Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Holiness according to Jewish tradition
What is Holiness?
Because holiness (kedushah) by any definition points to an intangible world, to the spiritual, it is an elusive concept. Most of us have some idea of what is meant by saying that something is “sacred” or “holy” but we find difficulties when we try to put it into words. A working definition of holiness is given in the Hebrew Encyclopedia, entitled Otzar Yisrael, under the heading “Kedushah.” The definition is: “That which is elevated above any material concept and distinguished from any secular concept or is separated for the name of the Lord.” Holiness, in other words, is a religious concept. A person whose life is conducted on a purely secular plane might be a good person but neither he nor others would refer to him as “holy.”
In the Bible “holiness” is a characteristic of God Who is apart from the universe and beyond its limitations. The song of the serafim is “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3); that is to say, God is apart from everything in the material universe, yet in that universe there are intimations of His holiness - “The whole earth is full of His glory.” Anything dedicated to God is called “holy,” the Temple, Bet ha-Mikdash, for example, or the synagogue, which is called a makom kadosh, “holy place.” The implication is that to be near to God it is necessary to be holy, and this is expressed in the key verse: “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The verse is addressed to “all the congregation of the children of Israel” so it must be something possible for all. And this is where a difficulty arises, since by “holy people” we usually refer to hermits or very unworldly persons and this is hardly an ideal for everyone; or, as far as Judaism is concerned, for anyone!
In fact, Judaism awards the title kedoshim, “holy ones,” to very few. Only a handful even of the great teachers of the past are usually referred to as kedoshim - Rabbi Judah the Prince is called Rabbenu ha-Kadosh, for example. Martyrs are called kedoshim both because they have “sanctified God's name” by giving their lives for His sake and because they have demonstrated that the spiritual world means more to them than anything this material world has to offer.
Significantly, Jewish communities are called “holy” - a community is referred to as kehillah kedoshah; implying that where Jews are gathered together for sacred purposes, even if as individuals they are far from the ideal of holiness, collectively, holiness is present. The holiness ideal is, then, not for the few saints but for men and women living normal lives in the physical world. How can they be holy? The Jewish reply is by keeping in touch as much as possible with spiritual things. This involves, a certain readiness to give up too much attachment to worldly things, a degree of separation from material pleasure, though not its denial. On the verse: “And ye shall be holy men unto Me” (Ex 22:30) the Kotzker Rebbe commented: “Be holy but not in a wild, inhuman way. Be holy but be men at the same time.” Martin Buber observed that Judaism demands that we be “humanly holy.”
This leads us to consider how far Judaism believes in self-denial. It is too easy to reply that Judaism does not believe in any kind of self-denial except of things actually forbidden. The Rabbis say: “Sanctify yourself by denying yourself even something of that which is otherwise permitted.” What this means is that self-control must be exercised even when doing that which Torah permits. That which the Torah forbids, it forbids to all. At the same time, the Torah permits many things, but it is not a blanket permission. The Torah does not say, “As long as it is not technically forbidden, you can do whatever you wish.” Indulging in things permitted can be so gross and unrefined that it is a block to holiness. Take, for instance, a person who never eats forbidden food or food gained by illegal methods, never goes with anyone other than his or her own spouse, never eats or drinks on Yom Kippur, never sleeps when it is time to be up and about; and yet spends most leisure time eating and drinking, having sex, and sleeping. He is far from the Torah ideal of a person who not only obeys the laws, but who has a “Torah character.”
Naturally, there can be no detailed laws about such matters, but it is a Torah law that each person must exercise self-control. Just as the ideal of going beyond the letter of the law in financial matters is itself a law that is left to individual discretion, so is the religious ideal of holiness. Its necessity is a law, but how it is applied is a matter for free but honest choice. What for one person is gross indulgence is essential to the health of another. It is left to each individual to decide how much self-control should be exercised so that worldly pleasure and enjoyments are not a barrier to appreciation of spiritual things.To do this is to be holy.
Holiness is a Gift
Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707-1746) says that, according to Jewish teaching, the attainment of holiness is not possible through one's own efforts alone, but is ultimately a gift from God. He quotes the talmudic rabbis who say that a person who makes a little effort to be holy is given much holiness from on high. The effort means keeping aloof from whatever is grossly material. After all, says Luzzatto, a person is a physical being, merely flesh and blood, so that to become really holy, God must impart to him some of His holiness.
