Perhaps the most distinctive core value in Judaism is holiness. It is everywhere you look: God is holy, so we should be (Lev. 19:1); “Holy holy holy,” the angels sing out to God (Isaiah 6:3). We have holy time (Shabbat), holy space (the Temple of old), and holy people (the priests, the kohanim). The opposite of holy (kodesh) is the everyday or ordinary (chol).
The Rabbis see holiness as sometimes rippling out, in concentric circles from a source, and lessening in intensity with each ripple, until eventually, it dissipates and becomes the everyday: from the Temple to the Temple Mount, for example, then to Jerusalem, and to the Land of Israel altogether, but becoming “ordinary” outside of the Land’s borders.
It is also envisioned as being transferable by analogy: Not just the Temple, but the synagogue; not just the priests who conducted sacrifice, but the rabbis and cantors who lead prayer, the k’lei kodesh, “vessels of holiness,” as they are called.
Classical Christianity too featured holiness (although not quite as centrally) and as Christianity permeated western culture, holiness infused literature in general, but at the expense of losing its core meaning. John Donne (1572-1631) composed nineteen Holy Sonnets in which “holy” describes “discontent,” “mourning,’ and “dropsie,” by which he means love sickness. In 1955, beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) said “everything” is holy – “jazzbands”; ”cafeterias”; his friends, lovers and other beat writers (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs); anatomical body parts that I refrain from mentioning here; but also, “the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” From a 1787 poem of Robert Burns, we get “Holy Willie,” meaning “hypocrite.” An 1883 story by G. W. Peck gave us a mischievous child as a “Holy terror.” J.D. Salinger thinks a preacher is a “Holy Joe.” After Napoleon’s defeat, Russia, Austria and Prussia became the Holy Alliance. We also get holy cow, holy Moly (originally, “Holy Moses”), holy mackerel, and holy smoke. We admire people who are holy, as long as they are not “holier than thou.”
When a word means everything, it ceases meaning anything; but we ought to wonder what “holy” meant when it still meant something.
The usual way out is etymological, asking what the Hebrew root for holy (k.d.sh) connoted. Seminary students often learn, therefore, that “holy” means “set aside for special use.” Hekdesh is anything set aside to be given to the Temple, in service of God. Kiddushin, the ceremony of betrothal (and first step in marriage) must mean “setting aside” one particular person for an exclusive love relationship. There is some truth to that of course, but etymology is not always reliable. Joel Hoffman, my son whose doctorate is in linguistics, directs me to the Oxford English Dictionary, to see that glamour comes from the word grammar; grammar denoted (in part) language formed perfectly enough to cast sacred spells – which were an instance of glamour. But how many people who studied grammar, Joel asks, think it was glamorous?
Three modern thinkers made holiness a favored topic in the scholarly study of religion. The first was Emil Durkheim (1858-1917), a Jew. Coming from a rabbinic family (his grandfather was a chief rabbi) he was conditioned to see holiness as important. He preferred the word “sacred,” from the Latin, sacrum, meaning that which belonged to the gods, like the ancient temples and their sacred rites; he contrasted “sacred” with “profane,” from the Latin profanum, meaning the space outside the Temple precincts. Profanare was the act of bringing the offerings to the Temple site — before, that is, they became sacred. But Durkheim was a scientist, so he explained the sacred sociologically as the way groups underwrite their morality by projecting it onto the divine.
Durkheim wrote in 1915; just two years later, a German Lutheran, Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), made history by composing The Idea of the Holy, where (unlike Durkheim) he claimed that the holy is a category of actual experience, no projection at all. He described it in Latin: the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery before which we tremble, yet to which we are attracted because we find it fascinating. The Latin loses something in translation. Just murmur the Latin out loud a few times and you get a pretty good inkling of the feeling provided by traditional Lutheran worship, and, for that matter, classical Reform Judaism as well.
The last great pioneer of the sacred is Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who was raised in the Romanian Orthodox Church, but who studied practically everything thereafter and is often considered the founder of the discipline called History of Religions. Eliade threaded the needle between Durkheim (the sacred is a human construct) and Otto (the sacred is real). He saw it as both. The reality of the sacred can be seen in anything: a humanly made object (a cross); an ancient text (Torah), a rock (the one in the Dome of the Rock), and not just famous things and places, but ordinary things as well. The sacred presents itself by bursting forth in what he called a hierophany (from the Greek hiero-, “sacred,” and phainein, “to show”). But it takes human readiness to recognize it. It is as if we actualize its existence by our own capacity to appreciate it.
Ah yes, maybe, but what is it?
Here is where Hanukah candles come in handy.
To this day, many Jews light candles and sing Hanerot hallalu kodesh hem… (“These lights are holy….”), which is cited in an 8th-century work (Massekhet Sofrim), where it is not a song but a proclamation. “These lights are holy; we may not use them. “Not using” does not mean “having no function.” They have their own function: we are to put them in the window “to proclaim the miracle” of Hanukah.
But they are non-utilitarian; we may not otherwise use them for anything. We may not, for example, read by their light, or use their light to find lost objects. We cannot light one Hanukah candle and then use that one to light the others (we need an extra non-holy candle to do that). The holy, then, is the non-utilitarian, the opposite of “the ordinary” which we spend our lifetimes dreaming up how to use.
A whole host of other Jewish laws now make sense. Because Shabbat is holy, we cannot work on it. Because Torah is holy, we cannot “use it as a spade to dig with.” Rabbis may not get paid for teaching Torah. They do have to earn a living, however, so we use a legal fiction: rabbis get paid for what they would be doing, if they weren’t teaching Torah. An early law about synagogues forbids making a shortcut through them. They are holy, like the Temple, so you cannot traipse through them to save time.
Ultimate holiness resides in God; so prayer is permitted, but not magic, because that would be using God. Kiddushin (the first step in marriage, remember) is holy, because we cannot use the people to whom we are in relationship. But so too of other relationships: all relationships are holy – we call each one a brit, a sacred contract. They may have a function (I pay you for what you sell me) but I cannot use that understanding for my own benefit beyond what the contract allows: I cannot cheat you by using the small print against you. For that matter, we cannot use other human beings altogether. Human beings are made in the image of God. That makes them holy. We cannot just “use” them.
Holy things have their own intrinsic purposes. Shabbat reminds us of creation; we live by Torah; kiddushinenables marriage; the synagogue is for prayer and study; Hanukah lights proclaim the miraculous. But none of them are utilitarian, mere opportunities for us to bend the holy to our own ends: to make use of them.
That’s not a bad lesson for our time, when people inevitably wonder, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, sometimes, is “Nothing.” We are capable, at our best, of being God-like, appreciating holy things simply as what they are.
With a sparkle in her eye and a smile on her face, my grandmother used to chide me when I was mischievousby calling me “a good for nothing.” Maybe she was onto something.