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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Varieties of Holiness

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

As I discussed last week, the book of Leviticus has a discernible structure. First we have the commandments regarding the sacrifices in the newly built Tabernacle. Then come the laws dealing with the categories of ritual purity and impurity (how impurity is communicated, and how purity is restored). As I said last week, this "purity code" has a lot to do with ritualising the toxicity of death. The climax of the book is the "holiness code", i.e., the Torah's description of holiness, and a set of commandments that are supposed to make us holy. The sacrificial code, and the purity code, are seemingly supposed to serve as a foundation for the holiness code. This week's double Torah reading marks that transition from purity to holiness.

That transition begins with the rituals of Yom Kippur in the Tabernacle [The Day of Atonement]. There is here a recognition that holiness, if we ever achieve it, may be fleeting. Our achievements are likely to be sullied, from time to time, by sin. "For there is not one righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). When accompanied by sincere regret, and so long as a person has done all he or she can, to repair the damage they may have done to others, the rituals of Yom Kippur allow for us to atone for our sins, so that we can continue to strive to be holy.

Following the Yom Kippur service, the book of Leviticus outlines a number of ways in which the Jewish people are supposed to distinguish themselves from other nations (in terms of their rituals, their appearance, their diet, and their behaviour). Part of the meaning of the Hebrew word for holiness, קדוש, is separateness. Part of what it's going to mean for the Jews to make themselves holy, is that they will have to make themselves distinct. Then comes chapter 19, which starts with its explicit commandment to be holy.

This call to holiness is followed by a veritable mishmash of laws that are very hard to group together thematically. Chapter 19 tell us: we have to honour our parents; observe the sabbath; avoid idols; eat all sacrificial meat within the first two days, and ensure that any leftovers are burnt on the third day; leave over produce whilst harvesting ours field, so that the poor and the stranger can glean some of the leftover crops; not to steal, or deceive, or lie, or defraud; to pay wages on time; not to put an obstacle before the blind; to judge fairly; not to stand idly by, in the face of suffering; not to hate others in one's heart; to intercede so as to prevent other people from doing bad things; not to take revenge; to love other people as you love yourself; not to interbreed animal or botanical species; not to wear clothes made of wool and linen together; we're told how to judge a man who had sexual relations with a slave who was betrothed to another man; not to eat the fruit of a tree in its first three years, and to donate the fruit of its fourth year to God; not to eat blood; not to engage in witchcraft; not to destroy the corner of our beards; nor to gash our flesh. The chapter includes a law against prostitution; a law to venerate God's sanctuary; not to inquire of ghosts or spirits; to show respect to the elderly; to love the stranger; and not to falsify weights or measures.

Some of these laws are ethical, some ritual, some very general, and some very specific. It's hard to see the thread that links them all together. But they do all appear together, in the same chapter, under the heading: Be Holy! And so this chapter only compounds a very real philosophical problem. The problem is that it's very difficult to give an account of what holiness - קדושה - really is.

We need to figure out what holiness is. Enter our first Midrash:

Rabbi Ḥanina said: “A holy one will come and enter into the holy place, and sacrifice before the Holy One, and atone for the holy people.”

The Bible itself is very clear that the service of the priest in the Temple was aimed at atoning for the sins of the Israelites. Accordingly, it’s somewhat difficult to appreciate what new idea Rabbi Ḥanina is trying to teach us here. But then the Midrash goes on to provide proof-texts to substantiate Rabbi Ḥanina’s repeated use of the word “holy.”

A holy one will come—this refers to Aaron [the priest], as it is said: “Aaron the holy one of the Lord” (Psalm 106:16). And enter into the holy place—this refers to the Sanctuary, as it is said: “The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established” [the word for “sanctuary” here, mikdash, shares its root with holiness] (Exodus 15:17). And sacrifice before the Holy One—this refers to the blessed Holy One, as it is said, “for holy am I, the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:2). And atone for the holy people—this refers to the Israelites, as it is said, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

The first three proof-texts all seem quite straightforward, although it’s surprising that any need was felt to prove that God is holy. The only proof-text that doesn’t seem convincing is the one that we needed the most. How do we know that the Jewish people are holy? The source provided, from our weekly reading, is far from convincing. There are many verses that clearly do illustrate the holiness of the Jewish people, but this verse doesn’t. On its classical understanding, it is a commandment to be holy. The fact that the Jews are commanded to be holy doesn’t mean that they are holy. On the contrary, if their holiness was assured, then why would they need this commandment? This final proof-text is surprising because it implies that the holiness of the Jewish people is far from assured.

