Holiness – Kedushah

Alan Mittleman

Holiness can be analysed in terms of three frameworks: as a real property of sacred persons, places, things, and times; as an ascription of a special status, especially that of ownership by or proximity to God; and as a project of spiritual and ethical striving. The Bible exemplifies each of these approaches, endowing Judaism with a complex teaching as to the nature of holiness. Although an ontological sense of holiness persists, Judaism comes increasingly to emphasize spiritual and moral self-transformation as the essence of holiness.

1 The terminology of holiness: expressions of the root k-d-sh (קדש) in the Bible

In English, the word ‘holy’ is related to words such as ‘whole’ and ‘health’. Underlying holiness etymologically are notions of fullness and soundness. Hebrew conceptions of holiness point in a different direction. The etymological source for these conceptions is elusive, however. The consonantal root (k-d-sh) that is ordinarily translated with holiness terms is of unknown etymology. Occurrences of the root in related languages, such as Ugaritic and Akkadian, imply a possible descent from notions of purity, brightness, cleanness, and clarity. The actual words deriving from the root in non-Israelite texts, however, already assume a cult, cultic places, cultic personnel, and ritual activities such as consecration and purification. K-d-sh words are already ‘religious’, making it difficult to discover other meanings.

This is also true in biblical Hebrew. A contemporary interpreter, Warren Zev Harvey, finds that ‘the most elementary investigation into the meaning of “holy” leads immediately into the phenomenology of religion’ (Harvey 1977: 8). Jewish theology often attempts to make holiness wholly unlike other descriptive predicates, a marker of pure transcendence. Nonetheless, that hard transcendental turn might not be fully warranted. Baruch Levine suggests that the Akkadian word qadashu sometimes connotes physical properties and physical effects such as the brilliance or aura surrounding gods and kings, as well as processes relevant to cleansing and purification (Levine 1987: 242). This duality of property and process is also found in the biblical texts and recurs in the Jewish sources. The duality raises a fundamental theological question: is holiness a real property of entities said to be holy – like ‘wet’ being a real (emergent) property of liquids – or is holiness an artifact of human practice and ascription? Is holiness a fact about the world or is it a human description of some slice of it? From a modern point of view, holiness seems entirely ascriptive; realism about holiness seems out of place. That is not how it looks from within the tradition, however. The question of the ontological status of holiness will be considered below.

1.1 Holiness and separateness

Rabbinic interpretation often glosses biblical holiness (kodesh) as separateness, being set apart. There is much evidence for this; separateness is a conceptual feature of holiness in the Hebrew Bible, although perhaps not its conceptual origin. We see separateness at work in many of the biblical instances of holiness. God, for example, the ultimate archetype of holiness, is radically separate from all of creation (‘Who is like You, Lord, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness [ba-kodesh], awesome in splendour, working wonders!’ [Exod 15:11]). God takes Israel as a treasured people and endows them with a unique status among the nations, a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (goy kadosh [Exod 19:6]). Israel is called to emulate God’s ways and to strive to be holy (kedoshim tihyu: Lev 19:2), separating themselves, through their divinely-given way of life, from all other human communities (Deut 7:1–11). Part of this way of life is constituted by faithful observance of holy times, principally the Sabbath (Exod 20:8) and festivals (mikraei kodesh, Lev 23:4), which stand apart from ordinary time. The wandering sanctuary in the wilderness (mikdash) is holy because God’s presence abides there (Exod 25:8); it must be fenced off from the rest of the camp. Similarly, the Temple (beit mikdash) on Mount Zion in Jerusalem – biblical and ancient Judaism’s most holy place – is separated from the rest of the city by its elevation, gates, and the numerous special practices and restrictions that pertain to it. Within it, there are grades of holiness indicated by increasingly restrictive separated areas where only ranked classes of holy persons (Levites, priests, and the High Priest) can enter (m. Kelim 1:8–9). In each instance, separateness is a conceptual correlate of such words as kadosh (an adjective) or kodesh (a noun).

Separation alone, however, does not suffice for an entity to be considered holy. Biblical Hebrew has a root (b-d-l) for separation or separating, as in Gen 1:6: ‘God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate (mavdil) water from water”‘. Separation in this case has nothing to do with holiness. It is fair to say, therefore, that separation is a concomitant not the essence of holiness. It is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion for the ascription of holiness. Rejecting the casual equation of holiness and separation leads to a deeper inquiry into the nature of holiness: if it is not merely the bald fact of separateness, what is it? What is separation for? What is the meaning and purpose of separation from the ordinary?

2 Biblical concepts of holiness

Asking what it means for something to be holy requires first a prior question: what does it mean for something to be ordinary? The usual antonym for ‘holy’ (or ‘sacred’) in English is ‘profane’. This opposition might however be misleading in biblical and subsequent Jewish thought. If ‘profane’ is taken to mean something negative, bad, or even evil, it would be inappropriate in the Jewish context. It would preclude the possibility of a neutral domain. According to Dan (1998: 14) and Jensen (1992: 43–45), the opposite of holiness in biblical Hebrew is ‘ritually unclean’ (tamé), not profane (ḥol) in a strict sense. The difference may seem slight, but it is theologically significant. On this view, the world is for the most part ‘religiously’ neutral; most natural things are pure (tahor). Some things, however, such as dead animals, bodily fluids, blood, etc. are impure (tamé). This may be because they imply the presence of death (Milgrom 1998: 46) whereas ritually pure things imply the stability and value of life. In any case, judgements about pure and impure are not primarily ‘value judgements’. They are only relevant in the ritual context. Contact with impure things, for example, prevents a priest from entering the holy place or eating holy foods, such as the portion of a sacrifice reserved for him. He must be cleansed of their pollution to reacquire permission to come into contact with the holy. The upshot of this is that the world itself is not impure or polluted; it is not ‘profane’ in a robustly negative sense. The world is God’s creation, which God pronounced good, even ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). Creation, notwithstanding its vicissitudes and hardships from a human point of view, should be affirmed as fundamentally good.

2.1 Eliade on holiness

In this context, the classic work of Mircea Eliade is relevant. Eliade claims that religions typically propose a picture in which the world is divided into sacred (or holy) and profane (1987: 11). The former is exemplified by holy places, times, persons, or objects, all of which instantiate power, blessing, and transcendence. The holy entities link to a realm of power and renewal. The profane sphere, by contrast, reveals a world of diminished vitality, of distance from the life-giving ‘axis’ or link to the holy realm. Human experience within the profane sphere is flat, not elevated; quotidian, not transcendent. It is the experience of inertia rather than renewal. The holy or sacred centre is ontologically superior to the profane periphery.

