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09.05.2017 16:45    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parashat acharey moth kedoshim  

Is Holiness A State or a Process?




The verses in the Torah that mention the sanctity of the people of Israel do not indicate conclusively whether Qedusha, sanctity is immanent, a permanent state that is the result of being chosen by the Holy One, blessed be He, or whether the people of Israel sanctify themselves through observing His commandments.  The essence of sanctity can be understood either way and often the very same verses can even be used to support one idea or its opposite, according to the approach of the commentator.


Sanctity as a state

From several verses in the Torah [1] referring to the sanctity of the people of Israel it follows that G-d grants the people of Israel their sanctity.   In their chosenness lies their special and holy status.  They are sacred to Him, meaning that they belong to Him (all these verses use the expression holy, sacred or consecrated with preposition “to”). [2] According to this view the sanctity that the Lord conferred on the people of Israel is not conditional on their observing the commandments and thereby becoming holy; rather, sanctity is a component in the very being of the people of Israel , never to be cancelled, and it comprises the foundation and condition for observing the commandments. [3] This line of thought was taken by Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk, author of Meshekh Hokhmah (in his commentary on Exodus 19:12), who maintained that the Israelites were sanctified at Mount Sinai through their proximity to the mountain on which the glory of the Lord was revealed, and that their sanctity is forever.


Sanctity through observance

A different approach to the sanctity of the people of Israel follows from the midrash in Sifra (Lev. 19:2):

“You shall be holy” – you shall set yourselves apart. [4] “For I, the Lord your   G-d, am holy” – meaning that if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, but if you do not make yourselves holy, I shall view you as if you have not sanctified Me.  Or, perhaps it is to say none other than if you make Me holy, then I am sanctified, and if not, then I am not sanctified?  The text says, “for I am holy.”  In My sanctity I exist, whether or not others sanctify Me.

The picture that emerges from the midrash in Sifra and from the verses of the Torah that support it is that the Lord is a holy G-d, and He set aside the people of Israel to be His people, giving Israel commandments through whose observance they become holy.   The commandments were given in order to purify human beings (Genesis Rabbah 44.1), and the idea that upholding the commandments adds sanctity is found in the words of the tannaim:   The Sabbath is said to be “holy to you,” indicating that the Sabbath adds holiness to Israel (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate De-Shabbata I). [5] In contrast to the previous approach, sanctity is not a one-time act in which G-d confers everlasting holiness on Israel .  Rather, it is an ongoing process of the people of Israel sanctifying themselves through His commandments.  It is in the power of the commandments not only to bring sanctity to the people of Israel, but also to increase the sanctity of G-d, as it is said, “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people” (Lev. 22:32). [6] The privilege of Israel to have the Lord as their G-d is conditional on them sanctifying themselves by upholding His commandments.


Sanctity is not supernatural

Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik said on this subject that sanctity is not a supernatural, heavenly title that descends from on high and lands on some object or other.  Things do not become holy of themselves.  If things became holy automatically, Judaism would turn into a religion of magic, Heaven forbid.  Sanctity is the creation of man. [7]


Malbim took a similar approach.   He distinguished between the notions of a “chosen people” (‘am segulah) and a “holy nation,” (goy qadosh) giving the following interpretation (loc. sit., Mekhilta 19, Jethro, p. 150):

They are called ‘am segulah, a chosen people, insofar as the Lord chose them (without any action on their part), even if they do not act as servants of the Lord and a holy nation, but they were called “a holy people” when they became holy and elevated themselves in the sanctity of their actions;

Regarding the sanctity that the people of Israel impart, as it were, to the Holy One, blessed be He, Malbim interpreted as follows:

When a person sanctifies himself and elevates himself above material things to spiritual comportment which he chooses, and the divine soul is in him, then the Lord becomes sanctified in the world and becomes elevated to lead the world miraculously; and this is what is meant by saying, “if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, ...”  Thus My sanctity, insofar as I am your G-d, depends on your sanctity.”

According to Malbim, the meaning of being a holy people is that the people make themselves holy through performance of the commandments, and in this act of sanctification the people also sanctify the Holy One, blessed be He.


To summarize Sifra and Malbim, in human existence sanctity is a challenge placed on man and in no way is it a trait that is found inherently in man or conferred on him from above. [8] Nor is sanctity an immanent component in the essence of an object or in the essence of time (save the for the sanctity of the Holy One, blessed be He, as stated above); rather, it is the result of the deeds that human beings perform. [9] Human beings can undo the sanctity of something through the reverse action, by desecrating or contaminating it.


The significance of the sanctifying act and its characteristics

I would like to follow the approach taken by Sifra, which emphasizes that sanctification is elicited by an action that creates holiness, and to examine the significance of the sanctifying act and what characterizes it. One characteristic of the sanctifying act is that sanctification (holiness) is always in a process of becoming, and there is no upper limit to sanctification.   Scripture does not say, “You are holy,” rather, “You shall be holy,” and towards the end of the passage it says, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” (Lev. 20:7), indicating that only in your act of sanctifying yourselves are you holy; once you cease sanctifying yourselves, your holiness ceases to be.  Similarly, in the passage on tzitzit (fringes; Num. 15:40 ), it says:   “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy,” meaning that if you lay off from observing My commandments, your holiness abates. [10]


Holiness through morality – sanctity as expressing spiritual-moral perfection [11]

Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik said that sanctity as a transcendental concept (stemming from an external binding authority) signifies a divine-like separation. That is to say, Man removes himself from material things and desires. G-d, Who asks that we adhere to His characteristics, provides a moral example that finds expression in our aspiring, continual struggle to attain moral perfection.[12] The struggle to attain holy comportment through moral perfection demands a level of morality which is conscious and reflective, in which choices are made between alternative ways of behaving, and not a habitual, stereotyped behavior.

Sanctity of consecration and sanctity of separation.

Sanctity of consecration refers to bringing sanctification to things that are mundane, as the Sages said, “Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted you” (on the verse, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d,” Deut. 14:2; Rashi, loc. sit.Sifreloc. sit.).  Sanctity of separation or isolation, in contrast, is sanctity which is achieved by separating that which is sacred from that which is mundane, as in the separations in the Temple between the azarah (the courtyard), the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies.

Overt sanctity and inner sanctity . [13]

Overt sanctity find expression in behavior which is there for all to see, in one’s outer appearance and actions.   Perhaps such overt holiness impresses those who behold it, however it carries with it the risk of arrogance.   In contrast, inner sanctity lies within and is experienced by the person himself or between the person and G-d.

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