Saturday, January 5, 2013

Between Holy and Ordinary

It's Saturday night, which means havdallah--the division between Shabbat and the rest of the week.  As part of the short service marking the occasion, we praise God for making distinctions, for separating, among other things, holy (kadosh) from ordinary (chol).

Judaism loves these sorts of divisions.  God creates the world by setting boundaries, by separating light from darkness, earth from sky, land from water.  And our tradition is full of such binary categories: kosher or treif, permitted or forbidden, land of Israel or diaspora (chutz la-aretz), Jewish or Gentile.

But one should be wary in making these simplistic distinctions.  Our tradition places great stock in boundaries--yet it also recognizes that sometimes, boundaries blur.  Life is more often played out in the center of a spectrum than at the polar opposites.  Talmud recognizes that morality is complicated, that it tends toward shades of grey rather than black and white, good and bad.  Not all differences can or even should be resolved.  Sometimes the way of paradox, of "both/and" is much truer than divisions into "either/or."  The sunset that marks the passing of Shabbat is neither day nor night.  It is both--the slow, steady passage between one and the other, when light and darkness embrace--and it is, for this, uniquely beautiful.

Here in Israel, people tend to define themselves as either dati (meaning, roughly, "religous") or lo dati ("not religious")--with "religious" being synonymous with Orthodoxy.  This division does not serve liberal Judaism very well.  We need to insist that one can be dati, fully and authentically religious, as a Reform or Conservative Jew.

Indeed, I believe that one can find religious holiness in all sorts of areas that are typically defined as secular.  As I've noted earlier, one of my favorite places in Israel is the Jerusalem zoo.  When you go to this supposedly non-religious place, you see hasidic Jews, Arabs, secular Jews, Christian tourists, fourth-generation Israelis and new immigrants, all enjoying the magnificence of God's creation. What could be more holy?  And what of efforts by ultra-Orthodox Jews to force women to sit in the back of Israeli buses--restrictions offered in the name of "holiness" but surely ugly and profane?

So as we begin a new week, I will be looking to go beyond the simple division between holy and ordinary.  I want to find holiness in the ordinary.  That's one of the great joys of being in Israel.  Judaism isn't something that happens just in the synagogue, a day or two each week.  Jewishness permeates everything, which makes everything potentially holy--the whole big, ugly, beautiful, glorious mess that is life here.

Shavua tov.

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