Holiness: Everyone’s Duty or a Saintly Ideal?

Is it enough to live up the requirements of Jewish law for one to be holy? Is sanctity in this life possible for all of us—or only for a few saintly people?

This survey of three views of holiness in Judaism is reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Hebrew word for “holiness,” kedushah, conveys the twin ideas of separation from and dedication to something and hence holiness as a religious ideal refers to the attitude and state of mind in which certain activities and thoughts are rejected in order to come closer to God. The concept is found in a general sense in two biblical verses.

At the theophany at Sinai, the ideal of holiness is expressed in the words: “And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) The introductory verse to the Holiness Code (as it is called by modern scholars) states: “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). In the first verse, Israel is to be separate from other nations as a holy nation dedicated to God. In the second verse, the plain meaning would seem to be: separate yourselves from the illicit practices mentioned later in the Holiness Code in order to be holy because God is holy. The Rabbinic Midrash known as the Sifra comments on “Ye shall be holy”: “Ye shall be separatists.” Rashi, the great French commentator, understands the Sifra as meaning that to be holy involves separation from the illicit, particularly from sexual unchastity. On this reading, holiness is synonymous with obeying the laws of the Torah and has no special connotation of extraordinary cultivation of sanctity. The latter is an ideal for the saints, the holy men, not for “all the congregation of the children of Israel.”

However, in a famous analysis of the holiness ideal, Nahmanides takes issue with Rashi and understands the separation mentioned in the Sifra to mean not only from the illicit but also, to some degree, from the licit. Holiness, according to Nahmanides, involves a measure of abstinence even from things permitted by the Torah. This author follows the Talmud saying: “Sanctify yourself with regard to that which is permitted to you” (Yevamot 20a). Even the average Jew, let alone the holy man, is not to be content with simple obedience to the law but must go beyond the law in his cultivation of holiness.

“The principle is that the Torah forbids illicit sexual relations and forbids certain foods but permits the sexual act in marriage and permits the eating of meat and the drinking of wine. Consequently, the libertine would have found many opportunities for unlimited sexual indulgence with his wife or with his many wives, for unrestrained gluttony and drunkenness, for speaking obscene things to his heart’s desire, for these things are not explicitly forbidden in the Torah. Such a man would be a scoundrel with the full permission of the Torah. Therefore, after the Torah had detailed those things which are categorically forbidden, it enjoins a man to separate himself from that which is unnecessary.”

Holiness, according to Nahmanides, and he is followed by other Jewish teachers, is the attitude of the Jew who has no wish, in his pungent expression, to be “a scoundrel with the full permission of the Torah.” Nahmanides’ point is that the rules and regulations of the Torah constitute the bare minimum of decent behavior expected of every Jew, a standard below which none should fall. But an essential part of the Torah discipline is that the Jew is obliged to go beyond these minimum rules. For this there can be no hard-and-fast rules, since all depends on individual character and temperament. What may be modbid indulgence, leading to a softening of the moral fiber, for one, may be a necessity for another. For all its insistence on rules, Judaism, according to Nahmanides, acknowledges that there is a whole area of life, the area of the licit, where man’s freedom of choice must operate in determining those things which will help him to live more worthily and those which can pollute his soul.

Judaism does know, of course, of the higher reaches of holiness and it does speak, albeit very occasionally, of men distinguished for their sanctity. But the title ha-kadosh, “holy man,” is reserved for a handful of men of the most saintly type.

Of these higher reaches, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto writes in his Path of the Just (ch. 26): “See then, that in order to attain holiness it is essential for a man to practice abstinence, to meditate intently upon the mysteries of Providence and the secrets of nature, and to acquire a knowledge of the majesty and attributes of God, blessed be He, so that he comes to cleave devotedly to Him and to carry out His purpose even when engaged in worldly pursuits… It is impossible to attain the trait of holiness in any other way, and anyone who attempts to do so remains, in all respects, as gross and earthly as the rest of mankind. And the things that will greatly help a man in his quest after holiness are solitude and abstinence, for where there are no distractions, the soul is able to gather strength, and to commune with the Creator.”

Luzzatto, a Kabbalist and mystic, is insistent on the need for solitude as a prerequisite for the higher reaches of holiness. When two people meet, Luzzatto argues, the physical element in one is awakened and reinforced by the physical element in the other. But the man who courts solitude will find that with God’s help his soul will become strong and he will be able to conquer all corporal desires to become a holy man.

Luzzatto reserves the most elevated role for the holy man, putting it beyond the grasp of most mortals. The holy man’s power of comprehension, Luzzatto observes, will exceed mortal limitations until in his communion with God he will be entrusted with the power of reviving the dead.

In the literature of Jewish piety, then, holiness is conceived of in three ways: as obedience to all the stern demands of the Torah (Rashi); as the striving to go beyond the strict letter of the law (Nahmanides); and as extraordinary sanctity possible only for the very few (Luzzatto). But no neat division is possible and in many Jewish texts the three overlap.

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