2.2 Holiness and its contexts

The theological orientation of the Bible, as suggested, contrasts with or qualifies Eliade’s stark dichotomy. According to Gen 1:31, the world is fundamentally good in God’s eyes. The world is not to be rejected as profane in the sense of inferior or diminished. Although it has factors that make for ritual impurity, its natural state is one of purity. While it is true that holiness indicates a separation in some manner from the natural state, the natural state is ritually neutral and ‘metaphysically’ good, that is, good from a divine or ultimate perspective. Hence, ‘profane’ (ḥol) has a restricted, technical meaning. It refers, for example, to a consecrated object, such as a sacrifice that had been dedicated to God, that has lost its consecrated status and must therefore be rejected. It can also refer to the violation of restrictions pertaining to holy things, such as the misuse of sanctified objects in the Temple or work during a period of holy time. One can desecrate the Sabbath by lighting a fire (Exod 35:3). The profane, therefore, is not an objective condition of the world as such but a consequence of human action or omission. Holiness is layered, so to speak, on top of natural goodness rather than being construed in opposition to the world. This opens a theological space for making the ordinary holy. Those ritually neutral but ontologically good ‘ordinary’ aspects of God’s creation can be conceived as ‘not yet holy’. Not being impure or profane in a broad sense, they can be raised in status to holiness. This possibility will play a major role in later Jewish thinking about holiness. It is especially prominent in Martin Buber and his interpretation of Hasidism (Biemann 2002: 88).

2.2.1 Three senses of holiness

The concept of holiness has overlapping but distinct senses in the Bible and thus in subsequent Judaism. Holiness can be conceived as (1) a kind of physical property, (2) an ascribed status, and (3) a personal and communal project, a striving toward a moral ideal of imitating God.

2.2.2 Holiness as a property

Holiness is sometimes conceived as a property or reified trait. Holiness has a physical aspect, as impurity seems also to have on this ancient view. In Exod 30:29, after prescribing the ingredients for the anointing oil and the procedures for its future use, God commands: ‘Thus you shall consecrate them [the altar and other appurtenances of the Tent of Meeting] so that they may be most holy; whoever touches them shall be consecrated’. Similarly, Exod 29:37: ‘Seven days you shall perform purification for the altar to consecrate it, and the altar shall become most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated’. The plain reading of the text seems to be that persons or things that come into contact with the altar absorb its holiness. In Ezek 44:19, the priests are instructed to take off their holy robes when they enter the outer courtyard where laypersons are, ‘lest they make the people consecrated by contact with their vestments’. Holiness is communicable; it is a physical property that can pass from object to object or person to person. This happens automatically, as if holiness were a natural force with causal power. Later Jewish tradition cannot accept this archaic conception and exercised ingenuity in ‘misreading’ the texts so as to eliminate ‘contagious’ holiness (Lockshin 2018: 56). Conceiving holiness as a physical property implies an ontological dimension. This idea is alien to modern consciousness. It strikes a modern person as unduly supernatural, even superstitious. However, insofar as the ontological aspect of holiness appears in medieval Jewish tradition, especially in the mystical understanding of the holiness of the Jewish people and of the Land of Israel, it will be important to continue to note it, even if only to defang its problematic theological and ethical implications.

2.2.3 Holiness as a status

If holiness as a property is analogous to water being wet, holiness as a status is analogous to an object being ‘mine’ or, more appropriately ‘God’s’. On this analysis, holy objects, persons, or times are such because they belong to God. God possesses them either because God has made them and has designated them holy or because human beings have taken originally ordinary things and consecrated them to God. They have now entered the divine domain and belong to God. Among entities made holy through God’s own agency are the Sabbath (Gen 2:3) and festivals (Lev 23:4), firstborn humans or beasts (Num 8:17), the people of Israel as a whole (‘You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine’, Lev 20:26) and the mountain that God chose for God’s ‘house’, that is, the Solomonic Temple (Isa 11:9). Human beings, however, also get to consecrate objects and persons to God, thus making them holy through human agency. Sometimes they work cooperatively with God, who instructs them in how to render persons (such as the priests who will serve God) and things holy (Exod 40:9–15). God has made the Sabbath holy, but it is Israel’s responsibility to keep it holy (Exod 20:8). At other times, the process of consecration is effectuated solely through human initiative and agency (Lev 27:9–34). All of these entities, once consecrated, acquire the status of holiness in the sense of being God’s. These needn’t be thought of as being holy in an intrinsic, ontological way. This systemic refusal to reify holiness characterizes the approach of Maimonides (Kellner 2018: 115). Nonetheless, such reifications have often occurred, especially vis-a-vis the Sabbath, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people.

2.2.4 Holiness as a project

A third distinct sense of holiness is that of a project, a striving toward an ideal of conduct and character. Holiness is a superlative value that should orient and govern individual and communal life (Mittleman 2018a: 49). The classic enunciation of this view is found in Leviticus, chapter 19: ‘You shall be holy (kedoshim tihyu), for I the Lord God am holy (ki kadosh ani)’. Holiness, according to Israel Knohl, is no longer solely the attribute of God or of the cultic place and its objects or of sacrifices consecrated to God. Holiness becomes a participative, communal, and individual project of imitation of God, with strong ethical implications. The complex mix of ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ commandments in Lev 19 ‘will raise whoever observes them to holiness, thus becoming like God’ according to Knohl (2003: 65). The near identification of the holy with superlative ethical goodness in modern thought, promoted by Kant (Allison 1990: 171), makes this sense highly intelligible to modern persons and therefore a dominant note in much modern Jewish thought.

2.2.5 Synthesis of the senses: proximity to the divine

Jewish theology often seeks to unify these different senses of holiness into a single concept (Lebens 2024: 4), which is difficult to do. Minimally, it may be said that the common thread is proximity to divinity and thus separation from the ordinary. Proximity implies relationship with God (in the case of God’s holiness, the relationship is one of identity). The holy may have the status of belonging to God; human beings must acknowledge divine ownership and act in such a way as to honour it. The holy is thus not for our ordinary use. The holy may also manifest the power or presence of God. God’s holiness, as a property, can be a dangerous energetic force. Coming too close to the holy can be fatal. Touching God’s holy ark (2 Sam 6:7) or holy objects (Num 4:15), encroaching on God’s holy ground (Exod 3:5), or violating God’s holy time (Num 15:32–36) invite disaster. The holy is protected by prohibitions on human behaviour. Although this archaic view of holiness as a property is greatly attenuated in post-biblical Judaism, the correlation between holiness and behavioural restrictions is ongoing. Finally, holiness as a project emphasizes our human task or purpose. We are to bring ourselves out of ordinariness and strive to become like God to the extent that humans can.

3 The project of holiness

The concept of holiness as acting in imitation of God is most powerfully expressed in Leviticus, chapters 17–26. Since the nineteenth century, academic scholars of Hebrew scripture refer to this section as the ‘Holiness Code’ or ‘H’. Unlike the prior chapters of Leviticus, ascribed to the Priestly (P) source, H is not only concerned with matters of ritual, purity, and the priestly caste, but with ethical regulations. H also addresses the whole community of Israel, not just the priests. The God of the Holiness Code is more personal, more reminiscent of the divine voice of Exodus than of the previous chapters of Leviticus. Holiness is a divine attribute that can – indeed must – be emulated, not just by the priests in their ritual conduct but by all Israel in its ethical and ritual life. In the view of Israel Knohl, H is a response by priestly circles to the same social, political, and moral-religious distress that agitated the prophets. It reflects from a priestly point of view the concerns of prophets such as Isaiah and Micah. Ideals of social justice and moral rectitude are now brought into the priestly teaching about holiness. ‘Purity’ takes on moral implications; ‘impurity’ can result from moral failure, not just ritual violations (Mittleman 2018a: 50–51). This ethical deepening of archaic conceptions of holiness elevates the holy to a project of human transformation.