Does this note of contingency infect the other holy characters appearing in the Midrash? Does it have something to teach us about the nature of holiness? The suggestion might be this: all of the holinesses here are contingent upon each other. None of the characters in this quartet—God, the Jewish people, Aaron, and the Temple—can be holy without the other.

The suggestion that God can’t be holy without us falls out of my somewhat subversive reading of this Midrash. But it shouldn’t leave us too shocked. The Torah explicitly describes God being made holy through the Jewish people (Leviticus 22:32). But still... we tend to relate to God as unalterably and inherently holy. So how can it be that we're the ones that make him holy? We can resolve this tension between the God who is unalterably holy and the God who we make holy, but only if we're willing to admit that there are different sorts of holiness. We're making some progress!

How many types of holiness are there? First, we should distinguish between absolute and relative varieties of holiness. God’s absolute holiness is forever assured, but his relative-holiness is a type of holiness that can only be bestowed upon him by another. To be holy, in this relative sense of the word, something needs to be made holy by another. God has absolute-holiness independently of anyone else. In addition to that, the Jewish people bestow relative-holiness upon God. Nothing—not even God—can have relative-holiness in a vacuum.

Howard Wettstein

Howard Wettstein suggests that we commonly use language associated with sanctity when we discuss things that leave us awestruck. He writes:

For many people, and not only those who would consider themselves religious, there is something holy about the objects of awe experience—childbirth, a great symphony, the Grand Canyon. There is, moreover, a feeling of horror associated with the thought of destroying such objects, events, and so on. To do so—even to allow such a thing—would be sacrilege.

Wettstein’s suggestion is that since we use sanctity language when talking about the objects of our “awe experiences,” there may be some deep relationship between awe and holiness.

And yet, the relationship between awe and holiness only seems relevant to what I've called relative-holiness. God’s absolute-holiness is assured, whether or not one personally holds God in awe. God’s relative-holiness, on the other hand is bestowed upon God by our actions and attitudes; including our reverence and awe. But then again, not all relative-holiness requires awe. If one dedicates a goat to the Temple, that goat becomes holy. That holiness isn’t an absolute feature of the goat in isolation. Its holiness is relational, something that is bestowed upon it by another. However, this relative-holiness is held by the goat whether or not the goat has, for some strange reason, left one awestruck! The holiness held by the goat is a purely legal status that befell it upon its consecration. In other words: awe can explain some forms of relative-holiness in Judaism, but not all of them.

Accordingly, Wettstein’s considerations only seem pertinent to a sub-species of relative-holiness, which I call subjective-holiness. A thing will be subjectively-holy to a person when, and only when, that individual holds it in awe.

There is a famous dispute between Rashi and Nahmanides, in their commentaries to our weekly reading. They disagree as to what the commandment to be holy means in practice. I take it that they’re both trying to delineate a new species of holiness. We could call it personal-holiness.

Nahmanides views the commandment to be holy as a commandment to transcend the dry letter of the law—to ensure that, in addition to one’s formal observance of the other commandments, one actually strives to act as a good person. Personal-holiness, according to Nahmanides, is centrally about being ethical. Clearly this is a distinct form of holiness, since a goat dedicated to the Temple will be holy even without its striving to be ethical! So, now we have absolute-holiness (held only by God); relative-holiness (held by things, such as goats, when they are made holy by another); subjective-holiness (a form of relative-holiness held by things that we hold in awe); and personal-holiness (held, we might say, by moral saints).


Rashi, by contrast, equates personal holiness with the scrupulous avoidance of sins of the flesh. His reading is bolstered by the fact that chapter 19 follows a list of forbidden sexual relations in chapter 18, and proceeds a list of the punishments for those forbidden sexual relations, in chapter 20. Given this juxtaposition of themes, there has to be a direct relationship between holiness and the avoidance of sexual sin. To put it cynically, Rashi says that personal-holiness and prudishness are synonymous. But of course, nowhere does Rashi say that the holiness of a goat, sanctified to the Temple, has to be a prude! But personal-holiness, it seems, is different. The more of a prude one is, the more holy one is. This, I admit, is a caricature of Rashi, which we shall amend as we go forward.

