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?

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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.”

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.