3.1 The Holiness Code

Leviticus chapter 19 begins with the command to Moses to ‘speak to the whole Israelite community’ and to tell them that they must strive to ‘be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev 19:1). The text is formally structured to evoke the Ten Commandments, a literary parallel noticed by the ancient rabbis (Levine 1989: 124). Similar to Exodus chapter 20, although not in the same order, the Holiness Code calls for reverence for parents and the Sabbath, avoidance of idolatry, stealing, deceitful conduct, and false oaths. In addition to these iterations of some of the Ten Commandments, the code enjoins such ethical rules as leaving corners and gleanings of one’s field and vineyard for the poor and the stranger to harvest; paying a labourer promptly; not insulting the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind; not perverting justice by favouring either the poor or the rich; not hating one’s fellow in one’s heart, nor taking vengeance against one’s fellow or bearing a grudge against him. Indeed, the Israelites are commanded to ‘[l]ove your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord’ (Lev 19:18). These ethically salient commandments are mixed together with a rule about eating sacrifices of wellbeing within a two-day limit, lest one ‘profane’ (ḥilleil) what is holy (kodesh); not letting cattle mate with a different kind or planting two different kinds of seed together, or wearing cloth that is a mixture of two kinds of material, among other such ‘ritual’ commandments. The commandment to rise before the elderly and show deference to the old (Lev 19:32) sits side by side with a prohibition on turning to ghosts and inquiring of spirits through divination (Lev 19:31). The text does not work out a coherent synthesis of these different kinds of commandment. Indeed, from an internal point of view there are not different kinds of commandment in play; all of them are jointly constitutive of the holy life that God expects of God’s people. Fittingly, Leviticus 19 concludes with the requirement not to oppress the most vulnerable member of Israelite society – the non-Israelite:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord, am your God. (Lev 19:33–34)

Then, following an injunction about honesty in business dealings, the chapter ends with a motive clause: God reminds the Israelites that they should be grateful to God for freeing them from the land of Egypt. Consequently, they should faithfully observe God’s laws.

The turn to a more ethical concept of holiness, as well as the address to both individuals and the entire community (edah), gives impetus to the project of holiness in later Jewish thought. With the rise of Rabbinic Judaism in the first centuries CE and its flourishing in the Middle Ages, the Jewish construction of holiness reaches maturity. A sense of what holiness means for ‘mature’ Judaism can be gleaned from Rabbinic interpretations of Lev 19:1. The most widely-cited medieval biblical commentator, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105), known as Rashi, claims that ‘you shall be holy’ means: ‘you shall be separate (perushim) from sexual sins’. Basing his view on an earlier Rabbinic interpretation (in Leviticus Rabbah 24:5–6), he warrants it by pointing to three subsequent linkages of forbidden sexual activity with divine declarations of sanctification. For example, Lev 21:13–15 says that a priest may only marry a virgin (and not, therefore, a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute) so ‘that he not profane (yiḥalleil) his offspring among his kin, for I the Lord have sanctified him (mikadsho)’. The semantic concomitance of sexual sin and holiness grounds Rashi’s explication of the latter in terms of avoidance of the former. Here the motif of separation is prominent: one must separate oneself from what the law forbids.

Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman (1194–1270), known as Ramban or, to Western thought, as Naḥmanides, has a more subtle view. For him, one must separate oneself not only from what the law explicitly prohibits but also from overindulgence in what the law allows. Naḥmanides introduces both elements of self-control and aspiration. He founds a virtue ethics on the verse, thus heightening the ethical dimension of the project of holiness (Jacobs 2023: 124–126). Naḥmanides comments:

The Torah has admonished us against immorality and forbidden foods, but permitted sexual intercourse between man and his wife, and the eating of [certain] meat and wine. If so, a man of desire could consider this to be a permission to be passionately addicted to sexual intercourse with his wife or many wives, and be among winebibbers, among gluttonous eaters of flesh, and speak freely all profanities, since this prohibition has not been [expressly] mentioned in the Torah, and thus he will become a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah! Therefore, after having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture followed them up by a general commandment that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted […]. (Nachmanides. 1971: –1976: on Lev 19:2, emphasis added)

Naḥmanides takes this both as a call to virtue and as a commandment (mitzvah), lest anyone think that it might be legally permissible to be a ‘sordid person’ with the permission of the Torah. Holiness as a commandment is more than baseline obedience of the law; it is a project of self-transformation and transcendence, inextricable from an overall commitment to growing in virtue.

3.2 Holiness and virtue

A passage in the Talmud (b. Avod. Zar. 20b) orders various virtues by rank. Holiness is numbered among them:

Rabbi Pinḥas ben Yair would say: Torah study leads to care in the performance of mitzvot [commandments]. Care in the performance of mitzvot leads to diligence in their observance. Diligence leads to cleanliness of the soul. Cleanliness of the soul leads to abstention from all evil. Abstention from evil leads to purity and the elimination of all base desires. Purity leads to piety. Piety leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to holiness (kedushah). Holiness leads to the Divine Spirit (ruaḥ ha-kodesh). The Divine Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead. And piety is greater than all of them, as it is stated: ‘Then You did speak in a vision to Your pious ones’. (Psalm 89:20)

The context of this teaching is a discussion about the care a sage must take in turning away from tempting sights, especially the sight of a woman in colourful clothes. The fear is that the sight will fill him with lust which might result in a nocturnal emission, rendering him impure. An archaic notion of impurity is thus integrated into a project of ethical self-perfection. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair offers a comprehensive ‘ladder of virtues’. While the precise meaning of holiness is not spelled out in the text, it is clear that holiness somehow prepares one to receive the divine spirit, literally the ‘spirit of holiness’ (ruaḥ ha-kodesh). That state of communion with the divine presence then prepares one for the resurrection of the dead at the end of days. Ultimately, virtuous behaviour in the conduct of Jewish life has metaphysical consequences.

This text has a rich history of interpretation (Koch 2023: 237). The most sustained, conceptually-sensitive discussion is that of the early modern Paduan thinker, Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (1707–1746), author of The Path of the Just (Mesillat Yesharim), a classic of Jewish ethical thought. Luzzatto’s book is organized as a systematic commentary on this Talmudic teaching. The cultivation of each virtue builds on its predecessor, sequentially developing and perfecting one’s capacity for communion with God. The virtues bring about a complete transformation of one’s life, helping one to achieve an ever-deeper understanding of one’s human condition and ever-higher levels of awe at God’s sublimity. The goal is to become a ‘perfected human being’ (ha-adam ha-shalem), who experiences the highest purpose of the human, which is communion with God (Mittleman 2012: 167). A leading scholar of Luzzatto, Patrick Koch, concludes that his work is ‘a call to a personal, lived holiness that promotes permanent contemplation and reflection by means of engagement in Torah’ (Koch 2023: 233).

