REVIEW: A Theology of Holiness 

Featured Articles - Home, Tradition Online

REVIEW: A Theology of Holiness
Reviewed by Chaim Strauchler

Alec Goldstein, A Theology of Holiness: Historical, Exegetical, and Philosophical Perspectives (Kodesh Press, 2018), 258 pp.

Alec Goldstein performs an important service in writing a book to describe Judaism’s conception of holiness. He admirably records a series of explanations for holiness, which he explores through the prisms of history, exegeses, and philosophy. However, Goldstein does not, in fact, provide a theology of holiness. Theology is the study of the nature of God. The book does not explain what one conception of holiness says about an understanding of God, as opposed to another conception. Yet, Goldstein is not to blame; commentaries have always weighed down the first half of the verse, “Thou shall be holy,” when compared to its second, “for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Perhaps, Judaism’s preoccupation with God’s expectations of humankind distracts us from our own vision of God.

Goldstein details many accounts of holiness. His book argues that the Bible understands holiness primarily as mitzva-observance. Medieval authorities associate holiness with withdrawal from physical matter. Eighteenth century commentaries interpret holiness in terms of ethical conduct. Twentieth century commentaries react and attempt to recapture holiness as the mysterium tremendum. In its conclusion, the book argues for a holiness rooted in the existence of divine obligation but made manifest in a life having fulfilled God’s will. 

Making use of linguistic theory, Goldstein performs a lexical analysis on the Hebrew root for “holy”—k-d-sh. The book argues that holiness has two components: “separated” and “elevated.” In justifying this conclusion, Goldstein examines associated roots that appear in confluence or in contrast to k-d-sh throughout Tanakh. This affords a valuable journey through the ideas of purity (t-h-r), defilement (h-l-l), and impurity (t-m-‘), as well as honour (k-b-d) and blessing (b-r-k). 

In attempting to define holiness for the modern reader, Goldstein sets for himself a Sisyphean task. The term “holy” exists in modern language, but it has been emptied of meaning. Much like Alasdair MacIntyre’s extended metaphor regarding virtue, holiness exists as a word but not much more. Reconstructing “holiness” might be as challenging as recovering scientific knowledge post-apocalypse. MacIntyre ask us to

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed… Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments… (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1)

In modernity, holiness has suffered a fate similar to the sciences in MacIntyre’s story. We possess the biblical texts and commentaries; we have the philosophers and the scholars. Yet, these are but fragments. We have no idea how the pieces fit together to create a lived holiness. We might paste together a recipe for holiness, but we cannot imbibe the final delicacy’s flavor. We must grope for a lost reality that animated so much of religious existence. 

Interestingly, Goldstein’s recreation begins and concludes with obligation. This tracks to another critical depiction of modern religiosity. Haym Soloveitchik, in his classic “Rupture and Reconstruction,” describes the substitution of religious law for genuine religious experience, “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” In pursuing the sources of holiness, Goldstein has likewise substituted the means to holiness for holiness’ end. 

Rabbi Walter Wurzburger expressed this distinction in explaining Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s statement, “Halakhah is not a ceiling, but a floor,” to mean “[The] halakhic system serves merely as the foundation of Jewish piety” (Ethic of Responsibility, 3). In interpreting the well-known dispute between Rashi and Nahmanides (Leviticus 19:2), Wurzburger would argue that any difference between holiness as separation or extra-legal asceticism only relates to the floor or foundation of holiness. The ceiling towers above these disputes. 

And yet, what of the ceiling? Do we have no means by which to gaze upon it?

Another architectural metaphor may assist us. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable.” Holiness allows us to rise above finite material reality. To a materialist mindset such an ascent is not merely difficult, it is unimaginable. “To what does the seeker reach, I cannot see it – ergo it does not exist,” the materialist exclaims. The materialist mindset attacks not just religion. Simon During has recently written of a second secularization in which the humanities are suffering the same fate as holiness. The materialist mindset hides the ceiling and sometimes even the floor. Materialism is nothing new. In various forms, it has always been a threat to holiness and all that it represents. Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of this in charting the difference between aristocratic and democratic societies, “Poetry is the search and the delineation of the ideal. The poet is he who, by suppressing a part of what exists, by adding some imaginary touches to the picture, and by combining certain real circumstances, but which do not in fact concurrently happen, completes and extends the work of nature.”

The materialist knows only nature. Extending nature? Impossible nonsense! Holiness calls upon us to rise above nature. Similar to poetry, holiness requires suppressing a part of what exists. This takes place through obligation and asceticism. Positive worship in holy places and holy times adds imaginary touches. Yet all these actions are not the final picture, which completes and extends nature. That is something deep in the soul, something above the material—something beyond the metaphors.

Chaim Strauchler is rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation and an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

[Published on June 22, 2020]

Leave a Reply