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jewish holinessJudaism’s concept of kedushah as developed by the early rabbinic sages draws on biblical notions of holiness, distinguishing between two types, one hierarchical--holiness as a matter of degree--and the other non-hierarchical. The hierarchical type is ascribed to objects such as Torah scrolls and synagogue buildings that are used in a way that makes them close to God. Non-hierarchical holiness is a moral purity achieved by doing deeds that are ethically and ritually proper. The people Israel is commanded to be holy in order to be considered God’s people.

Getting to Holy

Is attaining holiness a matter of living up to the standards of law, or of exceeding them, perhaps so much as to be the rare saintly person? Medieval Jewish thinkers adopted a variety of positions on this question. For some, it is enough to refrain from illicit behavior. Others view the requirements and restrictions of Jewish law (halakhah) as an enforceable minimum standard of decent behavior, within the realm of which one may be a scoundrel or, by choosing to behave well, a holy person. Yet others portray an ascetic life of devotion to God as the way to the attaining the status of “holy.”

Philosophers of Judaism in modern times, influenced in part by philosophical, literary, and anthropological studies of religion in general, have expanded Jews’understanding of the concept of “holiness.” Some have focused on social ethics, others on the life of the individual. Religious existentialists in particular stress the unique status of “holy” as a term describing relationship with God, reflecting a realm beyond the psychological, the social, and the ethical--a realm in which human beings stand before the Absolute.

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