A History of Holiness

By :  Alan Mittleman Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy Posted On May 11, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

Holiness in Jewish Thought edited by Alan Mittleman (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The term “holy” (kodesh as a noun or kadosh as an adjective) appears frequently in the Bible. The more abstract idea of holiness (kedushah) appears in rabbinic literature. We use holiness-language in everyday speech in English, as well as words such as “sacred.” But do we know what we mean when we use these terms?

Jewish ideas of the holy have undergone a long evolution. The latest phase—the way we speak now—locates holiness on a moral map. We tend to think of holy people as especially righteous, self-sacrificing, compassionate, or saintly. Holy people might also have a strong devotion to a traditional way of life. In our current usage holiness overlaps with, or may even be subordinate to, ethics.

Yet that is clearly not the full story. When Moses is told by God to remove his sandals before the burning bush because the ground he stands on is holy (Exod. 3:5), no moral values are in play. Similarly, when God declares Shabbat holy (Gen. 2:3), “holy” bears no moral sense. The ethical overtones of the concept of holiness do emerge in the Bible (e.g., Lev. 19:2) and become increasingly salient as Judaism develops. But earlier ideas of holiness as involving dangerous energy or power, separation from the everyday, divine presence, and ritual purity endure. Holiness is a complex concept with a long history.

My new volume explores the many dimension of holiness the Bible, Midrash and Talmud, medieval biblical commentary, and such classic Jewish philosophers as Maimonides, Saadya Gaon, and Bachya ibn Pakuda. There are also chapters on holiness in mystical literature, especially the Zohar, in Hasidism, in modern Jewish thinkers, such as Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig. Additionally, the book explores the idea that the Land of Israel is holy. It also asks whether holiness continues to be meaningful after the Holocaust. The book opens the whole sweep of holiness in Judaism to its readers, and the introduction and afterword assess the implications of holiness in our time.