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Holiness (kedushah) in Judaism is a theological concept that has often borne a social agenda. In directing the Israelites in how to attain holiness, the Torah portrays holiness as both a quality inherent in the Deity and a goal for people to strive for. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” we read at the beginning of the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus 19.
Ways to Be Holy
That exhortation is preceded by a list of prohibited sexual relations and followed by a list of restrictions on the way one relates to business associates, neighbors, hired laborers, and the handicapped, as well as “ritual” restrictions on such activities as eating fruit from a young tree, eating blood, and practicing sorcery–all bearing the motive clause, “I am the Lord.”
The thrust of all these is summarized in Leviticus 20:26: “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”
The uniqueness of the Israelite people is to be safeguarded by laws that set them apart from neighboring nations, and the Torah warns that violation of those restrictions will lead to the exile: “You shall faithfully observe all My laws and regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out” as it did Israel’s predecessors there] (Leviticus 20:22-23). Proper behavior, then, would induce and protect the holiness of Israel.
Since that behavior, while difficult to maintain, was conceived of as “not in the heavens,” attainable without super human effort, the gulf between a holy life and a profane life was neither unbridgeable nor permanent. The Bible anticipates a time when life–for Israel and all peoples–would be consecrated in its fullness.
Holiness and Separation
Despite the separatist tendency in the rhetoric of the Bible’s treatment of holiness, the ways in which holiness came to be attributed to persons, objects, places, and times in Biblical religion were markedly similar to those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Holiness is imparted and maintained through ritual,prayer, formal declaration, and the avoidance of specific “abominations.”
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