On Monday, Rabbi Roffman and I had the great privilege of addressing the middle school students at Levine Academy as part of their exploration of Jewish values and sexuality. This is the second year running that we’ve led conversations about what Judaism tells us about how to approach our relationships with other people—whether romantic or platonic—and how we regard the holiness of each person.
We love helping these emerging teenagers, who are experiencing so much change in themselves as they go through physical and emotional transitions, contextualize and reflect upon the deepest-held convictions of our tradition. In a few weeks, we’ll also share these conversations with our 5th and 6th-grade students in the Weitzman Family Religious School.
When I mentioned this to a friend, she said to me, “Huh, I actually have no idea what Judaism says about this stuff! I wish someone had told me when I was in middle school!”
So, here are a couple of core ideas. I encourage you to talk to your partners, children, parents, friends—if you want!—and reflect on the way you see yourselves in these concepts.
Tzelem Elohim: Each and every one of us is created in the image of God. This means, first and foremost, that we treat ourselves with utmost holiness. We think about what we put into our bodies, how we express ourselves to the world, how we are whole and perfect and sacred; therefore, we do not engage in acts of self-harm. Second, it means that we use this mode of deference with each person we meet—whether it’s someone we know intimately or a complete stranger. Because we all share a spark of divinity, and because we are all facets of God, we all deserve a life of dignity.
Brit: Usually, we think about a brit (covenant) as the relationship between God and us. We’re both parties in this relationship, obligated by a sacred agreement that we both owe something to the other party. If either party fails to uphold his/her obligations, the relationship falls apart because one can no longer trust the other. Similarly, there is a brit that exists between each person—and if one person fails the other, it’s tragically difficult to repair that trust. Understanding the terms of the brit and setting forth expectations helps us access both the boundaries and the potential of a relationship.
Kiddushin: It’s no accident that we use the word kodesh (holiness) as the title for the Jewish wedding ceremony. We bring holiness into the most poignant parts of our Jewish practice: invoking God’s name in a prayer space with a minyan (Kedusha), standing to mourn our loved ones (Mourners’ Kaddish), sanctifying holy days (Kiddush)—to name just a few. In this case, we extend the realm of holiness to our most intimate relationships. We believe that when we find our other half, we are then enabled to continue the holy act of creation. When we build a home with someone else, we learn how to act selflessly as our center of gravity migrates from our own person to the space we share with our partner. It is through these acts that we learn how to bring holiness into the world.
I hope this is only the beginning of a longer conversation—I’d love to hear how you see these ideas in your lives, and what other important concepts contribute to building holy relationships.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share