Ye shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy.
This Torah portion begins with an astonishing statement:
Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy.
The gist of this commandment is “Be kadosh (or pl., kedoshim) because I, the Lord, your G‑d, am kadosh.” The question is, what does the word “kadosh” mean. It is usually translated as “holy.” The word “holy” means sacred, sanctified, blessed, divine. But this translation presents a problem. It would be a tautology to say that G‑d is divine. It is also self-understood that G‑d is holy. He is the definition and the source of all that is divine and holy, i.e., godly. But we, people, are mere mortals. Just as it would be difficult to understand a statement “I am godly therefore you must be godly,” or “I am divine, so you shall be divine,” so it is difficult to understand a statement “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy.” It is axiomatic that G‑d is holy. How does it follow from here, however, that we shall be holy too?
The other translation of the word kadosh is “removed“ or “separated.” Thus, a Jewish marriage is called “kiddushin” because it represents a ceremony by which the bride (kalah) becomes removed from the pool of eligible women and forbidden for all other man, but to her groom (chatan). Well, G‑d created this world and, therefore is above and beyond it. So it could be said that G‑d is kadosh in the sense that He is separated from, i.e., above and beyond this world. In fact, the Midrash interprets this verse, as “My children, as I am separate, so you be separate; as I am holy, so you be holy.” (Leviticus Rabbah 24:4) But we are not separated from this world (and, hopefully, for a long time!) – we are a part of this world! So, how can we aspire to be separate from, while being a part of the world?! Moreover, as with the first translation, how does us, Jews, being separated from the world follow from the fact that G‑d is separated from the world?
There are a couple of ways to tackle this question depending on the chosen translation. Let’s start with the traditional translation of kadosh as “holy.” To understand why we would want to be holy because G‑d is holy, we need to understand a more general question – why would we want to emulate G‑d’s traits?
Just as a child always wants to get closer to his or her mother or father, being G‑d’s children, we naturally want to get closer to our heavenly Father. Therefore, let us assume that we want to get close to G‑d. But how do we do it? “Closer,” “further” – these are spatial concepts meant to describe relative distance is space. Needless to say, G‑d does not exist in a physical space. One of the names of G‑d is HaMakom – lit., “the Space,” meaning, G‑d is the “space” of the world. (Having just celebrated Passover, you may remember a song from Hagadah that we sung on Seder night – Baruch HaMakom Baruch Hu – Blessed be HaMakom, blessed be He.)
If G‑d does not exist within physical space, how can we get closer to Him? As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his book, “Inner Space,” the main distinction between our physical world and a spiritual word is that the former exists in space and the latter outside of space. There is no space, like what we are accustomed to, in a spiritual world. If so, how do we say, for example, that some angels are “higher” than the others?
It can be said that a spiritual world has its own space – a conceptual space. Every point in that space represents an idea or a concept. The distance between points in a conceptual space – what we call in geometry, a metric – is the measure of similarity of the concepts that represent the points in that space. The more similar two concepts are, the closer they are to each other. If two concepts are the same, A=B, we say that A and B occupy the same point in this conceptual space. The more different two concepts are, the further apart they are in a conceptual space. If two ideas are opposite (one is the negation of the other: A = Not B), then we say that A and B are infinitely far from each other. G‑d defines the “vertical” dimension in the spiritual (conceptual) space. The word “higher” in this spiritual space means “closer to G‑d,” i.e., more like G‑d. The word “lower” means further away from G‑d, i.e., more dissimilar from G‑d.
Now we can understand that the only way we can get “closer” to G‑d is by being more like Him, by emulating His attributes and traits. G‑d is kind, so we want to be kind too. G‑d is just, so we want to be just too. G‑d is merciful, so we want to be merciful too. This is how we get closer to G‑d. That is why, in the beginning of the Torah portion, You shall be holy, the commandment “for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy” – is a prescription for getting closer to G‑d by emulating his traits.
Let’s now tackle the problem from the point of view of the other translation of the word “kadosh” as meaning “removed” or “separated.” As I often do on this blog, I am going to use the metaphor of quantum mechanics to help us understand the meaning of this Biblical verse.
In quantum mechanics, objects can be entangled or disentangled. If two objects are entangled, they share the same quantum-mechanical state, i.e., they are described by the same wave function. The rule of quantum mechanics is such that only two objects can be entangled – this called the quantum “monogamy” principle. If two subatomic particles are entangled and one of them “wants” to get entangled with a third particle, it must disentangle from the first.
Allow me a poetic license to translate the word kadosh as “disentangled.” Now, our verse reads:
You shall be disentangled, for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am disentangled.
“Disentangled” here means, of course, disentangled from the physical world. Now the meaning of this verse becomes apparent. G‑d tells us, as it were, “I am disentangled from the world, but I am entangled with you, My children. If you get entangled with the physical world by indulging in its coarse physical pleasures, you will get disentangled from Me. If you want to be entangled with Me, you must disentangle from the physical world. Only the two of us can be entangled.”
Needless to say, we don’t need (nor do we want) to leave this world to be entangled with G‑d. If G‑d wanted that, He would have created us as spiritual beings living is a spiritual world. For that G‑d already has angels. He created us with our corporeal bodies and placed us in this physical world. Our mission is to turn this lowly world into a dwelling place for G‑d. The trick is not to get too involved in the physicality and transient pleasures of this world, so as not to get entangled with it.
To summarize, the first translation of the word kadosh as “holy” provides a general recipe for getting closer to G‑d by emulating His traits and being more G‑d-like, i.e., more holy. The second translation of kadosh as “separated, removed” or “disentangled” provides a more concrete instruction of how to entangle with G‑d, by disentangling ourselves from the physical pleasures of this world. A mystic can be defined as someone who seeks devekut (unio mystica), i.e., entanglement with G‑d. This verse teaches that, if the goal of a mystic is entanglement with G‑d, a way of a mystic is ascetic life disentangled (to a degree) from the physical pleasures of this world.