One of Rashi’s source-texts was a Midrash that asks why Elisha the prophet was called “holy” by the Shunamite woman:

Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, brought a proof from the case of the Shunamite woman. This is what is written: “And she said to her husband: ‘Now I know that he is a holy man of God’” (2 King 4:9). Rabbi Jonah said: [“He is a holy man” implies that] he was a holy man, but [that] his servants were not holy, as it is written: “Gehazi [Elisha’s servant] came near to push her away” (2 Kings 4:27)—[but] in pushing her away, he touched her breasts.

The shocking conclusion seems to be this: the Shunamite woman calls Elisha holy simply because he didn’t grope her. This seems to place the bar for personal-holiness absurdly low. To quote the beginning of that Midrash:

Rabbi Judah ben Pazi said: Why are the commandments concerning illicit sexual relations (Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20) juxtaposed with the laws of holiness (Leviticus 19)? Only to teach that wherever you find people establishing barriers against sexual licentiousness, there too will you find holiness.

Let’s take this view—which initially seems to be Rashi’s view—seriously. Why does personal-holiness come hand in hand with establishing barriers against sexual licentiousness? My theory is that, according to Rashi, one only really achieves personal-holiness if one is in the habit of bestowing subjective-holiness upon the people and things in one’s vicinity.

Subjective-holiness is the type of holiness associated with awe. It’s associated with an attitude or a posture toward the world. If you could bottle that feeling that you have when you’re at the Grand Canyon, and adopt that attitude toward all people, objects and events, then you would see subjective-holiness all around you. My suggestion is that for Rashi, personal-holiness is achieved in just that way: by an individual making the things around him or herself subjectively-holy. Our superficial reading of Rashi has it that running away from desires of the flesh is an essential component of personal-holiness. But why might that be?

Awe is a relatively easy bubble to burst. It’s easy to make any situation feel absurd, simply by standing outside of the situation for a moment. You’re sitting in synagogue listening to a beautiful piece of liturgical music. As you’re swept away by the emotion, you’re struck by the notion that the music is nothing more than a wave of air passing through wobbly fleshy vocal chords… and the moment is ruined. This is something that has fascinated existentialist philosophers: the ease with which a situation can be made to feel absurd.

Jean-Paul Sartre

John Paul Sartre’s Nausea is a novel that pays a great deal of attention to this phenomenon. The book follows a character, Antoine Roquentin, who has the uncanny ability to make any experience feel absurd. And we can do that, too: by trying, for a moment, to stand outside of the situation.

What we do in those moments of perceived absurdity is to treat things merely as objects, stripping them of their social statuses and their socially constructed properties; or focusing only on one property at a time. If one regards a baseball bat just as a stick of wood, or a football as merely a latex bladder surrounded by panels of polyvinyl chloride, then the whole surrounding social structure that is baseball or football just seems to collapse in under the pressure of its own absurdity. Why do I want to put a latex bladder into a net? I may be surrounded by uplifting music, but as soon as I focus on the wobbling vocal chords, the situation became absurd. In part, ruining a moment and making it absurd means treating the things in that moment merely as objects.

Sexual sins are the cardinal example of objectifying something that shouldn’t be turned into a mere object.

One more Midrash:

"Behold, I was brought forth in sin [and in sin did my mother conceive me]" (Psalm 51:7). Rabbi Acha said, 'Even if one be the most pious of the pious, it's impossible that he should have no streak of iniquity in him.' David said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, 'Lord of the Universe! Did my father Jesse have the intention of bringing me into the world? Why, his only intention was personal enjoyment. The proof for this is that when they had both had their desires satisfied, he turned his face in one direction, and she turned her face in the opposite direction and it was you that caused every single drop to enter', and this is what David meant when he said: 'For when my father and my mother forsook me, the Lord did gather me in' (Psalm 27:10).

