Through a Mussar Lens: Defining Holiness
I had finished a talk at a synagogue in Palo Alto, home to Stanford University, when an older gentleman wearing a tweed jacket and a scowl approached me. “You didn’t define your terms,” he accused, and I could immediately see my term paper with the red comments and exclamation marks in the margins. “You talked a lot about holiness but you never said what that is!” he exclaimed.
I wish that were a question I could answer as easily as, say, defining patience or equanimity. There are soul-traits (middot) that can be understood and defined in very human terms. But holiness is not among them. Holiness is a personal spiritual quality that has one foot in this world and another foot in a world beyond. When HaShem gives us our human job description in the Torah, telling us “kedoshim tihiyu”—“You shall be holy”—that verse (Leviticus / Vayikra 19:1) ends with the emphatic, “ki kadosh ani”—God saying, “Because I am holy.” Holiness is both our potential and a quality of the divine.
To become holy is the purpose of a human life, yours and mine and everyone’s. Because we have free will, it is possible to become completely redirected away from this goal and, as a result, to dedicate a precious life to the accumulation of possessions or power or wealth or any number of lesser diversions. Read the obituary column and be astounded at the things some people put at the center of their lives and pursue with passion. But the Torah is unequivocal: we are here to become elevated spiritual people or, in its own language, to become holy.
The fact that holiness is a quality of HaShem is what makes it impossible to define the holy in purely human terms. But pursue it we must, and not because the Torah commands us to do so. In fact, the majority of Torah commentators who combed through the text seeking to list the mitzvot (including Rambam) did not consider “You shall be holy” to be a commandment. It is rather good advice. It is a statement that calls attention to a small voice that echoes within our souls, and it validates what we already know and want. We want to be good, ethical, elevated, caring, spiritual people, and the Torah is underlining that aspiration and strengthening the inner conviction we already have so that we will not be distracted or diverted by other voices sounding within us.
But is being “good, ethical, elevated, caring, spiritual” a definition of holiness? No, that can’t be how we come to understand the holy, because holiness is a quality of HaShem and those are all human attributes. Somehow, it reduces or diminishes holiness to equate this divine quality to a string of human traits we can more easily understand. And when we look at some of the ways the central question of holiness has been handled by our ancestral and contemporary teachers, we can see that there is more to holiness than our language can express.
Rashi gets the ball rolling by telling us that holiness is the condition that results from staying away from defilement. He bases this interpretation on the location of the discussion of holiness in the Torah, which immediately follows a discussion of illicit sexual relations. The Sifra, commenting on this verse, writes “kedoshim tihyu; perushim tihyu” —“you shall be holy; you shall be separated.”
Rashi’s is actually a lovely idea because it tells us that the default nature of every human being is holy and all we have to do is take pains not to besmirch our already holy inner selves.
A few generations later, Ramban (Nachmanides) found a hole in Rashi’s interpretation. It was possible to engage in some behaviors that could not be classified as defiling and yet surely did not represent anything we would call holy. For example, one could eat pure and kosher food like a glutton. Or one could engage in completely permitted sexual relations but do so in an obsessed and preoccupied way. Or drink kosher wine to the point that you end up under the table. Nothing defiling, but holy? Ramban said that it was possible to be “a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah” and introduced the notion of self-restraint within the realm of even the permitted as a criterion for holiness.
These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Ramban did not so much disagree with Rashi as build on his ideas. The minimal requirement for holiness is that you do nothing defiling. But that can’t be the whole story. Even though you may be careful to observe the lines that define purity, you still need to exhibit self-restraint. Self-guidance in this way is both a method to cultivate holiness and a sign of its presence.
It was my Mussar teacher, Rabbi Perr, who introduced me to Rashi’s and Ramban’s views on the holy. After having explained these classic teachings to me, he went on to offer his own sense of the holy. He approached this topic from a very different angle, from the side of personal experience. He described the few times in his life he had experienced being in the presence of a person who embodied holiness. “Looking in their eyes, I felt my heart was purified,” is how he described the experience.
In the end, Rabbi Perr relied on neither a definition of holiness nor a list of criteria that needed to be met in order to validate the presence of holiness but rather on a personal experience. Holiness cannot be successfully defined. It cannot even be described except by means of metaphor. But it can be experienced, and in the experience of holiness there is no room for doubt.
Some things can be known by the mind, and these things can be defined and understood empirically. But intellectual knowing is not the only form of knowledge we are capable of. There is also the knowing of the heart. The experience of holiness falls into the latter kind of knowledge. Make no mistake and do not doubt: when you are in the presence of the holy and you feel that sense of being exquisitely clean and pure, that is the proof of the existence of holiness. It can be within your experience. It can be within your heart. You can be the one to purify others through your presence. That is exactly what the Torah says we are here to become.
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