Luzzatto understands holiness as a twofold process. In the beginning, one must work at achieving it through a process of self-sanctification (mikadesh et-’atzmo), but in the end God graciously endows one with it. The work of self-sanctification ‘below’ is met with a flow of holiness ‘from above’ (mi-l’maʻalah; Luzzatto 1990: 327). What self-sanctification entails is complete removal of oneself from materiality (ḥamriyut) and constant attention to cleaving (mitdabek), in thought and will, to God. Practically, one does not neglect the needs of the body – the requirements of ordinary life in the world – but strives to keep one’s soul focused on the divine in the midst of the quotidian. Nonetheless, Luzzatto frankly admits that our hope will be disappointed. Our being ‘flesh and blood’ limits our spiritual attainment. Thus, God will give of God’s presence: ‘in the end, holiness is a gift’ (sof ha-kedushah, matanah; Luzzatto 1990: 326). God’s holiness will rest on the seeker, leading him or her into constant connectedness (devekut) with the divine (Luzzatto 1990: 329). The ‘gift’, however, must not cancel out the effort; one must continue to strive to make one’s deeds holy.

What Luzzatto has in mind by holiness of deeds is a way of elevating the ordinary. The paradigmatic case is that of sacrifice, which takes the necessity of eating and transforms it into a spiritual process. In the case of sacrifice the food is brought to an altar and given to God; the priests eat the portion assigned to them. This, in turn, effects atonement for the laypersons who are the givers of the sacrifice. The material act of eating is elevated (in a post-sacrificial context, the eating of ‘fit’ [kasher] foods and the saying of blessings [berakhot] before eating is the Rabbinic way of bringing the ordinary to holiness).

Luzzatto draws a distinction between purity and holiness. The pure person performs ordinary actions out of a sense of necessity; the pure person is resigned to the necessity of the daily round of activities. He or she does not endow them with any value other than their contribution to physical wellbeing. The holy person, by contrast, lifts deeds to God. Ordinary practices – Luzzatto focuses on eating – become holy events. The holy person becomes functionally and symbolically an altar; the food becomes a sacrifice. The holy person’s act of eating has redemptive value for the world.

Their consuming of food is similar to the offering up of a sacrifice upon the altar, and the filling of their throats is analogous to the filling of the basins. In accordance with this view, anything at all which is made use of by them in some way is elevated and enhanced through having been employed by a righteous individual, by one who communes with the Holiness of the Blessed One. (Luzzatto 1990: 331)

The holy person far exceeds the pure person in motivation and spiritual accomplishment. Rather than just shunning over-absorption in the alluring distractions of the material world, the holy person, through clinging to God with constancy, transforms the ordinary things of the world by relating them to holiness. The things of which he or she makes use of ‘become more elevated by having been used’ (Luzzatto 1990: 331). A host of metaphysical assumptions of a mystical character lie behind such remarks.

One reaches the state of holiness through much preparation in the prior virtues, and with God’s help. One must accustom oneself to solitude and solitary meditation, shunning too much association with other people. Having separated oneself (perishah) from all bad influences, one must contemplate God’s governance and the mysteries of creation, focus on God’s sublimity, and seek to be in communion with God at all times. One’s motivation in action must be the same as the priest’s in sacrifice, that is, to bring something consecrated to God in order to bring God’s blessing of life and peace (ḥayyim v’shalom) to the world (Luzzatto 1990: 333). The highest stage of holiness is the achievement of the holy spirit, an intimacy with the divine so intense that one also receives a ‘key’ to the resurrection of the body after death. Luzzatto leaves these last stages of the ladder largely unexplained.

Luzzatto’s conception of holiness stresses the project of seeking human perfection, psychological or spiritual wholeness, and ethical exemplarity in the context of a virtue ethics. He translates holiness into a broadly ethical program. At the same time, however, holiness has ontological status. It appears as a force or influence that flows from the divine realm to the human sphere. This duality of the ethical and the metaphysical, of ‘property and process’ has, as mentioned, ancient roots. Holiness in premodern Jewish thought, no matter what degree of ethicization the concept undergoes, continues, with few exceptions, to retain an ontological dimension.

3.3 Martin Buber on holiness

The twentieth-century Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878–1965) holds views comparable to Luzzatto’s, although expressed in a less metaphysical and more existential register. Buber draws his inspiration from Hasidism, an eighteenth-century Jewish pietistic movement that began in Eastern Europe (coincidentally, Luzzatto’s texts helped shape Hasidic thought). Buber, who was raised in proximity to Hasidic communities, became a modernist interpreter of Hasidic teaching. His relatively late article, ‘Hasidism and Modern Man’ (1956), focused on the Hasidic understanding of holiness, which he interpreted as a kind of existential therapy for the spiritual malaise of modern Western humanity. He sees holiness, in Hasidic terms, as a process of overcoming division in the world. Buber claims that all world religions posit a strong distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred or holy forms its own province of life, which is set aside and impregnable. This gives religion its own bounded territory – but it also distorts the meaning of the holy and diminishes its place in life. For Buber, Hasidism is focused on overcoming the separation of sacred and profane by lifting ordinary deeds into the sphere of the holy. The holy is an ever-expanding domain in the midst of the world, not a realm separate from it.

The profane is regarded only as a preliminary stage of the holy; it is the not yet hallowed. But human life is destined to be hallowed in all its natural, that is, its created structure. ‘God dwells where one lets Him in’, says a Hasidic adage; the hallowing of man means this letting in. Basically, the holy in our world is nothing other than what is open to transcendence, as the profane is nothing other than what at first is closed off from it, and hallowing is the event of opening out. (Biemann 2002: 88)

Thus, for Buber, hallowing – making holy – is a project or process of human self-transformation and of the transformation of the world. Every human being is given a portion of the world for which he or she is responsible. The careful, intentional tending of each one’s portion, including one’s own self, can open that domain to the divine. As in Luzzatto, this is not a purely human accomplishment or achievement. God, the divine Thou, meets the human in transforming self and world. Nonetheless, we are responsible for what is uniquely within our capacity for decision and action.

Hallowing is an event that commences in the depths of man, where choosing, deciding, and beginning take place. The man who thus begins enters into the hallowing. But he can only do this if he begins just as man and presumes no superhuman holiness. (Biemann 2002: 89)

According to Buber, Hasidic interpretations of Lev 19:2 (‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy’) understand it as ‘holy men you shall be unto Me’, in the sense of ‘humanly holy shall you be unto me’ (Biemann 2002: 89). Hasidism does not want a holiness walled-off from the world but a holiness that propagates through the human realm.

