Benjamin Blech

This series is long past due.

In particular, this book is a much needed response to the meaning of the biblical mandate that summarizes the mission of the Jewish people. The Torah commands us “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The terse directive begs for clarification. What is it exactly that we are required to do? The wisest of all generations have struggled to define the meaning of the word holy.

In one of the early dialogues of Plato, we find Socrates questioning Euthyphro who is about to prosecute his father on the ground that to do so is an act of piety. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he is so certain that his action is the correct moral choice deserving of being considered holy. Socrates does not want to know what is holy in this particular case only, but instead to know what is holy in any and all cases. If he had that standard, if he knew the essence or common-nature of holiness, then he could judge Euthyphro’s case as well. What he believes he cannot do is to judge the correctness of Euthyphro’s course of action without that standard (and he does not think that Euthyphro can either (15d). And so Socrates says to Euthyphro at the end of their inconclusive dialectic:

And so we must now go back again, and start from the beginning to find what the holy is. As for me, I will never give up until I know. (15c)

Socrates admits that he does not know. But a Jew cannot afford the luxury of uncertainty. To do so would be to lead a life removed from one’s divine vocation, lacking purpose and meaning. Holiness is our reason for being. It is our personal obligation as well as our communal responsibility. It is the commitment God placed upon us when he entrusted us with his Torah at Sinai and enjoined us to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

And so we need to understand the essence of holiness, the meaning of sanctity, the significance of sacredness. These words cannot remain abstractions. They must point us to ideas relevant to our lives, to concepts guiding us to correct behavior, to aspirations in harmony with heavenly ideals.

The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his classic study on holiness (Das Heilige, 1927 – freely translated into English as The Idea of the Holy), states that “holiness is a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion.” For a Jew that definition is far too constricting. Holiness in the Bible is a life-affirming principle meant to transform every act, no matter how seemingly devoid of spirituality, into an experience of service to God and awareness of our divine image.

Mitzvot, divine imperatives that govern every waking moment of our days, are meant – as the opening words of the blessing prefacing their performance remind us – to “sanctify us.” What is the meaning of this sanctification? Sanctity is a word that seeks to encompass an entire philosophy of life. But as William James so correctly pointed out in his deservedly famous Varieties of Religious Experience, “Philosophy lives by words, but truth and fact well up in our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation.”

Holiness, sanctity, sacredness are abstractions. We feel their reality but have difficulty defining them. Yet define them we must if we are to fulfill God’s will even as we seek to realize our purpose on earth.

All this is by way of explaining the genesis of this book you are about to read.

A short while back, I was approached by David Birnbaum, the iconoclast thought leader. Birnbaum is impacting the reshaping of the face of the Jewish world across-the-board: in philosophy, spirituality, and history. Beneath-the-radar, his Mesorah Matrix series has effected another neo-revolution: a unification of sorts of the Jews via the global group project of the 150+ trans-denominational Jewish thought leaders united in purpose for this landmark endeavor. Shoulder-to-shoulder. Achduth at its finest.

David Birnbaum prevailed upon me to take on the task of recruiting the finest Orthodox minds of our generation – theologians, rabbis, professors and internationally renowned scholars – to reflect on the theme of sanctification and contribute essays for a groundbreaking contemporary work on this topic. For me, launching the first volume of this series has been a remarkable endeavor and a true labor of love.

Birnbaum outlined a visionary plan for a sui generis landmark ten-volume series addressing ten themes within Judaism. In the ensuing years Editor-in-Chief Birnbaum turned out to be consistent: consistently demanding top quality, consistently insisting on authentic vibrancy, and consistently pressing that we reel-in the world’s top talent.

The eager acceptance of the project’s mandate by the very distinguished and well-known names of this volume’s contributing authors is perhaps the best testimony to the long-unfilled need this seminal work serves. What makes it particularly noteworthy and – with the admitted bias of a very pleased editor – a modern classic of Jewish thought is the wide range of approach to a single subject, made possible by the extraordinary assortment of scholarly backgrounds and intellectual attainments of our contributors.
For some, like the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, the Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his masterful essay on “The Ethic of Holiness,” the question that needs most to be addressed is the tension at the heart of Judaism between the universality of ethics and the seemingly particularistic claim of holiness. As Sacks puts it, “What turns tension into paradox is that persistently throughout Tanakh we hear the idea that Jews and Judaism have significance not just for ourselves but for all humanity. How can kedushah [holiness], a way of life and mode of being specific to the Jewish people and not demanded by God of all humanity, become an inspiration to all humanity? How can a nation that dwells alone be a role model for nations that do not dwell alone? How can the particular be of relevance to the universal?” Ingeniously resolving this question, we are led to understand the difference between the prophetic and wisdom traditions of other cultures with the Jewish emphasis on the imperative of holiness to which we are meant to give witness.

Shalom Carmy, in his very thoughtful and insightful piece, “Hired For the Day,” examines three projects that beckon to modern men and women in quest of sanctification: “the ascetic impulse, the altruistic impulse, and the mystical impulse,” and concludes with a striking insight into a well-known midrash that will almost certainly have great meaning for the reader, much as the author confides it has had for him personally.

