5756 - #15

Kedusha: Beyond the Spiritual

Vayikra 19:2 informs us that we are to be kedoshim because Hashem is kadosh. This Hebrew word kadosh is consistently translated as holy: we are to be holy for G-d is holy. What, though, does holy mean? The Oxford Dictionary translates holy as (1) of G-d...(2) consecrated, sacred[1]...(3) devoted to the service of G-d. If this indeed is the meaning of the word, then translating kadosh as holy presents somewhat of a problem. We are to be of G-d for G-d is of G-d? We are to be devoted to the service of G-d for G-d is devoted to the service of G-d? We, in fact, do generally consider the nature of the word kadosh to be similar to the English word holy, to be relational: something is kadosh if it is connected to God. The fact that the verse informs us that G-d Himself is kadosh, though, indicates that this perception is actually incorrect. The verse cannot be informing us that G-d is connected to Himself. Kadosh must represent some objective value that is inherent in Hashem and that we must emulate. What, though, is this trait of kedusha?

Ramban, commenting on this verse, defines kedusha in terms of self-restraint, specifically in the realm of the physical. The verse, it would seem, is informing us that, in the same way that G-d is detached from the physical -- in fact God is lacking all physical properties[2] -- we are also to remove ourselves, as much as possible, from the physical. With these words, we are thus presented with the classic dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. In that G-d is entirely spiritual and devoid of the physical, ultimate value must only reside in the former, with the latter absent of value. Thus, it would seem according to Ramban, kedoshim tihyu calls upon us to refrain, to the extent possible, from the physical; we are to emulate Hashem who is kadosh, fully spiritual.

Many commentators, though, do find value in the physical. Whether we refer to the famous comments, found in Rashi, Devarim 6:5, that we are to love and serve G-d with both our inclinations or the numerous other sources that present a similar theme, there is in fact much within the Torah literature that supports the value of the physical and challenges the classical religious dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. Indeed, our understanding of Ramban's comments must be questioned in the light of these many sources.[3]

In fact, many miforshim perceive the essence of kedusha to specifically assign value to the physical - indeed, kedusha, according to these commentaries, seems to be tied to and built upon a physical realm that has merit and worth. According to Mesilat Yesharim, Middat HaKedushah it is precisely when the physical is applied properly, that we find kedusha. It is not the separation from the physical that is the essence of kedusha but, rather, the correct connection with the physical that marks this value.[4] Yet, according to this view, what does it mean when we say that G-d is kadosh? If kadosh is marked by the relationship to the physical, how can we call Hashem, Who has no physical properties, kadosh? In any event, how can there be value in the physical if G-d in His Perfection is fully not physical?

Kedusha is clearly based upon some separation from the physical realm. Our inquiry into the nature of kedusha is essentially a question as to the reason and purpose of this detachment. The Chatam Sofer[5] states that the general reason for asceticism is a loathing of the physical realm. Indeed, the classical dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual is based upon this perception. The ascetics argue that if G-d is fully spiritual, the physical realm must lack any value; thus to approach G-d, one must reject this latter realm and strive solely for spirituality. The Chatam Sofer, though, challenges this perception for G-d loves His creation and so must we. The physical realm has value for the physical realm is the creation of G-d.

It is true that G-d is lacking any physical property, yet Hashem still has a connection with the physical. He created the physical; He acts within the realm of the physical. Indeed our only way of knowing G-d is through His actions within the physical realm.[6] While G-d is not physical, the physical realm still has value. It is the creation of G-d; it reflects, as a creation, the essence of the Creator. To reject value in the creation is to reject the Creator. Kedusha is, thus, not simply a separation from the physical; it essentially defines the proper relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Kedusha is built upon a separation from the physical but only in order to re-enter this realm on a higher plane - and in that new bond is kedusha.

Hashem is kadosh. He is not physical; His Essence is not defined by the physical. Yet, He acts and demonstrates His Essence in the physical realm - and as a creation of G-d the physical realm has merit. So we are to be kadosh. Most individuals define themselves through the physical. We are called upon to separate ourselves, to some extent, from the physical - but for a purpose. We are bidden to find our true essence, our understanding of our selves beyond the physical. Then, though, we are, like G-d, to act and demonstrate this essence in the physical realm. This is kedusha.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] Sacred, in turn, means "associated with or dedicated to G-d".

[2] The third principle of Maimonides' famous Thirteen Principles as outlined in Rambam, Perush Hamishnayot, Introduction to Sanhedrin, chapter 10 (Chelek).

[3] In fact, one of the most powerful statements in defence of the value of the physical is found in the Iggeret Hakodesh, whose authorship has traditionally been assigned to Ramban. While modern scholarship generally disputes this claim, the fact that this work could even have been considered a product of Ramban must make us recognize that the simplistic presentation of Ramban's view, as presented in the above paragraph, has its difficulties. Thus, in the body of the article, upon presenting Ramban's view, I stated, "it would seem".

[4] See, also, Rashi, Vayikra 19:2.

[5] Torat Moshe, Parshat Kedoshim. Interestingly, in developing his argument he alludes to the fact that asceticism itself cannot be a Torah value for there was greater denial of the physical within the non-Jewish world than within the Jewish world, even among tzaddiki Yisrael, the righteous of Israel. Assigning worth to asceticism would imply attributing a greater value to the practice of these non-Jews, based upon their foreign religious thought, than to the practice of tzaddikim, followers of Torah, who were not ascetic; as this cannot be so, asceticism itself cannot be of value.

[6] See further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, chapters 1 - 4.

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