Biblical Concepts of Holiness

How can we unify the sacred with the profane?


From The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Holiness is difficult to define or to describe; it is a mysterious quality. Of what does holiness consist? In the simplest terms, the “holy” is different from the profane or the ordinary. It is “other,” as the phenomenologists define it. The “holy” is also powerful or numinous. The presence of holiness may inspire awe, or strike fear, evoke amazement. The holy may be perceived as dangerous, yet it is urgently desired because it affords blessing, power, and protection. sun and clouds

Holiness & Otherness

The Sifra, a rabbinic midrash, conveys the concept of “otherness” in its comment to Leviticus 19:2: “‘You shall be holy’–You shall be distinct (perushim tiheyu),”meaningthat the people of Israel, in becoming a holy nation, must preserve its distinctiveness from other peoples. It must pursue a way of life different from that practiced by other peoples. This objective is epitomized in the statement of Exodus 19:6: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (goy kadosh).” (A better rendering might be: “You shall be My Kingdom of priests and My holy nation.”) This statement also conveys the idea, basic to biblical religion, that holiness cannot be achieved by individuals alone, no matter how elevated, pure, or righteous. It can be realized only through the life of the community, acting together.

The words of Leviticus 19:2 pose a serious theological problem, especially the second part of the statement: “For I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Does this mean that holiness is part of the nature of God? Does it mean that holiness originates from Him? In the Jewish tradition, the predominant view has been that this statement was not intended to describe God’s essential nature, but, rather, His manifest, or “active,” attributes. To say that God is “holy” is similar to saying that He is great, powerful, merciful, just, wise, and so forth. These attributes are associated with God on the basis of His observable actions: the ways in which He relates to man and to the universe. The statement that God is holy means, in effect, that He acts in holy ways: He is just and righteous. Although this interpretation derives from later Jewish tradition, it seems to approximate both the priestly and the prophetic biblical conceptions of holiness.

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Baruch A. Levine is Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.  He is the author of many books on biblical topics, including The Anchor Bible Commentary: Numbers 1-20.

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