Aviva Zornberg begins her important essay, “Impressions: Facing the Rock,” by pointing out a fascinating truth relating to biblical narrative about the theme of sanctity. Ultimately, she points out, according to Sforno, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2), represents the ideal of imitatio dei – God’s wish for the human being to be “in Our form and after Our image” (Genesis 1:26). Indeed, to sanctify oneself is equivalent to sanctifying God: “If you sanctify yourselves, I account it as if you had sanctified Me.” In view of this, she notes, it is striking that there seems to be little in the way of biblical narrative that deals with this central concept of sanctification, and this, despite the fact that it is precisely the strength of narrative to flesh out elusive processes and particularly to convey them in temporal and social contexts. The Hebrew root kadesh, as adjective or as verb, transitive or intransitive, seems shy of narrative frameworks.

Yet, she correctly points out there is but one exception: The only narrative that focuses its ultimate meanings on this issue is the enigmatic episode of the rock at Merivah. Here, God pronounces the last word on the narrative: it is the failure of Moses and Aaron to “believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Israelites” that defines their fate: “Therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the Land” (Numbers 20:12).

By exploring the complex layers of this narrative – “its resonances receding back to the beginning of the Exodus and beyond” – Zornberg approaches, in the way that narrative alone can, “an understanding of the intertwined ideals of emuna and kedushah (faith and sanctification).”

From a totally different perspective, James Kugel offers a highly original piece, “The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat,” in which by way of an imaginary tale of a man who mistakenly wears his t’fillin to work, he vividly illustrates an important point: “The everyday is, by definition, not holy: it is ordinary, not special, and normally taken for granted. What is most characteristic of Judaism is that this connection of the everyday things of daily life to God is not articulated internally, through some wished-for, heightened state of awareness, but externally, through some particular act, binding t’fillin to one’s head and arm, reciting the words of the Shema, or uttering a series of blessings as one moves through the routine act of getting up in the morning.”

Nathaniel Helfgot offers us a profound examination of the concept of sacred space in Jewish thought as well as “its meaning for us today as we struggle to experience a sense of the sacred and numinous in our fast-paced and ever-changing world and the secular ethos that finds no room for the holy,” incorporating important insights from Abraham Heschel, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and from the latter’s sister, Prof. Nehama Leibowitz as well as others.

Lawrence H. Schiffman, in his most interesting essay “The Dead Sea Scrolls Sect as a Replacement Temple,” takes us back to the formative time of the beginning of Christianity as well as the start of Talmudic Judaism to discover the religious ideas of holiness and sanctity that were so crucial to the Dead Sea sect in Qumran.

Shlomo Riskin elaborates on the approach of Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his essay “Sanctity of Time, Sanctity of Place, And Sanctity of The Human Being,” to demonstrate how sanctity must be brought into the world through the dimension of time as manifested in our festivals, through the dimension of the space as manifested in the sanctuary, and through human beings responsible for actualizing the existence of divine holiness within every aspect of the universe.

Saul Berman, in “The Holiness of God: Its Meaning, Actualization, and Symbolic Embodiment,” focuses on the usage of the term kadosh/holy in the text of the Torah in order to elicit the pattern of its use as a way of arriving at a systematic understanding of its accurate meaning, integrating rabbinic teachings to demonstrate applications of these usages within Jewish thought and law.

David Shatz takes up the question of “Separation or Engagement?” as he shares with his readers the intriguing dilemma of which model we are to pursue in our quest to achieve holiness based on the foundations of the various concepts that have given expression to this divine mandate.

I have selected for synopsis but a few of the fascinating articles that await you in order to whet your intellectual appetite, even as I promise that all of the offerings in this collection will fill you with gratitude for the insights of some of the most distinguished thinkers of our time.
In 1931, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his notebook: “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man”. Of all the gifts Jews have given to the world, the passion for holiness – the pursuit of the holy in our personal lives and the commitment to sanctity as communal responsibility – is the one aspect of our genius that may well represent our greatest contribution to humankind. It is the genius that has shaped us and accounted for our miraculous and incomprehensible survival. It is the genius that offers the world its only hope for continued existence.

I pray that this work, by enabling us to better understand its biblical parameters, will bring us closer to a time when the idea of holiness will be as much understood and beloved on earth as it is in heaven.

A Note from the Editors

Every effort has been made to retain a good level of consistency between the essays that appear here in terms of the translation and transliteration of Hebrew. Many of our decisions have, needs be, been arbitrary, but we have done our best to create a book that will be as accessible to newcomers to the study of Judaism as it is inspiring to cognoscenti. The four-letter name of God, left unpronounced by pious Jews as a sign of reverence, is mostly rendered in this volume as “the Eternal” or “the Eternal One.” Other divine names are either transliterated or translated to create in English something akin to the way the text reads in Hebrew. All translations are their authors’ unless otherwise indicated.