Holiness in Jewish Thought

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Alan L. Mittleman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The collection of articles in the edited volume Holiness in Jewish Thought presents extensive research on the understanding of the concept of holiness in Judaism. In our postmodern (secular) societies, words such as “holy,” “saint,” or “sacred” might either sound too archaic to be used in daily life or are used with much sarcasm and irony. This book attempts to reassert the importance of the discourse on holiness in the contemporary Jewish theological tradition, which would certainly be incomplete if the concept of holiness were to be neglected. Its authors offer a historic examination of the development of the concept of holiness. Drawing from early biblical sources, Rabbinic and medieval literature, as well as Hasidism and the Kabbalah, the articles take the reader through the writings of some of the most important Jewish philosophers of modern times and finally present the meaning of holiness in light of the great tragedy of the Holocaust. 

The reader is confronted with rich theological diversity and with various approaches to holiness (halakhic, ethical, legal, ontological, etc.). Among the many levels and currents of interpretation of the meaning of holiness that make up the mosaic of the rich Jewish tradition, one thing is clear: there is an intrinsic connection between holiness and following the commandments. In other words, the ethical and the moral dimensions of holiness are intertwined within the framework of loyalty to God’s commandments and precepts. This is something that any religious person can relate to, regardless of their theological preferences. 

Many of the authors of this book agree that if holiness is one of the attributes of God, the Holy One par excellence, and, if reason—that which constitutes the divine image in man—makes the imatio dei (being god-like) possible, then our striving for holiness must be ontologically oriented. 

One of the major contributions of this book is the authors’ engagement with  challenging issues. In different ways, the following questions are repeated throughout the volume: Is holiness a status? Is it a quality? An essence with its own being? Does it have an ontology? Can it be earned? Passed? Merited? Is it contagious? How does it translate in our daily lives? Is it a passive capacity or an active duty? How do we understand it through a Kabbalistic lens? 

These and many other questions are answered with caution and, in most cases, the authors provide biblical, philosophical, or theological argumentation for their findings and research. As most of the authors of this book would agree, an abstract idea of holiness is realized through concrete human action, deeds, and conduct, thus becoming an ethical category. Such an understanding of holiness easily translates into the fact of Jewish social justice activism and philanthropy. Moreover, contemporary issues that diaspora Jews face vis-à-vis their identity and self-comprehension are tackled as well. For some contributors, the question of holiness lies at the heart of Jewish identity. However, it is certainly a challenge to communicate this to others both within the Jewish community and to non-Jews worldwide.

Another major contribution of this book is that it offers a dense theological reflection on what being holy and being chosen mean. On the one hand, the idea that holiness is reserved exclusively for the elites is extremely dangerous and exclusive in and of itself. On the other hand, if we look at holiness from exclusivist perspectives, then it does have that “flavor” of being wanted and being something to which we can aspire. It can serve as a bridge to bring others to fulfill the messianic era and the messianic call. Also, the authors challenge the reader with the question of whether holiness is a rudiment from the past or something to be cherished and treasured. If the answer is the latter, as many of the contributors agree, then new horizons are open for intra-religious dialogue in various movements within Judaism as well as in wider interreligious dialogue. The book is an excellent resource for Christian readers to draw wisdom and insight from what the Hebrew scriptures offer to the Christian understanding of holiness. 

One common thread in the volume is that holiness is needed for human progress, for the flourishing and thriving of the human civilization.  Our definition of holiness—be it in rational, spiritual, mystic, ethical, or ontological terms—matters less. What matters is our conduct and behavior that determines the degree to which we have attained holiness on the path we have walked. It is left to the reader to synthesize the rich philosophical, theological, and spiritual aspects of the understanding of holiness in Judaism and to integrate it with their own interpretation. 

Certainly, the tragedy of the Holocaust casts a shadow on the whole idea of holiness, but it does not deny it. The metaphysics of holiness cannot be disproved by the harsh empirical evidence of the evil and suffering inflicted upon the Jewish people precisely because metaphysics is beyond the physical and sensorial world. Remembering and retelling the tragedy of the Holocaust becomes in itself a holy task and one of the ways to sanctify history, to purify the memory, and to pave the way to justice. And this is what the messianic era, at least in the biblical sense, is all about: the triumph of justice, peace, and truth. 

Holiness in Jewish Thought is an excellent resource for someone doing interfaith studies, comparative religious studies, or anyone who is interested in deepening their knowledge of holiness in Judaism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taras Dzyubanskyy is Lecturer in Theology and Interreligious Dialogue at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan L. Mittleman is the Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His publications include Human Nature and Jewish Thought: Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter (Princeton University Press, 2015) and A Short History of Jewish Ethics: Conduct and Character in the Context of Covenant (Wiley Blackwell, 2011).



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