Our Quest for Holiness at the JOFA UK Conference

Although the official subtitle of last month’s London JOFA conference was “Reinforcing Tradition through Renewal,” what I took away from the day was a slightly different question: immersed as we are in a modern, metropolitan, even mundane existence, how do we maintain and increase kedushah, holiness, in our life?

The idea, I must admit, wasn’t my own. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, speaking about his personal story, stressed that the quest for kedushah defines not only haredi Orthodox religiosity but also the approach of Modern Orthodoxy. I would go further and say that this quest is probably what unites all segments of the Jewish community (and we could go even further and add all members of any faith community). As Rabbi Katz said, “ultimately what we want is to get closer to God, to have more intimacy with ribono shel olam, the Master of the Universe.”

This desire makes each and every one of us, men and women, holy: kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim, the whole congregation, they are all holy. The big debate is, how to achieve that kedushah today. Some believe holiness is hidden in the small print: in the observance of the minutest stringencies in halakha, Jewish law. Others have discarded halakha altogether and are looking for alternative ways of connecting to God. While in Modern Orthodoxy we accept that some aspects of Jewish observance are non-negotiable, we still find that different ways of coming closer to God will work for different people in various contexts. Rabba Sara Hurwitz explained, for example, that what keeps her going is her congregants, the deep relationships she has developed with them, and her desire to inspire her students. Rabbi Katz, while admitting that “a day doesn’t go by that I don’t have doubts and debilitating fears,” believes that we become Godly by performing daily acts of kindness. We must persevere despite our uncertainties, and rely on what he called “the faith gene,” even as we admit that God sometimes—or often, or always—makes no sense to us.

I have the faith gene, and I know other people who do. But I also know quite a few who do not — some of them secular, professing atheists, others religious in their lifestyle. Listening to Rabbi Katz, the question arose in me: how does one who doesn’t seem to have that faith gene go about getting closer to God? What kind of God can we expect them to worship? Well, it’s a question I cannot claim to have an answer to. However, part of the answer, perhaps just a tiny part, might be a fine-tuning of how we think about God.

Rabba Hurwitz told us a story about Lily, a friend of hers who is a Holocaust survivor. Lily had come out of the camps with the realization that God was not Superman. God was not here to solve our problems. I believe that all religious education ought to start with this statement. If our idea of God is that of superman-saviour, our ideas need refining. We have a bad habit of thinking about God in the wrong way, in human terms. We can’t help it. And then expectations develop, and we want to copy human relationships onto our relationship with God, and it doesn’t work.

I agree with Rabbi Katz: we are not meant to be able to make sense of God. In a sense, maybe, it would be helpful to leave God out of the equation for a minute now and again. To just look at what surrounds us with eyes that see; to perceive the world and its creatures for the miracles that they are. When we are able then to go to God with this awe and sense of wonder and a heart full of rapture; when we forget about expectations towards God and a relationship based on give-and-take, and all the anthropomorphisms our understanding of the Divine is infested with—maybe then we will have lit that spark of kedushah in ourselves. Maybe then we will have uncovered the faith gene.

Learn more about JOFA’s initiatives in the UK.

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