Kedushah (Holiness) in Rabbinic Judaism

Holy living, in the view of the sages of the talmudic age, is achieved through actions that are both ritually proper and ethically correct.

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As one might expect, however, ritual (hierarchical) tum’ah and moral (nonhierarchical) tum’ah are very different. Kadushin notes that, while the pursuit of hierarchical holiness does not rule out any encounter with ritual tum’ah (the need to have a pure vessel for the Temple service does not mean one cannot own an impure vessel for a bouquet of flowers in your home!), the pursuit of nonhierarchical holiness allows no place for moral impurity. One cannot seek to be holy by giving to charity while at the same time engaging in murder. Thus, the standards for moral holiness are far more exacting (if perhaps less detailed) than those for ritual holiness.

Recognizing the dichotomy of hierarchical (ritual) holiness and nonhierarchical (moral) holiness helps us understand what the rabbis meant by the term kedushah. Yet there is always a danger in separating out the ritual from the moral—the danger of seeing the two as wholly unrelated. Kadushin is quick to point out that while there are important distinctions between the two, there is also an important overlap, since the very act that imbues an object with hierarchical holiness is a mitzvah, thus increasing the nonhierarchical holiness of the mitzvah-performer. After all, to return to the case of our mishnah from Megillah, the act of prayer that might make the city square holy is an obligation that brings the person praying closer to God and makes her or him holier.

The ancient rabbis’ notion of holiness was clearly a different holiness from that of the Bible. While the rabbis maintained a biblical sense of cultic purity and impurity, it became tied to a human-centered theology of mitzvot, imitation of God, and abstention from morally defiling acts. In so doing, they gave to humans the power not only to make themselves holy, but also to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush hashem—the power to sanctify God’s name in the world.

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Michael Rosenberg is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.