Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, the Holiness Chapter, stands out as one of the most important chapters in the Hebrew Bible. The chapter begins with a command addressed to the people Israel to be holy – “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19, 2). The concept of holiness is not only a central concept of the Bible, but it is a central concept of religion in general. In the western culture, the concept of holiness is widely understood in a mystical and non-rational sense of awe or amazement.
Perhaps the most famous theologian in the western world to define holiness in a mystical and non-rational sense is Rudolf Otto, a Christian theologian of the 20th century, who in his book The Idea of the Holy, defines holiness as the numinous, which is a Greek term that means that holiness is a mystery and a non-rational experience. Rudolf Otto exerted an enormous influence not only in the larger western culture but in the realm of Jewish thought as well. For example, Rabbi Soloveitchik in a passage that stands out toward the beginning of his book the Lonely Man of Faith is clearly drawing from Rudolf Otto:
I am lonely…I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone…yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly…I despair because I am lonely…I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God…I experience a growing awareness…this service to which I, a lonely and solitary individual, am committed is wanted and gracefully accepted by God in His transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude.
Rabbi Soloveitchik here speaks of God’s “transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude” – and, the term numinous is clearly drawn from Rudolf Otto, which means that holiness is a mystery and a non-rational experience. Rabbi Soloveitchik here presents a conception of God and religion that is, in my view, foreign to the Biblical spirit. God, in the Biblical conception, has a transcendent aspect as the Creator, but is most importantly a moral God of revelation and redemption.
When God is revealed to Moses at the burning bush (a central passage of the Bible), God tells Moses “do not come near; put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3, 5). The religious experience of Moses is not one of mystical union with a God of transcendental loneliness but one of moral vision in which Moses hears the voice of God (who is depicted as a God of redemption) calling him to lead the people Israel out of oppression – “I have also seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them…I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3, 9-10). The holiness connected with God here is not holiness in a non-rational, numinous sense of mystery but in a moral sense of redeeming the people Israel from injustice – and the feeling that is evoked in the story of the burning bush is one of hope and optimism, and not despair.
There is a passage in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 97, 9-12) that also reveals the Biblical conception of holiness as a moral concept:
For You, Lord (YHVH), are high above all the earth. You are exalted far above all gods. You that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil. He preserves the souls of His pious ones. He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name.
In the context of this passage from the Book of Psalms, the holiness and essence of the name YHVH is clearly morality, which distinguishes and exalts YHVH “far above all gods” – as in the pagan conception the gods were amoral powers of nature, and the essence of religion was ritual as a means of appeasing the gods. The holiness of the name of God (YHVH) in this passage is sanctified by righteous behavior, and not ritual – “You that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil…rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name”.
If we return to Leviticus 19, the Holiness Chapter, what stands out is that intermixed are laws that are both ritual (“You shall keep My Sabbaths”) and moral (“love your neighbor as yourself”). The passage is revolutionary in its conception that morality is an essential part of a life of holiness as holiness is usually understood (and this was the pagan conception) to be connected only to ritual and not to morality.
Even a cursory look at the chapter is enough to feel the pragmatic rather than mystical tone. Even commandments of a ritual nature have a pragmatic orientation. The chapter begins with commands to fear one’s parents, to observe the Sabbath, not to turn to idols (a command that is behavioral rather than theological), not to make molten gods and commands relating to sacrificial offerings. However, what stands out in the chapter is the intermixing of such ritual commands with laws of a moral nature – such as not to steal, not to lie, not to oppress one’s fellow human being, and to love one’s fellow human being (“love your neighbor as yourself”). It is clear that the conception of holiness reflected in Leviticus 19, the Holiness Chapter, is not mystical but pragmatic concerned with proper behavior – especially in a moral sense as morality has precedence over ritual in importance in the Biblical conception.
Mysticism, in which God is conceived as a transcendental God of loneliness and numinous solitude leads to preoccupation with oneself as we as human beings stand before such a God alone and lonely concerned with our own individual salvation. By contrast, in the Biblical conception, the essence of God, the essence of holiness and the essence of religion is morality, which leads to a preoccupation with such moral and social values as peace, justice, equality, compassion, cooperation, social harmony and companionship. In the view of Isaiah, the prophet, the essence of holiness expresses itself not in mystery or ritual but in morality – “the God of holiness is sanctified in justice” (Isaiah 5, 16).
There is a remarkable teaching of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud (Baba Kamma 30a) – “one who wants to be pious should observe the laws of damages”. Piety, for Rabbi Yehuda, is (like holiness in the Biblical conception) a moral (and not mystical) concept – and, piety is not concerned with ritual but with the pain and hurt that we cause to others. Piety comes not from a life of solitude but from good social relations with our fellow human beings. This is a radical conception of religiosity, holiness and piety. Usually when people want to judge whether one is religious or pious, the focus is upon ritual behavior or mystical experience – not so Rabbi Yehuda; and, he suggests that if we want to be truly religious, holy and pious we need to observe laws of damages in refraining from causing harm to our fellow human being.
I emphasize that although solitude may be at times beneficial, and a part of life, it is not a religious ideal in Judaism; and, the ideal in Judaism is a life of morality. The notion of a lonely man of faith presented by Rabbi Soloveitchik is, in my view, an influence of Christianity. In Christianity (in which there is no notion of nationhood or peoplehood as in traditional Judaism), a human being indeed stands alone as an individual before God, and experiences a great deal of existential loneliness – standing before God as “a lonely man of faith”. Salvation of the human being is dependent on one’s faith in God and faith in Jesus. However, in traditional Judaism, which is a religion in a pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people, we as Jews stand before God not as “a lonely man of faith” but as a nation – and, we reach God only moving upward on the basis of family, community, nation and humanity. The emphasis in traditional Judaism is not upon salvation of a next world but upon redeeming this world primarily through acts of goodness and kindness (and refraining from harming others).
I want to add one other thing here in relation to religiosity and the tendency to associate religiosity with ritual. In the Jewish tradition, we do not make blessings upon acts of a moral nature “between a person and one’s fellow human being”, such as giving charity, and we make blessings only over ritual practices “between a person and God”. Why? In my view, the reason we do not need to bless regarding ethical matters such as giving charity is that such a moral act is inherently Divine – especially in the Biblical conception in which the essence of religiosity and holiness, is morality. Only regarding ritual matters, which we would not conclude on the basis of our own understanding that such matters are Divine or holy, do we then need to make a blessing giving religious meaning to the act. Regarding ethical matters such as giving charity, the religious meaning (the Divinity and holiness) is inherent in the moral nature of the act itself, and we are then not in need of any external blessing to give religious meaning to the act.