Buber finds the holy/profane distinction invidious. Modern Western humanity, he laments, has emptied the holy – because of its isolation from life – of all significance. It has become a ‘concept empty of reality’ (Biemann 2002: 92). Drained of vitality, we speak of holiness as ‘spiritual’ but this is sentimental and inconsequential. We deny holiness ‘the right to determine life in any way’ (Biemann 2002: 92). Against this, Hasidism stands for the simple truth that ‘the wretchedness of our world is grounded in its resistance to the entrance of the holy into lived life’. Thus, it is incumbent on us, in the midst of the portion of the world that each of us has been given, to receive the holiness ‘that has been from all eternity’ into ‘human reality’. Hasidism teaches, according to Buber:

A life that does not seek to realize what the living person, in the ground of his self-awareness, understands or glimpses as the right is not merely unworthy of the spirit; it is also not worth being lived. (Biemann 2002: 92)

Buber relates the ‘spirit’ that makes holiness real to his familiar theme of ‘meeting’, of the power of the I-Thou relation to transform self and other. Thus, there is both an overall ethical thrust to his characterization of holiness, and an ontological realism about its nature.

4 Holiness of space, time, and the Jewish people

Holiness as a broadly ethical project of self-transformation (and even of world-transformation) retains an ontological dimension but attenuates it. This section will address more problematic versions of the ontological dimension. The idea of holiness as a reified property is problematic not only conceptually but also insofar as it clashes with ethical considerations. Convictions of the ontological holiness of the Land of Israel or of the Jewish people can override the ethical treatment of the other. Ancient and medieval traditions of holy peoplehood could be – and are – used to fund extreme ‘metaphysically grounded’ ethnocentrism by some religionists (Mittleman 2018a: 179–192). An encyclopaedic typology of holiness must not omit these elements. A normative Jewish theology of holiness, however, must reject them.

4.1 Holiness of space

First is the holiness of space, specifically that of the Land of Israel. The Mishnah (Tractate Kelim [‘Vessels’], ch. 1), lists ten kinds of impurity that affect a person’s suitability to enter a holy space (m. Kelim 1:5), followed, logically enough, by a list of ten grades of ascending spatial holiness. The ‘space’ is the Land of Israel, despite the fact that Rabbinic texts modify the concept of holy space (Bokser 1985: 292) and apply it especially to the synagogue (Novick 2018: 50). The world depicted in the Mishnah, a text stemming from after 200 CE, is the world of the Temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE. The practices, prohibitions, and procedures listed in the text no longer apply. The Mishnah projects an ideal reality – the restored Temple cultus of the messianic age. In the meantime, however, the study of these matters in Rabbinic Judaism is equivalent to the once and future practice of them. Essentially, wherever a Jew studies the laws of sacrifices and purity, that place becomes holy (Bokser 1985: 291). Regarding holy space, the Mishnah states:

There are ten degrees of holiness. The land of Israel is holier than any other land. Wherein lies its holiness? In that from it are brought the omer [barley offering brought on the second day of Passover], the first fruits, and the two loaves [offered on Shavuot], which may not be brought from any other land. The walled cities are still more holy, in that they must send forth the metzoraim [people afflicted with a skin disease] from their midst, and they may carry around a corpse therein as far as necessary, but once it is taken out, they may not bring it back. Inside the wall [of Jerusalem] is more holy than these because there the less holy [offerings] and the second tithe are eaten. The Temple Mount has greater sanctity, because men and women with discharges, menstruating women, and women who have given birth may not enter there. The Cheil [a low fence around the Temple, which served as a boundary, beyond which entry to those impure was prohibited] has higher sanctity, because gentiles and people contaminated with corpse impurity may not enter there. The women’s courtyard has higher sanctity, because a tevul yom [one who immersed oneself for purification that very day] may not enter there, but they are not liable for a sin offering for doing so. The Israelites’ courtyard has higher sanctity, because one who lacks atonement may not enter there, and is liable for a sin offering for doing so. The priests’ courtyard has higher sanctity, because the Israelites may not enter there except at the time of their [ritual] requirements: the laying on of hands, the slaughter, and the wave-offering. Between the porch and the altar has still higher sanctity, because [priests] with blemishes and loosened hair may not enter there. The sanctuary has higher sanctity, because no one may enter there who has not washed their hands and feet. The holy of holies has greater sanctity than these because no one may enter there except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement at the time of the service […]. (m. Kelim 1:6–9)

The motivating question ‘wherein lies its holiness?’ (Mah he kedushatah?) leads us immediately into a legal (and non-metaphysical) frame of reference. The Land of Israel is distinguished from other lands not primarily by ontologically-grounded properties but by the kinds of legally salient actions one is permitted to perform there and nowhere else. This kind of criterion – the legally permissible and prohibited – as constitutive of spatial holiness shifts and subordinates the concept of holiness to the category of law or, more broadly, of Torah. According to Novick, Rabbinic Judaism does not entirely dissipate holiness as an ontological property, but it does redefine it. Holiness is no longer a structuring category of religious life, as it is for example in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Holiness, rather, becomes a topic of Torah, of the Rabbinic master category of divine law, rather than a source of categorization in its own right (Novick 2018: 36–45). There is therefore a tension between biblical conceptions of spatial holiness, where there are ‘real world’ consequences for infringing upon it, such as divine wrath or withdrawal (Lev 16:1; Deut 23:10–15), and Rabbinic ones, where the consequence of infringing on the holy is an act of legally-prescribed compensation for violating prohibitions. Similarly, in Maimonides, holiness is an artefact of the commandments, of Halakhah (divine law; Harvey 1977: 14), not a reality unto itself.

Nonetheless, robust ontological notions of the holiness of the Land of Israel persist in the non-legal (aggadic, roughly, ‘theological’) materials of Rabbinic Judaism. The Land of Israel is thought to be the location of the Divine Throne. God is more present there than elsewhere. The medieval Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi (c. 1075–1141), in his philosophical dialogue the Kuzari (2:14), understands the Land of Israel as uniquely open to divine emanation; it is the only place where prophecy, which is to say close communion with God, is possible (Halevi 1964: 89). Medieval Ashkenazi sages thought that the ladder Jacob saw in his dream (Gen 28:12) in a sense still exists in Israel: it is the only land that opens up to a sky that itself opens up to heaven (Lifshitz 2018: 75). One who lives there becomes free of transgression (yet it is also the case that the Land of Israel is intolerant of sin; even those guilty of minor sins can be spewed out by it). One who dies there is buried, as it were, beneath the altar of the Temple (b. Ketubot 111a). Only those buried in the Land of Israel will experience the eschatological resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come. Whoever leaves it is comparable to one who worships idols. The Talmud explains:

The Sages taught: A person should always reside in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by gentiles, and he should not reside outside of Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by Jews. The reason is that anyone who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, and anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who does not have a God. As it is stated: ‘To give to you the land of Canaan, to be your God’ (Leviticus 25:38). And can it really be said that anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael has no God? Rather, this comes to tell you that anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as though he is engaged in idol worship. (b. Ketubot 110b)

The force of these ontological properties, coupled with the behavioural prohibitions on conduct in the holy land, make the Land of Israel comparable to Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans (fearful and fascinating mystery). Israel is a place of mystery, awe, and attraction; it is a place of danger and enigma, far from the ordinary (Lifshitz 2018: 77). The Land of Israel acquired its holiness both by divine bestowal – in consequence of the divine presence resting on the land (and especially on Mount Zion) from the days of Adam – and through human sanctification. According to Maimonides, the initial conquest of the land under Joshua secured a ‘first sanctification’ (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Heave Offering, 1:5). When the Jews were exiled from the land that sanctification was annulled. The holiness of the land was temporary (kedusha l’sha’ata). When the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon took possession of the land again, a ‘second sanctification’ became effective. Unlike the first, it is permanent, but its permanence depends on human agency and ratification. Maimonides makes a distinction between the holiness of the Temple Mount, which is intrinsic and unaffected by human action, and the holiness of the Land of Israel as a defined geographic space. The enduring ‘second sanctification’ is sustained, as Maimonides reads Rabbinic teaching, by the performance of commandments. Although his account is not entirely free of an ontological dimension, the fact that holiness can be gained, lost, and gained again diminishes its hold.

