Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holiness - Two Different Perspectives - Judaism and Christianity.

I have been following for a while the blog of John Hobbins – Ancient Hebrew Poetry. John is an erudite man of religion, a Christian, well versed in the Torah, the written Law. John’s specialty is textual analysis but he also reads it from a Christian perspective with a good knowledge of the rabbinic outlook and exegesis. I find it interesting to see how the same text can lead to such different ways of thinking. As we all know, everything we hear and read is assimilated by our mind and translated into a personal perception through the filter of our past experiences and the individual self thus created. I find the dichotomy between our two ways of looking at things illuminating.

In a recent post, http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2008/03/pure-and-holy-t.html John discusses purity and holiness. The post is a beautiful paean to diversity and a condemnation of zealotry and intolerance. John understands holiness and purity as an emotional experience of transcendence. It is also the understanding of many of our Jewish sources. However, I believe that it is not universally accepted by all our sources especially Rambam and the sources he points to. There is much more to it and I would like to explore it a little further.

Holiness – Kedusha – is a state that results from Taharah – Purification. Anything that is without any contaminants, that is pure, is Kadosh – Holy. There cannot be holiness without purification because they are the same. Purification is the act that creates or brings about the state of holiness – the result. Translated in human terms, it means developing the ability to maintain a perfect balance between satisfying our physical requirements needed to maintain our bodily health and wellbeing and developing our intellect. Just like the universe exists in a perfect balance, if the sun was a little closer to earth we would not be here, so too must we strive to maintain a perfect balance between our bodily needs and our intellectual growth. If we indulge one over the other, we are no longer holy. Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 1:5 legislates as follows:

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו"

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

We are commanded to walk in these median paths, the good and straight paths, as it says, “You should walk in His paths” (Devarim 28:9). This is how our rabbis taught this Mitzvah: Just as He is gracious so be you gracious, just as He is compassionate so be you compassionate, just as He is holy so be you holy.

When we say God is holy, we are saying that when we observe the results of His actions, the creation of the universe, we see that it is perfectly balanced. As it is our objective to emulate Him, we too have to develop the ability to maintain a perfect balance between the two contradictory components of our makeup - the physical and the intellectual. That is accomplished by limiting our natural desire and ambition for physical satisfaction to the necessary and removing anything superfluous. That is purification. Holiness is thus not a transcendental experience but rather a state that results from a disciplined and balanced lifestyle. When we purify ourselves from superfluous desires and stop going after things that are not necessary for our physical survival, we become holy – Kadosh. (See the quote from Hilchot Shemita Veyovel in my previous post).

The contradictions between the two human components – the physical and the intellectual – is what makes a human being what he is. It is the core of humanity and it is the goal of the Torah to teach us how to make the most of it. That is the underlying rationale for all the Mitzvot that deal with prohibited foods, controlled sexual life and in general setting limits on indulging our physical cravings.

According to Sifra the words, "sanctify yourselves and be ye holy" (Vaykra 11:44), refer to the sanctification effected by performing the divine commands. As the obedience to such precepts as have been mentioned above is called by the Law sanctification and purification, so is defilement (Tume’ah) applied to the transgression of these precepts and the performance of disgraceful acts, as will be shown.” (MN3:33)

It is important to note that Rambam could have chosen God’s transcendence as the meaning of the word Kadosh and he deliberately ignored it. (See in Torah Shleima ad locum, Midrashim to that effect.) He chose a Sifra that interprets the verse that uses the word Kadosh in the context of prohibited foods – animals that are not permitted for consumption. Again, we see how Rambam chooses the practical, action and self-control, over the mystical and transcendental, when it comes to humans. The physical and transcendental do not mix. The ability of man to intellectually conceive of the transcendental, to apprehend abstract concepts he describes as follows:

As man's distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, namely, intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared--though only apparently, not in truth--to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ.” (MN1:1)

Holiness is thus not a meditative transcendental state but the description of a person whose physical cravings are kept in perfect balance. For us to be able to intellectually apprehend the transcendental we have to fine-tune this self-control so that we are not caught up in narcissistic pursuits and lose all perspective of what is important and what is not. From a purely practical standpoint, all the ills of the individual and society have their roots in this loss of perspective, the uncontrolled ambition for materialism.