We are at this point considering something more than the holiness required of “all the congregation of Israel.” This is religion at its most intense form, and while it is good to know that many Jews have striven to be holy in this superior way, for most of us it belongs more to a vision or remote ideal than to practical Jewish living. In fact, Luzzatto states this only at the conclusion of his work Mesillat Yesharim, “Path of the Upright,” which is a treatise describing humanity's ascent through various stages of the spiritual life until becoming so holy as to attain the “holy spirit” (ruah ha-kodesh), to become inspired. Luzzatto's famous work follows the “path of the upright” mapped out by the second-century teacher Rabbi Phinehas ben Yair (tracte Avodah Zarah 20b). Rabbi Phinehas ben Yair outlines the progress people can make in holy living, beginning with obligations every Jew has and going on to much higher things, which, to be honest, are probably beyond the majority of us today.
Here is the statement of Rabbi Phinehas ben Yair: “The knowledge of the Torah leads to watchfulness, watchfulness to zeal, zeal to cleanness, cleanness to abstinence, abstinence to purity, purity to saintliness, saintliness to humility, humility to the fear of sin, and the fear of sin to holiness. Holiness leads to the holy spirit and the holy spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead.” From this last clause, too, we see he is teaching a rare stage akin to what we usually refer to in English as “saintliness” of the highest degree.
For Lesser Mortals
Having gone far above our normal grasp, we should now return to consider what approach to holiness is possible for ordinary people (although the Jew who strives to be holy is not really “ordinary,” but distinguished). Judaism knows of many aids to holiness, the means of bringing a person closer to the divine even when living fully in the material world. Prominent among these are the “holy days” - the Sabbaths and festivals when secular concerns are put aside and there is time for spiritual refreshment as well as the many opportunities for eating and drinking as sacred acts, in the Sabbath and festival spirit.
Yom Kippur in particular is called in the Jewish tradition Yom ha-Kadosh, 'the Holy Day', the special day when the needs of normal physical life are transcended and the Jew is especially near to God. The classical works of Judaism are called 'holy'. By studying these 'holy books', even if, as in the case of Luzzatto, they take us further than we are ready to go, we learn that there can be a sacred dimension to human life.
And there are the numerous symbols of the Jewish religion, many of which are reminders of holiness - tefillin, the Sefer Torah, and the mezuzzah are obvious examples. On the negative side, there is the need to avoid, so far as possible, the opposite of the holy. It is called, in the Jewish tradition, tumah, “uncleanness”, “contamination.” The best-known of the “negative” reminders are the dietary laws. According to rabbinic teaching, forbidden food “contaminates” the soul, that is, keeps a person far from the divine. Without overstressing it, one can think of books and magazines which can hardly be conducive to holiness. Another powerful symbol of holiness is fire. From earliest times, fire and light have been seen as pointing to something higher and not of this world, because of their brightness and the way they dispel darkness. In Judaism there are a number of fire symbols - the Sabbath lights, the Havdalah candle, the Hanukkah lights, the eternal lamp in the synagogue. The Zohar, seeking to explain the Jewish custom of swaying during prayer, suggests that it is like a little candle placed near a great flame. As the candle is drawn toward the flame, the human soul in prayer is drawn toward the divine fire, causing the body to sway to and fro.
Preserving a Sense of Balance
The Talmud (tractate Taanit 11a) records two opinions on self-denial. One Rabbi said that people who deny themselves are sinners (presumably because they reject the legitimate gifts of food and drink God has given to them). But another Rabbi said that, on the contrary, such people are holy. There has been much discussion on these two opinions in the moralistic literature, and various attempts have been made to reconcile them.
Many of the later Jewish teachers hold that it all depends on motive and temperament. If a person is really sincere in the quest for God and truly appreciates how necessary it is to forgo many of life's pleasures in order to get nearer to God, he is holy. But if his reasons are a hatred of life or a morbid disposition or, worst of all, a wish to demonstrate superiority to lesser beings in the practice of self-control, he is a sinner, guilty of using religion to satisfy selfish desires.