4.2 Holiness of time

The holiness of time, especially of the Sabbath, is both similar to and different from the holiness of space. The Sabbath was created by God and declared by God to be holy. Although human beings respond to that holiness, declaring it themselves every week, the holiness of the Sabbath precedes their participation in it. The holiness of festivals, however, needs full human participation to be realized. Human beings and God are partners in the holiness of festivals. The difference between the holiness of the Sabbath and the holiness of festivals is signalled indirectly at the level of human action. The constraints on behaviour are more demanding on the Sabbath than on festivals (cooking, for example, is allowed on festivals but not on the Sabbath). Insofar as the holiness of the Sabbath is greater than that of festivals, its holiness needs to be protected by more strenuous prohibitions.

Sabbath holiness is intrinsic. God declares the Sabbath holy upon creating it: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy – having ceased on it from all the work of creation that God had done’ (Gen 2:3). The festivals, by contrast, are declared holy by the people; their times are fixed by a legal process, a calendrical determination. Insofar as the Jewish calendar is a mixed lunar-solar one, the ancient Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, had to declare a leap year every few years. The lunar month, which is shorter than the solar one, had to be readjusted by the insertion of an extra month to keep the festivals in their proper seasons. As such, the court played a crucial role in determining when a festival should occur. The Talmud, however, takes this procedure out of the purely institutional realm and brings the entire people into the role of establishing holy time. Commenting on a verse from Leviticus – ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: these are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions’ (Lev 23:2) – the Talmud takes a seemingly superfluous word in the text, otam, ‘them’, and creatively misreads it as atem, you (plural). The force of this is that the holiness of holidays is established both by the court, which fixes the time of the holiday by determining the length of the year, and by the people at large (‘you’; b. Rosh Hashanah 24a). The holy days belong to God but become actual and potent only with the full cooperation of the people.

In Hasidic thought, the Sabbath is at ‘the nexus of sacred time and mystical consciousness […] a central portal to the mystical encounter with God’ (Fishbane 2018: 159). Hasidic thinkers are committed to an ontological version of holiness, although they stress the human role in participating in it. Thus, Rabbi Tsadok ha-Cohen of Lublin (1823–1900) writes:

And so, despite the fact that the essence of the Shabbat’s holiness already exists in itself (owing to the fact that God bestowed holiness upon it in the act of creation), nevertheless the Shabbat also needs human beings to sanctify it. This is to say, according to the degree to which they are prepared to receive its holiness and to feel the holiness that flows into the chambers of their hearts and their minds. Through this the Shabbat day is sanctified, in that it reaches the height of its holiness. (Fishbane 2018: 164–165)

Human beings ‘sanctify’ what is already holy – intrinsic holiness expands to its full ‘height’ through the mystic’s participation in holy time. In this picture, sanctification means more than reciting blessings over wine to welcome the Sabbath (kiddush). Statutory actions acquire immense mystical significance. They become part of a communicative process of holiness flowing from above to below and back again.

The twentieth-century theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), the scion of a Hasidic dynasty, transforms the mystical idiom of his ancestors into a phenomenological and existential one. Of the Sabbath he writes:

The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy, and reticence. In its atmosphere, a discipline is a reminder of adjacency to eternity. Indeed, the splendor of the day is expressed in terms of abstentions [… The] restrictions utter songs to those who know how to stay at a palace with a queen. (Heschel 1979: 15)

Heschel’s hymn to the Sabbath contrasts with a quotidian consciousness of space – in which labour, acquisition, and control occur – with our consciousness of time, a mode of being more permeable to the holy.

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time […] Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time […]. (Heschel 1979: 9)

4.3 Holiness of the Jewish people

The claim that the people Israel is holy occurs in various formulations in the Bible. A key one is:

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (goy kadosh). (Exod 19:5–6)

The election of Israel as a people bound to God in covenant gives Israel unique value (segulah, ‘treasured possession’) and priest-king status (mamlekhet kohanim, ‘kingdom of priests’) among the nations. Michael Fishbane discerns a shift from Exodus to Deuteronomy. In the former, Israel’s holiness is conditional (‘If you will […] you shall […]’). In Deuteronomy, however, the ‘unconditional nature of Israelite sanctity’ is stressed (Fishbane 1985: 122). Therefore, although God will punish Israel severely for unfaithfulness to the covenant, its underlying collective holiness remains.

This holiness is vulnerable to pollution and desecration. A signal instance of this is the expansion of the limited Israelite and priestly prohibition on intermarriage with the Canaanite peoples to a post-exilic ban on intermarriage with the contemporary non-Jews of Judaea. The pivotal figure is Erza. Earlier, the prophet Isaiah (Isa 6:13) had described the remnant of Israel that will be left in the land as a ‘holy seed’ (zera kodesh). In context, Isaiah may have meant that a seed-like potential for new growth endures among the stumps of the devastated forest – Isaiah’s metaphor for the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah. Ezra subsequently took Isaiah’s poetic symbol and gave it a rather harsh interpretation. Ezra hears from communal leaders of intermarriage between the Jews who form the restored community of Jerusalem and the native, non-Jewish people:

They have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed has become intermingled with the peoples of the land; and it is the officers and prefects who have taken the lead in this trespass. (Ezra 9:2)

On hearing this, Ezra rends his garments, tears out his beard and hair, and retreats in stupefied silence. He then confesses his shame and mortification before God, likening the Jews’ behaviour to that of their wicked ancestors, who had been expelled from the land for their idolatry. The ‘surviving remnant’ now engages in horrific transgressions that had earlier led to exile. The sin of intermarriage is taken to be tantamount to forsaking all of the commandments (Ezra 9:10; cf. Mal 2:11). Ezra claims that God had previously warned the Israelites of the ‘uncleanness (niddah) of the peoples of the land’ and of their impurity (tumah; Ezra 9:11). Intermarrying with them would mean adopting their ‘abhorrent practices’ (Ezra 9:14). The very survival of the surviving remnant being at stake, so Ezra decrees – and the people willingly accept – that all of the foreign wives and the children born to them will be expelled (Ezra 10:1–12). While Deuteronomy proscribes intermarriage with the Canaanite nations (Deut 7:3–6), invoking Israel’s status as holy, the emphasis there is behavioural: they will be led astray by those peoples to worship their gods. In the Ezra text, although ‘abhorrent practices’ are mentioned, there is a pseudo-biological emphasis on avoiding the pollution of ‘holy seed’.

