Wednesday, April 27, 2016


It is difficult to define the word “holy” or “sacred.” Philosophers have a hard time clarifying the totality of what this word tries to convey. It certainly has to do something with religion, with God, with the otherness of things, or with the numinous quality of being. In modern life today, however, the word does not have a great appeal. The question is whether the concept behind the word is worth preserving.

In the ancient Near East holiness implied separation. In Akkadian the verb qadashu means to become pure. In Mari a qadishtu was a priestess. In the Hebrew Bible qadosh refers to whatever is set aside for a purpose. The Rabbis, too, understood the word in the same manner. Whereas Lev. 19:2 states, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” [qadosh], the SIFRA, a legal commentary on the book of Leviticus, states that this means, “You shall be separate [perushim] (from others or sinful acts).” The opposite of holy is profane, impure and ordinary. 

In traditional Hebrew texts, the term qadosh is applied to various spheres:
a)    Holiness can be applied to people, and especially to the people of Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20: 26). Priests also are considered holy because they were separated from other individuals in the community (Lev. 21: 6).
b)    Objects can be holy: Thus, all priestly clothing is considered holy (Ex. 28:2,4), because only priests can wear them. 
c)     Time can be set aside as holy:  For example, the Sabbath day is viewed as holy, because it is set aside from all other days as a day of worship and rest (Ex. 20:8).
d)    Places can be considered as sacred: Within the ancient temple of Jerusalem, there was a section designated as “Holy of Holies” where presumably the divine dwelled (Ex. 25: 8). Similarly, a sanctuary is called a miqdash (“sacred place’), for, it has been set aside as a special place of worship.
e)    Occasions can be viewed as holy: In the rabbinic literature, the marriage ceremony is called qiddushin (from the same root as qadosh), since both husband and wife set themselves apart for a unique relationship.
f)      The Israelite God, whose personal name, YHVH, we do not know how to pronounce, is viewed as holy, because He has been set aside for an exclusive worship from all other gods in the universe: “Who is like you, O Lord [YHVH], among the gods; Who is like you, majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15: 11). Similarly, in the temple of Jerusalem the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts” (Isa. 6: 3).  

In the Biblical view, holiness is regarded as being gradual from the most sacred to the least sacred; as one gets closer to God, it becomes more holy.  Some individuals, for example, are holier than others. Thus, the High priest is the most sacred; then come the ordinary priests, then the Levites, and finally the Israelites and the resident aliens. Foreign nations appear at the very bottom. In the same vein, when it comes to places, after the “Holy of Holies” in the temple of Jerusalem, you have the temple compound, then the city of Jerusalem, then the Land of Israel, and finally, the least sacred are all other lands outside of Israel. 

            How was God’s holiness understood? Primarily by way of copying divine deeds. For instance, when Lev. 19: 2 states, “You [meaning, the Israelites] shall be holy, because, I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the SIFRA adds that the proper meaning is: “If you sanctify yourselves, then I [God] would consider as if you have sanctified me.” Similarly, Nahmanides (Girona, Spain, b.1194-1270, Israel) comments on the same verse saying, “That means, by being holy we can cling to God”.  In other words, holiness is based on imitatio dei, acting as God would: i.e., If you act in a godly matter, then, God is sanctified. 

The comments above reflect a theistic view of God where God appears as a Person who knows, responds and reacts to human activity. How can holiness be construed within a non-theistic, religious naturalistic point of view (My approach)? I believe that the Biblical concept of “holy” as referring to something that is separate and being set aside for a special purpose is still valid. However, I would argue that nothing is intrinsically sacred. Holiness is a quality that we bestow upon others because we consider them as special, such as historical sites (e.g., the city of Jerusalem, my synagogue in Needham, MA), human relationships (e.g. spouses, parents), the environment (e.g. respect for nature).  [You create your own list].  As to God, which in a non-theistic religious naturalism stands for the energy that animates the universe, divine holiness is based on the life-affirming qualities that we, humans, attribute to all existence that surrounds us, for without that energy we would not exist.
I agree with Michael Benedict who wrote:
“Nothing is holy expect that we sanctify it;
and thus everything is potentially holy
      except cruelty, disease, and untimely death.” (1)

To life!
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 2016

1.    Michael Benedikt, God is the Good We Do. Botting Books, NY, 2007, 10.