Can Stones Be Holy?
What is the point of Judaism, if not to redeem us from worshipping “wood and stone”? Standing in the Kotel plaza, squinting in the harsh Mediterranean sun, I see that the Kotel is visibly darker about two feet above the ground. That darker strip is where visitors, pilgrims, tourists, and davenners (prayer-sayers) have placed their hands on the stones. They have come face-to-face with the Kotel, perhaps standing awkwardly, perhaps pouring out their hearts, or perhaps simply reaching out their palms to feel its cool touch. In return, they have left on the stones a strip of human touch and human prayer — a monument to human aspiration. I don’t know if the stones themselves are holy. But the residue from all those hands — that, I know, is holy.
Rabbi Mishael Zion, co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships (bronfman.org), is the co-author, with Noam Zion, of A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices. He blogs at textandcity.blogspot.com.
“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!…” howled Allen Ginsberg in 1955 “Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!”*
Holy space is space that allows us to see and feel interconnection — that part of our emotional and biological reality that draws us to love and community, cooperation and exaltation, universalism and the yearning for redemption. It’s not the space itself that is the embodiment of holiness — an idolatrous misperception that, I’m sad to say, fills the streets of Jerusalem and especially the Kotel as much as it fills the Las Vegas Strip. No, the space is simply a catalyst that, for one reason or another, awakens our recognition of everywhere and everybody as HaMakom, the Place.
Lawrence Bush is editor of Jewish Currents and author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.
*“Footnote to Howl,” Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 1947-1980, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.)
Holy and Separate
I’m fascinated by two distinct translations — and associations — of the word “kadosh.” In English, the word means “holy,” and all its associations are religious. But in Hebrew, the word means both “holy” and “separate.” So, the famous injunction, “kedoshim tihiyu” (“you shall be kadosh”), means not only “you shall be holy,” but also “you shall be separate.”
Contemporary liberal life, of course, is firmly against separation. We want everything to be mixed up together — people most of all. We don’t like to separate Jews and non-Jews or women and men.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more about separation, especially in relation to food, where I mix things up less than I used to. My sense of the sanctity of food has grown in tandem with my willingness to eat simpler meals.
So my theory of kedusha (holiness) is evolving. I’m more open to the possibility that an aspect of holiness is rooted in some degree of separateness.
Nigel Savage, an Englishman in New York, is executive director of Hazon (Nigel@hazon.org).
I was nineteen weeks pregnant when one of the twin boys I was carrying was diagnosed with a rare spinal defect that would have assured him a life of paralysis and pain. Bereft, my husband and I made the agonizing decision to stop his heart in utero. I delivered the twins — one healthy, one lifeless — together. It was the heart-wrenching intersection of medicine, choice, morality, and hope.
We struggled to decide how to handle the delivery. Should we treat the stillborn fetus like a mass of tissue, or like the child we mourned?
Our souls yearned to make holy this unholy experience, and so we gave our son a burial and, at his graveside, blessed him with a name — Ori, “my light.” In a fit of movement and sorrow, my husband heaved dirt onto Ori’s tiny pine box until it was gone from view. Bleary-eyed, we held hands and said goodbye.
Becky Rolnick, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts in film production from the University of Southern California, is currently producing an independent documentary.
As a musician and educator, I encounter a question every day: “What is holiness?” I put the question to a group of teen campers at Shwayder Camp in Idaho Springs, Colo. to see if I could gain some insight from them. Their responses follow:
- when I need to talk to God
- listening to silence
- believing in the sun when the sun is not in the sky, believing in God when God is not with you
- “What? I’m so confused”
- the strength in my hands, the tip of my pen, the doctors who help to heal
- an ambiguous term; not something I can explain
- the boundaries that keep us in line
- a tree sprouting from the ground
- not hard to feel when we take time to really see or listen
- something I don’t think about
- being present
- practicing the same thing until you think you know what it is
- keeping kosher; none of my friends know what it means but that does not stop me
- a person who picks up trash when no one’s watching or takes extra time to check in with a stranger who seems to be having a hard time
- the wrong word: everything’s supposed to be holy, but what if holy means commonplace and we just don’t know it yet?
- a community in which people support each other and depend on each other
- my room, the place where I shut myself out of the world, do whatever I please, and allow myself to concentrate on my life
- sometimes passed down from generations
- what starts life and lets us keep going; writing my own story
Naomi Less, a worship and rock musician and an experiential Jewish educator, founded Jewish Chicks Rock. She is a founding company member of Storahtelling. She can be reached at naomiless.com.
Holiness in the Dirt
It is a truism that “holiness” means separateness and differentiation. “You shall be holy: you shall be separated.” (Sifra, Kedoshim, 1) It is but a short distance from here to the understanding that a person who separates himself or herself from the community is holy. Several places in rabbinic literature oppose this stance, including: “A person should always evaluate himself as if holiness is resting in his stomach.” (Rabbi Elazar, Bavli Ta’anit 11a-11b)
The Talmud understands Rabbi Elazar’s words in a very concrete way — not as a symbol. He calls “holy” the functions of the stomach — an organ that does not allow for separation, that digests food and sends it to be expelled into the world. This is in contrast to the view that places of holiness should be distanced from life; for example, one should not pray in a place abutting a toilet.
The claim that the Temple is not found in Jerusalem but in the heart is not enough for this sage. Rather, he sees holiness not in “clean” organs but in the “dirty” organ: the stomach. Holiness lives in the place where there is life — in the place where there is movement and processes, and therefore in the place where there is dirt. Rabbi Elazar wants us to search for holiness only in our real lives.
Ruhama Weiss, a teacher of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, is director of its Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling. Translated by Aryeh Cohen.