A counter-tradition from the same period, that of Trito-Isaiah (Isa 56–66), however, writes of the inclusion of non-Jews in Jerusalem’s worship of God (Isa 56:3–7; Fishbane 1985: 118–119). A potent dialectic concerning the putative holiness of the people of Israel is henceforth entrenched in the tradition: is holiness reified as if it were a property of or fact about Israel – or is it an ideal, a challenge, an endless task of the people? Some sources favour a virtually biological reading of holiness; others express an ethical reading such that Israel’s actions can subvert its claim to be a holy people. An explicit example is found in the Midrash. God says to Israel: ‘Were it not for my Torah, which you accepted, I would not recognize you nor would I regard you more than any of the other idolaters’ (Exod Rabbah 47:3). Israel is not intrinsically different from any other people. Only its ongoing acceptance of the Torah and loyalty to the divine covenant distinguish it.

The reified conception of holiness is explicit in another Midrash. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, had intercourse ‘in holiness’ (nizrah b’kiddusha) and thus her son became as righteous as Moses. The nations of the world, by contrast, do not have sexual intercourse ‘in holiness’. The Midrash observes:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘In this world I abhor all those peoples, because they are from unclean seed (zera tumah); but I have chosen you, because you are from true seed (zera emet)’, as stated (Jer 2:21), ‘And I planted you as a choice vine, all of it from true seed’. It is also written (in Deut 7:6), ‘and the Lord your God has chosen you […]. Also in the future I am choosing only you, because you are a holy seed […]’. (Tanḥumah, Naso 7)

In this late Midrash, not only is intermarriage forbidden but the non-Jewish peoples themselves are of ‘unclean seed’. A putative contrast between inherent Jewish holiness and ‘genetic’ Gentile impurity is made ontological.

Texts such as this are ethically offensive to many modern readers, but the critique of them is not merely modern; opposition to them begins in the Bible itself. The general tendency of the Rabbinic tradition is to marginalize such views. Rabbinic literature does not follow the thinking of Ezra or of the non-canonical Jubilees and Qumran texts that amplify the biological element. Christine Hayes notes the shift in Rabbinic literature:

Since Jewish identity is, for the rabbis, primarily moral–religious in nature, Gentiles who adopt the moral–religious regimen of Jews may indeed become Jews; that is, they may convert. Gentiles are not inherently morally impure, and they may choose to adopt the moral standards of Israel. The assimilation of converted Gentiles through intermarriage is entirely permitted, and although not wholly absent, genealogical obstacles are increasingly deemphasized in rabbinic sources. By contrast, Gentiles who do not turn from their idolatry and immorality are prohibited in marriage. (Hayes 2002: 143–44)

Theologically and ethically, the Rabbinic shift towards moral-religious considerations is elevated over the persistent temptation to press ontological claims of holiness that buttress negative evaluations of non-Jews. This is not an arbitrary imposition of a modern moral sensitivity onto a premodern tradition. It is the deepest and most authoritative normative tendency of the tradition itself. The Holiness Code, as noted above, virtually concludes with solicitude for the non-Israelite other:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord, am your God. (Lev 19: 33–34)

This ethical concern applies with special force to the problematic traditions in the principal work of Kabbalah, the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendour), which emerged in the thirteenth century. The Zoharic literature envisions a God who emanates spheres of energy (sefirot), each with distinct characteristics. The internal relationship among the sefirot, as well as the relationship between the sefirot and the world, depend on the acts of human beings, especially Jews. Whether God is in a state of internal balance or imbalance affects the world, but the world, in the form of human agency, also affects God. In this scheme, the Jews have a pivotal responsibility vis-à-vis God and the cosmos for the wellbeing of all. This radical responsibility gives the people Israel a unique metaphysical character.

The ethically problematic part of this uniqueness is that the Jews are seen as the true bearers of the designation ‘human’ (Wolfson 2006: 22). They are the ones made in the image of God, the only ones to whom ‘Adam’ refers. This sharp break from most traditional readings of the biblical creation story renders the Jews as the sole bearers of the divine image (Wolfson 2006: 38).

The Zohar offers an elaborate story of how the Jews descend from the right side of the sefirot, the constellation of emanated divine luminosities that channel God’s energy into the cosmos. The Gentiles descend from the left side of the sefirotic structure. The Kabbalah scholar, Hartley Lachter, notes that ‘Jews are holy because they possess a soul emanated from and contiguous with the “right” side of God, while Gentile souls derive from the demonic Other Side of the left. As a result, only Jews “cleave” to God and are the “sons” of the divine’ (Lachter 2018: 139). Lachter claims that views such as these are meant as a ‘remedy for the anxieties regarding the meaning of Jewish life in exile’, serving as a form of cultural resistance (Lachter 2018: 139).

As understandable as this might be in its cultural context, its contemporary adoption by some extreme religious nationalists must be rejected on theological and ethical grounds. The tradition itself weighs against such elements. The Zohar itself offers some a counterbalance. Zohar 3:61a, for example, interprets the holiness of Israel in terms of Israel’s holding onto the Torah. Echoing the above-cited Rabbinic Midrash (Exod Rabbah 47:3), Israel is in relationship with God and merits holiness only insofar as it is worthy of the Torah. The holiness of the people Israel rests, therefore, in the quality of their deeds, not, as it were, in their genes.

The best response, however, is to be found in a near-contemporary polemic to the views that were soon to emerge in the Zohar. The greatest Jewish authority of the medieval world, Maimonides (d. 1204), forcefully rejected metaphysically-grounded ethnocentric views of holiness. Maimonides was, according to Menachem Kellner, aware of the currents that eventually crystalized in the Zohar; they were already stirring in his native Andalusia (Kellner 2011: 18). Judah Halevi, a generation before Maimonides, endorsed an at least partially biological version of Jewish holiness (Altmann 2005: 214–246). Maimonides opposes this. Holiness is for him a category within the Jewish legal system, not a metaphysical type. Whatever is holy is made holy by the law. Sanctification has to do with human actions and divine commandments. He is a nominalist about holiness, not a realist (Kellner 2018: 119–20). Holiness provides no basis whatsoever for invidious discrimination among peoples or for the elevation of the Jews above others (Kellner 2015: 117).

This emerges in a pastoral way in his letter to Obadiah, a convert to Judaism. Obadiah is troubled by whether it is right for him to say lines in the daily liturgy such as ‘our God and God of our fathers’, ‘you who have brought us out of the land of Egypt’, and other phrases that assume a Jewish ethnicity or genealogy that a convert does not have. Maimonides sensitively teaches Obadiah that: ‘There is no difference whatever between you and us […] for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah’ (Twersky 1972: 476). Maimonides drastically diminishes the status of ethnicity and construes Judaism as an intentional community of servants of God who keep God’s law and seek God’s wisdom. The contrast of Maimonides’ understanding of Jewishness vis-à-vis a proselyte and Halevi’s understanding vis-à-vis the Khazar king is stark. The force of Maimonides’ rejection of ontological holiness is to strengthen the broadly ethical character of holiness; holiness is a project of individual and collective moral and spiritual perfection.