King David's parents, as this Midrash portrays them, weren't bothered to conceive that night. They were just interested in satiating their own desires, evidenced by the fact that they turned away from each other as soon as the act was done. It was God who caused the sperm to penetrate the egg; long after Jesse and his wife had finished what they had set out to do. It was God who gathered David in. But remember that the beginning of this Midrash is about being conceived in sin. So, what was the sin over here? Jesse and his wife can't be blamed for the fact that God was necessary for the conception to occur – presumably, on the world view of the Midrash, this is always the case. The sin here, it seems, was that they turned away from each other; evidence of the fact that this wasn't a moment of deep interpersonal connection between Jesse and his wife, but a moment of mutual self-satisfaction. They were using one another. It's not sex that's the problem, but objectification. What would the remedy be to this? Had Jesse and his wife, after their physical satisfaction, looked meaningfully into one another's eyes, awed by the depth of their relationship, and maybe if they thought about the enormity of the situation that a child might be about to come into the world as a result of this holy union; had that been the dynamic of that moment, we wouldn't have been able to say that David was conceived in sin.

The objectification that occurs in sexual sins happens on two levels. The first is the most obvious: when an individual sees someone that they find sexually attractive, they may start to relate to them not as a person but rather as a desirable object.

In the cases of sexual sins that the Torah mentions, the objectification often happens on a second level too. For example, when a brother and a sister sleep with each other (an example I chose because most of the illicit relationships listed in Leviticus are incestuous), they undermine a pre-existing and socially pre-determined human relationship. It’s impossible to maintain a sibling relationship if the brother and sister are involved with each other as lovers: they have burst the familial nature of that relationship, stripping it of its social status.

William Kolbrener

Of course, this attitude towards sexuality can be taken to negative extremes. William Kolbrener, who lives in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, tells a story about helping a woman, in his community, up many flights of stairs with heavy shopping. In that society, the genders live ever more segregated life-styles. Accordingly, she wouldn't look at him to acknowledge him or to thank him. He talks about how sexualised such a society must be. Gender and sexuality has to be on your mind the whole time: don't look; don't look; don't look. If you end up thinking like that, then you'll have forbidden matters on your mind almost constantly. The stereotypical ultra-orthodox reaction to sexuality is thus a cure that is so powerful that it brings back the original malady. People, once again, end up objectifying each other.

As I understand Rashi and the Midrashic tradition, the factor that brings about personal-holiness isn't prudishness, for that can go too far, but it is the refusal to turn another person into an object. If you become too prudish, you begin to objectify people once again. A society, like the Ultra-Orthodox communities that insist on having gender segregation on public transport, that reduces a woman to back-of-the-bus-fodder, so aware of a person's gender, may be a deeply religious society, but it sacrifices its own holiness whenever it objectifies people. Ironically, if you take the laws of Leviticus so seriously that you can only relate to a person as a woman, or as a man, or as a homosexual, as a Jew, or as Gentile, a Priest, or a layperson, or in terms of any one label, or halakhic category, or prohibition, and if this one lens, leads you not to see, and not to love, and not to hold in awe, the unique human being before you, then you'll have entirely missed the point.

Rashi’s idea might be this: the key to personal-holiness is an attitude. The attitude is related to awe. This is the antithesis of the attitude of objectifying things. Rashi isn’t saying that holy people are prudes. Jewish life certainly does have a central space for sexuality and physical intimacy. Rashi’s concern is to ensure that sexuality doesn’t descend into objectification. Elisha wasn't holy because he didn't grope a person. He was holy because that sort of interaction with another human being could never have occurred to him. I would argue that Rashi and Nahmanides’ positions quickly collapse into one another—or even that Rashi’s position includes and goes beyond that of Nahmanides.

The kind of person who could never objectify another, not even in the realm of sexuality, where the temptation is greatest; who could not bring oneself to buy a piece of clothing if it were a product of slave labor, which relies upon the degradation of other human beings; who doesn’t buy factory-farmed meat because of the awe in which he or she holds the animal kingdom; who is holy because of seeing holiness in others, never failing to be struck by the prism of awe through which other people, and the entire created world, deserve to be viewed— such a person simply can’t bring oneself to act in immoral ways. One who constantly adopts this attitude and this posture toward the world cannot fail — all the while that this posture is held — to be an ethical person. And beyond that: such a person would indeed be holy.

