Monday, May 01, 2006

Holiness - Kedusha - what is it? - a non mystical idea and approach.

Wikipedia among several definitions for the word Holy defines it as: “Belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sacred”. Understanding Holy this way sees it as something outside the person that somehow flows on him from God. It has a mystical connotation, a feeling of supernatural, as if a person that acquires holiness has special powers and insight because of that aura and emanation that attached itself to him. It is also the popular understanding of the word.

Rambam addresses the issue many times in the Yad. In Hilchos De’ot 1:11

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש. ועל דרך זו קראו הנביאים לאל בכל אותן הכינויין, ארך אפיים ורב חסד צדיק וישר תמים גיבור וחזק וכיוצא בהן--להודיע שאלו דרכים טובים וישרים הם, וחייב אדם להנהיג עצמו בהן ולהידמות כפי כוחו.

"We are commanded to go in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, "And walk in His ways, et cetera". As an explanation of this commandment, we have learnt that just as God shows mercy so also should we show mercy, that just as God is merciful so also should we be merciful, and that just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the first Prophets called the Almighty with the Attributes of: long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, strong, et cetera, in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways, and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one's ways as similar to them as possible"

Holy here is an attribute of God which, as we have seen, refers to His actions not His essence. It is an act of HKBH that we perceive and call it Holy in human terms. It is also an action described as בדרכים אלו הבינוניים middle of the road behaviors, not extremes. Rambam devotes most of the introduction to Massechet Avos, The Eight Chapters, to this concept. He explains how the human psyche is and the need to develop habits that keep us on the “Golden Mean”. He proposes a method that we would refer to as behavior modification and argues that many Mitzvos in the Torah are tools to help us with the process. Holiness is thus a description of a behavior rather than a mystical idea. It is living according to a highly moral and religious system. Rambam is consistent with his empowerment of the human being. Man has control of himself and his surroundings and not the reverse.

Ramban in his commentary on this week’s Parsha on the passuk Kedoshim Tehi’yu takes a similar approach. He says that the word Holy connotes extra-judicial behavior. One can follow the strict rules of the law and transgress the spirit thereof. Ritualistic behavior does not bring about what the law intended. However he advocates asceticism in general as an a-priori behavior, while Rambam advocates it only as a tool in behavior modification. In fact Rambam frowns upon excessive frumkeit.

In Hilchos Deos 3:1
א שמא יאמר אדם, הואיל והתאווה והכבוד וכיוצא בהן דרך רעה הן ומוציאין את האדם מן העולם, אפרוש מהן ביותר ואתרחק לצד האחרון, עד שלא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין ולא יישא אישה ולא יישב בדירה נאה ולא ילבוש מלבוש נאה אלא השק והצמר הקשה וכיוצא בהן, כגון כומרי אדום--גם זו דרך רעה היא, ואסור לילך בה.
ב המהלך בדרך זו, נקרא חוטא: הרי הוא אומר בנזיר, "וכיפר עליו, מאשר חטא על הנפש" (במדבר ו,יא); אמרו חכמים, ומה אם נזיר שלא פירש אלא מן היין, צריך כפרה--המונע עצמו מכל דבר, על אחת כמה וכמה.
ג לפיכך ציוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעה התורה בלבד, ולא יהיה אוסר עצמו בנדרים ובשבועות על דברים המותרים. כך אמרו חכמים, לא דייך מה שאסרה תורה, אלא שאתה אוסר עליך דברים אחרים.

"In case one would think that envy, lust, honor and similar things are bad ways and remove a man from the world, and that one should separate oneself from them and go to the opposite extreme, so that one won't eat meat, drink wine, marry, live in a nice house or dress in fine clothes, but dress only in sackcloth and hard wool, et cetera, like the priests of the gentiles do, which is also a bad way and one who follows this way is a sinner, for regarding a Nazir it is written, "...and atone for him for that which he sinned by the dead, et cetera"; the Sages said that if a Nazir, who separated himself from just wine, requires atonement, then how much more so anyone who separates himself from all things requires atonement. Therefore, the Sages commanded that one should not separate oneself from anything, except from things which the Torah has forbidden, and one should not refrain from using permitted things by means of vows and oaths. The Sages said, `is it not what the Torah has forbidden enough that you have to forbid for yourself other things?!According to this rule, those who always restrict themselves are not on the path of good. About these and similar things Solomon said, "Don't be excessively righteous, nor make yourself over wise; why should you destroy yourself?"

Compare the highlighted sentence with Ramban on Kedoshim. Although Ramban and Rambam agree on the basic premise of holiness, that it is something internal to man, they seem to differ in the concept of Humra.

For further reading in Rambam see Hilchos Nedarim 13:23-24 and Nezirut 10:14 and Arachim Vecharamim 6:12-13. And of course the whole Eight Chapters are worthwhile learning for any one really interested in Rambam’s thought.


  1. I think you invented this machlokes - what there aren't enough of them in torah? :-) The Ramban isn't saying anything different than the Rambam. He just says that you should avoid excess so as not to be a novol b'rshus hatorah. He isn't advocating ascetism more than the Rambam is.

    Actually, the Rambam doesn't advocate total ascetismm but he does advocate quite an ascetic lifestyle by most standards, eg hilchos talmud torah 3:6, and in general views sex as a concession. His attitude to sexuality is much more negative than the Ramban's - of the two, the Rambam is the ascetic.

    (I think that many of the ostensible machlokesen between rambam and ramban are a question of emphasis, as it is, but that's a separate issue.)

  2. Anon - I agree with most of your comment, and there is no real machlokes. It is a matter of emphasis. In factb that was the point I was trying to make that Ramban and Ramabm agree that Kedusha is something internal,a midah, rather than a state. i just got side tracked a little with the ascetism business. Ramabm is quite strict when it comes to sexual matters as he considers that to impact the mind, distracting from thinking about HKBH and such higher matters.

    I also agree that in many areas they agree but do have different opinions when it comes to the influence of the stars. i will address this next in relation to Velo tokih ho'oretz eschem "