For a contemporary Jewish theology of holiness, Ezra’s contemporary, Trito-Isaiah, can be given the last word:

I will bring them [foreigners] to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isa 56:7)

5 The significance of holiness in contemporary Judaism

Contemporary theological projects that seek to retrieve and appropriate these diverse Jewish teachings about holiness are concerned to order the heterogenous materials and search for a unifying explanation or theory of holiness. They are concerned conceptually to deal with the ontological dimension, which, on the one hand, seems unintelligible but, on the other, seems to preserve the distinctiveness of Judaism. Finally, contemporary theology is concerned to interpret ethically problematic texts and to subordinate them to morally authoritative ones.

As a forerunner of this endeavour, Maimonides looms large in the theological toolbox of such modern philosophers and theologians as the early twentieth-century rationalist Hermann Cohen, and the contemporary philosophers Lenn Goodman, Warren Zev Harvey, and Kenneth Seeskin. For these Jewish rationalists, following Maimonides, it is a fundamental error to associate concrete entities with holiness. The holy is the Bible’s way of signifying what philosophy calls transcendence. The holy, in its basic contrast with the ordinary, should be understood as a way of guarding the transcendence of God. The special conduct and attitudes demanded by the holy – and not some intrinsic essence – are what separate it from the everyday. The holy is iconic of the otherness of God. Its strangeness points toward the transcendent God’s infinitely mysterious being.

Yet the holy also points, in a carefully delimited way, to God’s immanence. The holy, while wholly other, is also among us (Goodman 2019: viii). Among us, the holy represents God’s goodness and perfection. Ethical normativity is the immanent trace of divine holiness. Our response to this trace must be worked out in the concreteness of life as an imitatio Dei (imitation of God; Harvey 1977: 19–20). For Cohen, such emulable holiness is the only holiness that matters. The ‘spirit of holiness’ is the tradition’s name for the ‘reciprocal relation’ of humans and God. This ‘correlation’ of the divine and the human equates to ethical knowledge. Our likeness to God consists of the knowledge of good and evil (Plevan 2018: 191). The spirit of holiness is not merely cognitive, however; it also imposes upon us an infinite task to approximate divine holiness in our conduct and character. Holiness is made manifest in a rationally-accessible ethics devoted to the dignity of all. Cohen’s emphasis on ‘ethical monotheism’ as the quintessential expression of holiness is typical of modern Jewish rationalism (Kepnes 2013: 147–170; although contemporary rationalists, such as Goodman or Harvey, typically give much more room to Jewish particularity and traditional religious observance than did Cohen).

Other modern and contemporary theologians emphasize the phenomenological and experiential aspects of holiness. For them, equating holiness with ethical monotheism is too thin. They are loathe to relegate immanence to a mostly ethical interpretation; they are not opposed to discerning an ontological dimension. God can be encountered; holiness can be experienced. Heschel sees ‘the holy dimension’ as an objective order of which humans become aware through piety, faith, and holy action. Holiness is inscribed in the universe, especially in time, i.e. in the Sabbath. The experience of the holy dimension is akin to the prophetic experience. Both are suffused with moral commitment and passion but are also actual experiences of the Divine Presence (Heschel 1996: 310, 322–323; Kaplan 1996: 133–135). For Eliezer Berkovits, holiness is primarily a matter of experience. The ‘Holy One of Israel’, on Berkovits’ interpretation, signifies the nearness of God as a loving and compassionate presence. For him, the biblical phrase that signifies transcendence is ‘Lord of Hosts’. The ‘Holy One of Israel’, by contrast, indicates radical divine immanence. Holiness is the attribute of God that names God’s disposition to manifest in an intimate way to us. We actually experience divine intimacy in the phenomenon of holiness; in the phenomenon of faith, by contrast, we ‘merely’ believe in God. The Jewish way of life, as a holy way, is a preparation for divine intimacy. In living according to Torah, Jews make themselves fit partners for the Divine Presence. The dedication to intimacy motivates us at the level of action; we do the right thing out of love for God and desire to sustain or invite intimacy (Berkovits 2002: 284). In these thinkers, there is much greater emphasis on a kind of concrete reality of the holy. Although far from the explicit metaphysical claims of a Luzzatto, the holy becomes more than a concept, moral imperative, or cipher for an idealized Jewish religious life.


Copyright Alan Mittleman (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Berkovits, Eliezer. 2002. Essential Essays on Judaism. Edited by David Hazony. Jerusalem: Shalem Press.
    • Eliade, Mircea. 1987. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
    • Goodman, Lenn E. 2019. The Holy One of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Harrington, Hannah K. 2001. Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.
    • Harvey, Warren Zev. 1977. ‘Holiness: A Command to Imitatio Dei’, Tradition 16, no. 3: 7–28.
    • Heschel, Abraham J. 1979. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
    • Levine, Baruch A., and Eliezer Schweid. 2007. ‘Kedushah’, in Encyclopaedia Judaica. Volume 12. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 50–56. 2nd edition.
    • Mittleman, Alan (ed.). 2018b. Holiness in Jewish Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Otto, Rudolf. 1923. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Seeskin, Kenneth. 1996. ‘Holiness as an Ethical Ideal’, The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 5: 191–203.
  • Works cited

    • Allison, Henry E. 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Altmann, Alexander. 2005. ‘Judah Halevi’s Theory of Climates’, Aleph 5: 214–246.
    • Berkovits, Eliezer. 2002. Essential Essays on Judaism. Edited by David Hazony. Jerusalem: Shalem Press.
    • Biemann, Asher D. 2002. The Martin Buber Reader: Essential Writings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
    • Bokser, Baruch M. 1985. ‘Approaching Sacred Space’, The Harvard Theological Review 78: 279–299.
    • Dan, Joseph. 1998. Al ha-Kedushah (On Sanctity: Religion, Ethics and Mysticism in Judaism and Other Religions). Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
    • Eliade, Mircea. 1987. The Sacred and the Profane. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
    • Fishbane, Eitan. 2018. ‘Shabbat and Sacred Time in Later Hasidic Mysticism’, in Holiness in Jewish Thought. Edited by Alan Mittleman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 159–180.
    • Fishbane, Michael. 1985. Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Goodman, Lenn E. 2019. The Holy One of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Halevi, Judah. 1964. Kuzari. Translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld. New York: Schocken Books.
    • Harvey, Warren Zev. 1977. ‘Holiness: A Command to Imitatio Dei’, Tradition 16, no. 3: 7–28.
    • Hayes, Christine. 2002. Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Heschel, Abraham J. 1979. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
    • Heschel, Abraham J. 1996. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
    • Jacobs, Jonathan. 2023. ‘Naḥmanides’, in Jewish Virtue Ethics. Edited by Geoffrey Claussen, Alexander Green, and Alan Mittleman. Albany: SUNY Press, 123–136.
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