There is nothing so unwholesome as false piety because it degrades the whole concept of religion. That is why we must be extremely cautious when we approach the tremendous subject of holiness. It is all too easy for us to pretend to be what we are not. Judaism advocates holiness; it does not hold with priggishness. Basically, it is all a matter of preserving a proper balance. The ideal of holiness must never be absent, but we must be honest with ourselves, always trying to have the right motivation and not trying to overreach ourselves.
In Praise of Holiness
Very numerous are the statements in the rabbinic literature in praise of holiness. Before carrying out the mitzvot, the Rabbis rule - and this is still the practice today - it is essential to recite the benediction: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments.” Through observing God's laws we become holy. The usual name for God in the rabbinic literature, when He is spoken of in the third person, is Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, “The Holy One, blessed be He.” One of the Rabbis was praised as benan shel kedoshim, “son of holy ones,” because he never gazed at the emperor's figure on a coin (either because the emperor was worshipped or because there were idolatrous symbols held by him on the coin). Total rejection of anything that savored of idolatry was seen as a particular sign of holiness.
There are degrees of holiness and one must always go higher in matters of the sacred, never lower. Thus it is permitted to sell a copy of one of the prophetic books in order to buy a Sefer Torah with the money, but not the other way around. The Sabbaths and festivals should be welcomed by observing them a little earlier than they actually begin, and their departure should be postponed a little in order to allow the holy to encroach on the profane. The sanctity of the Sabbath is, in miniature, like the sanctity of the World to Come. According to the Rabbis, when God gave Israel the Sabbath, He gave them a foretaste of the holiness of Paradise. Holiness is so problematical to attain completely while a person is still alive and subject to temptation that, the Rabbis say, God calls no righteous person holy until he is dead and buried. The Zohar states that of all holy things, none is holier than the Torah, and that both students of the Torah and those who help them to study are entitled to be called holy.
Dwelling in Their Midst
“And let them make Me a sanctuary (mikdash), that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). An ancient comment to this verse helps us understand the concept of holiness. The Israelites were told to erect a sanctuary for God to dwell in. But the comment says that since God is everywhere, the purpose of the sanctuary (and this applies to all aids to holiness) is to awaken holy feelings, which then cause God to “dwell among them,” that is, in their hearts. The great mystery at the center of the Jewish religion is that God, Who is so remote from all human understanding, can yet be very near to us if the necessary conditions are prepared.
* * *
OF HOLINESS AND TIME
Time...has been homogenized by science and modern culture. Every hour has sixty minutes; each minute, sixty seconds; each of these intervals is split by a cesium clock into millionths of units. Measured by such machines, there is no distinctive time; there is only the steady linear flow of measured time. The combination of the endless natural order of days and the regularity of personal life and work can make existence routine, turning it into what Leo Baeck called a “mere succession of days.” In the Shabbat, the Torah has created an antidote to this tendency; it is a framework to nurture holiness and to develop humanity's reverence toward nature and life. The Torah seeks to imbue time with this dimension of holiness so that the uniqueness of the human being will be sustained by the temporal reality.
The Shabbat is a response to routinization by creating a temporal counterculture, an island of special existence within the stream of time. Holiness involves a directional process, a shift from homogenized neutral reality to value-saturated reality. In becoming holy, the human being shifts from unexamined life to examined life, from instinctual existence to conscious being. To imbue every area of life with choice, levels of meaning, and value is to sanctify. At each step, the degree of psychic freedom must be raised, for unreflective life is determined by hormones or habits. Only one who is conscious of every moment can make choices or apply a hierarchy of values in every act of life. Thus, the detailed Sabbath ritual, which appears to prescribe everything by rigid rules, is really an assertion of consciousness and one's freedom to imbue every gesture and experience with value. It takes discipline and awareness to make these moves correctly. In this area, as in so many others, freedom grows in the womb of structure. And since every gesture is willed and directional, it is rich in meaning and statement. Every move on Shabbat is part of a dance of holiness.
(From THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS by Rabbi Irving Greenberg (1988). Reprinted with permission from TOUCHSTONE, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.)
Rabbi Louis Jacobs, Congregational Rabbi at New London Synagogue, is the most distinguished English Jewish academic world authority on Talmud and Jewish mysticism. He has taught at Leo Baeck College, was Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University, and was Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School. This article is reprinted, with the kind permission of Behrman House, Inc., from The Book of Jewish Belief by Louis Jacobs, in which it appears as Chapter 23, "Holiness".