindfulness that the rabbis introduced mandated through the rest of our practice of Judaism?
For a possible answer, I would like to turn to Parashat K’doshim. From our earliest days, we have been taught to read the opening verse from this week’s parashah as focusing on Judaism’s drive for separateness. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi, in a classic comment, relates the connection to the many laws of sexual purity that follow. He reads “you shall be holy” as “separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness.”
Countering Rashi’s limited view (and doing so rather vocally in his writing), Ramban comments that our verse should be read as having a global application. He recognizes a higher criterion, which is essential to the practice of all the laws of the Torah, yet not covered in the legal literature. Thus, when the Torah mandates holiness, it means to hone our focus not only on the particulars of the legal system, but the intention behind the laws of the Torah as well. Ramban is worried that we may become mired in the particulars of legal observance and miss the meaning behind the laws: “you shall be holy.”
Understood through Ramban’s interpretation, holiness becomes a mindset that is commanded throughout every aspect of our lives—a constant awareness, or mindfulness; in everything, we strive for holiness. Both Rashi and Ramban make an effort to give meaning to a difficult phrase, “you shall be holy.” Rashi sees the connection to the remainder of the parashah, while Ramban reads the command as an essential component of Judaism.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man, expresses a worldview similar to Ramban’s through his conception of radical amazement:
Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.
Appreciating the world and approaching it with this sense of radical amazement was Heschel’s way of opening the door to God’s will. It was through the mindset of radical amazement that anything and everything could be traced back to a divine purpose. It was through radical amazement that Heschel found holiness.
Approaching the world as Heschel did is a difficult, if not somewhat impossible, task. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, recognizes the difficulty of this sustained way of thinking. In Understanding Our Mind, Hanh writes about approaching the world with a sense of mind consciousness:
If we look at a flower while our mind is occupied with something else, our mind consciousness is operating independently of our sense consciousness. This happens a lot in our daily lives. Suppose we are driving to work in the morning, but in our mind we are preparing for the meeting we will have later in the day. In this case, our mind consciousness is acting on its own, not in tandem with our other five senses of consciousness (141).
The challenge is real and the task daunting. Reading holiness in this light, we can simply go about our day without a sense of holiness impacting how we act. However, the charge of Parashat K’doshim is to continuously strive to recognize that holiness is the pulse that beats through verses of the Torah. In any situation, not just the ritual or liturgical, holiness can be achieved—in how we talk to our children, take care of our parents, act in our businesses, grant dignity to those less fortunate, and simply walk down the street.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.