In other words: personal-holiness is achieved when people make things around themselves subjectively-holy, refusing to objectify them and instead treating them with reverence and respect. Personal-holiness therefore contains Rashi’s opposition to objectification alongside Nahmanides’ focus on ethical excellence.

But how does all of this help us? Haven't we made a confusing topic even more confusing? We wanted to know what the thread was that linked all of the laws together in chapter 19 of Leviticus. We wanted to know what holiness is. All I've done is to multiply species of holiness without saying what they've all got in common!

But, actually, I think a theory is starting to emerge. First of all, let's take stock:

We have seen two species of holiness: (1) absolute-holiness, which inheres in God; and (2) relative-holiness, which is had by any object that wasn’t holy (in that respect) until it was made holy by another. Relative-holiness, we have seen, comprises at least three species of its own: (1) legal-holiness is had by an object made holy via a formal act of consecration, as defined in Jewish law (this is how a goat can be dedicated to the temple and thereby become holy); (2) subjective-holiness is in the eye of the beholder: an object or person, x, will have subjective-holiness for a different person, y, so long as y holds x in awe; and (3) personal-holiness is had by people who are adept at bestowing subjective-holiness upon the people and things in their vicinity.

These different holinesses can overlap. God has absolute-holiness, and we add a layer of subjective-holiness over and above that, when we hold God in awe. The Sabbath has a legal holiness bestowed upon it by God. That holiness is relative to God. Whether or not we make the Sabbath holy, it will be holy (legally-holy). And yet, we are still commanded to make it holy. In other words, we have to make it holy relative not just to God and his laws, but also to us, which we can do in a number of ways. If we do it robotically, then the Sabbath will have nothing more than an acknowledged legal-holiness for us. But, if we hold it in awe, it can also become subjectively-holy.

Every type of holiness, I believe, has something to do with being brought into the field of God’s attention. Classical Jewish philosophy describes God contemplating God’s-self, and in so doing, somehow knowing all that there is to know. God is centrally, and constantly, within the field of His own attention. This is the key, I suggest, to God’s absolute-holiness. And it's also the key to every other form of holiness. To stand in the gaze of God is to be holy.

When we consecrate something, we take it from the natural world and bring it into the world of Jewish law. A goat becomes a sacrifice. A piece of fruit becomes a tithe to a Levite. God knows all things, at all times. So, of course, there is nothing of which God is unaware. Nevertheless, Jewish law might be thought to hold a special place in God’s gaze.

Jewish law is thought of as the manifestation of God wisdom—the eternal Torah with which God created all that exists. Accordingly, there may be some sense in which the halakhic system is more central to God’s field of attention than all other things. Therefore, to give something legal-holiness might be to bring it somehow more centrally into God’s field of attention. Perhaps this is what connects holiness with being made separate. To be holy is, in part, to stand out in God's field of vision.

This analysis is strengthened when we consider the land of Israel. What makes it holy? Could it not be the fact that “the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it, from the beginning of the year to its end” (Deuteronomy 11:12)?

When we hold something in awe, we are—in some sense or another—seeing the godliness in it. We recognize that it is a creation of God. It is as if we are bringing God more squarely into our own field of attention. In so doing, God—so to speak—reciprocates and regards us in a new light, which is the source of our personal-holiness. It’s as if when we make things subjectively-holy, by holding them in the right sort of gaze, God reciprocates, and makes us personally-holy, by holding us in the right sort of gaze. In those moments we are bound to God in a blessed moment of joint and shared attention. And so, the holiness code of Leviticus contains all sorts of different laws. Why? Because there are many different sorts of holiness. Ritual, legal, personal, and absolute. And yet, despite the diversity of these varieties of holiness, we start to see the kernel of a theory that binds them all together: holiness stems from the gaze of God, and every species of holiness somehow illuminates the others, when they come along together.

Of course, the gaze of God is a metaphor, drawn from God's looking at the land of Israel in Deuteronomy 11:12. But it's a metaphor that helps to organise the entire notion of holiness, as it appears in Scripture, halakha and Midrash.

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