It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family. For by following entirely the guidance of lust, in the manner of fools, man loses his intellectual energy, injures his body, and perishes before his natural time; sighs and cares multiply; there is an increase of envy, hatred, and warfare for the purpose of taking what another possesses. The cause of all this is the circumstance that the ignorant considers physical enjoyment as an object to be sought for its own sake.” (MN3:33)

While John sees holiness as a transcendental state, he leaves out the practical aspect of it – the Mitzvot. “Salvation” to Jews, if there is such a thing, is something we have to go and get by perfecting ourselves and doing the Mitzvot. It is not something we get from the outside as a gift through faith. God does not serve us we serve God. God does not save humankind. Humankind saves itself by finding God through self-perfection. This is where the two religions, Christianity and Judaism, parted way.

(For an illuminating discussion see Professor Leibowitz article, “The Common Judeo-Christian Heritage”, page 256 in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State.) http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Judaism-Human-Values-and-the-Jewish-State/Yeshayahu-Leibowitz/e/9780674487765


  1. Two points. I tend to think together with some medieval, I forget who( Anselem?), and more recently Quine that if there is an ascription of a word to different objects the meaning of the word is the same, it is the objects that differ. Thus in "big ant" vs. "big elephant," "big" means the same in both uses. We use the attribute of kedusah and cognate terms like kadosh and apply it to land, religious inanimate objects, animals, Temples and so on. Shouldn’t the meaning be the same in all uses? The Aristotelian mean cannot figure in all uses of kadosh.

    Second I was wondering if there isn’t an analog to grace in Jewish thought. Don’t many Jews believe, not you c’’v,() that we can hope that a tzadik and ultimately all of us can bring God around, sweeten and transform a discipline of stern judgment to a utilization of loving kindness in God’s governance of the world through teshuva, tefila and tzedakah. Maimonides would of course say that God is unchanging and unaffected by any relationship to human beings. In tanach and in our liturgy we ask God to witness our afflictions and suffering and change, change his hanhaga, awaken his compassion, and temper his divine judgment of justice by mercy. We believe that because of his relationship to the Patriarchs and Moses and David he has adopted a more benevolent attitude to us the people of Israel despite our many sins. Isn’t this transformation, this eventual steadfast love of Israel and now the beginning of a redemption from such a long and bitter exile a sign of grace?

    Whadaya think? I am asking.

  2. EJ, you really pose tough questions!

    The first part about the uses of the word Kadosh in the different contexts always means the same, the result of purification and removal of extraneous material. If something has restricted use it is kadosh as unnecessary or unsanctioned ones are prohibited. I will eventually follow up with a post exploring the different uses and I believe they all will have a similar meaning.

    Re the second part I prefaced with
    "It is also the understanding of many of our Jewish sources". It is however not Rambam's though there are Chazal that seem to go against him. I believe that there are two streams within chazal too and this debate is as old as Judaism. I do not believe that anything we do pray or anything else changes anything but ourselves and that is good. It is good from a practical sense because we need to act for more than selfish interest and that cannot be bad. I have written about it a lot and will do so more as I get better insights. But basically to me our lives are a challenge and good is when we live up to it and overcome it. Bad is when we act irresponsibly and suffer the consequences.

    It may sound tough. I find it exhilarating and knowing that I am responsible for every action, if I am acting correctly it is inevitably good and the opposite too is the most empowering and feeling of freedom and greatness man can feel.

  3. Isn't the Ma'aras haMachpeilah both qadosh and tamei?

    And many meforashim, particularly on why 2 weeks tum'ah after birthing a daughter and only 1 week after a son, do the reverse: Define tum'ah as the consequence of a sudden loss of qedushah or potential for qedushah.


  4. >Isn't the Ma'aras haMachpeilah both qadosh and tamei?

    I am not sure what you mean. It is a place that we venerate because it is the burial of the Avot, but there is no din of kedusha on it. Tume'ah is the halachik status without question.

    >Define tum'ah as the consequence of a sudden loss of qedushah or potential for qedushah.

    There is no question that not all agree and i said it in the post. I was however basing my comments on Rambam's shita and to him I dont believe it would be a possible explanation.