Winter 2001-02

Jewish Studies At The University


What Is Holiness? 


by Menachem Kellner


Much of the current conflict in the Middle East is framed in terms of the issue of holy places. But what is holiness? Is it something that inheres in holy persons, places, times, and objects, or is it something else? This question has very rarely been asked of Jewish texts, perhaps because the notion of holiness is so pervasive in Judaism that asking Jewish texts about its nature is like asking fish about the nature of water.

     At least three different views on the nature of holiness may be discerned in the historical tradition of Judaism. In one view, holiness is an inherent, intrinsic feature of certain places, people, objects, and times; in this view, holiness is "hard-wired" into parts of the universe from the first instant of creation. This is the position of the great medieval philosopher and poet, R. Judah Halevi (d. 1141).

     A second view posits that the universestarts out, as it were, all of a piece, at least with respect to sanctity. At various times God renders certain times, places, and objects holy. This is certainly one way of reading such verses as this: “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done (Gen. 2:3). A reasonable way of reading this and similar verses is that God took a day like very other day (in this case, the seventh) and rendered it sacred, changing its nature from that time on. Variants of this view appear to be typical of medieval Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).

     A third view is that of Maimonides (1138-1204); that, at least, is the hypothesis I am currently investigating. In this view, holy places, persons, times, and objects are in no objective way distinct from profane places, persons, times, and objects; holiness is a status, not a quality of existence. It is a challenge, not a given; normative, not descriptive. It is institutional (in the sense of being part of a system of laws), and hence contingent. This sort of holiness does not reflect objective reality; rather, it helps constitute social reality. In this view, holy places, persons, times, and objects are indubitably holy, and must be treated with all due respect; but they are, in and of themselves, like all other places, persons, times, and objects. What is different about them is the way in which the Torah commands that they be treated. Since holy places, persons, times, and objects derive their sanctity from the uses to which they are put, this Maimonidean understanding of holiness may be called teleological.

     In investigating these claims, I am furthering a larger project in which I seek to prove that for Maimonides all halakhic entities and distinctions can only be defined institutionally (i.e., by the way in which they function in the halakhic framework), and not ontologically. To make the point very briefly here, Maimonides relates to dichotomies fundamental to Judaism, such as holy/profane, ritually pure/ritually impure, Jew / Gentile, and permissible/forbidden as institutional, sociological, and historical issues, not as ontological matters. Halakhah, for Maimonides, creates social realities; it does not reflect any real distinctions in the universe.

     Maimonides sought to dethrone a vision of Judaism that prevailed in his time which may be characterized as magical and to replace it with another vision altogether, one that was much more austere and demanding.

This was a conscious project on his part, but carried out without any explicit announcements. Maimonides was fighting what he took to be a debased, ultimately corrupt version of Judaism; and he appears to have thought that the best way to wage this war was by not declaring it.


Prof. Menachem Kellner, who specializes in medieval Jewish philosophy and modern Jewish thought, holds the Wolfson Chair in Jewish Thought. His critical edition of Gersonides' (1288-1344) commentary on Song of Songs was recently published by Bar-Ilan University Press; his English translation of that text was published last year in the Yale Judaica Series.





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