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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Meaning of the Word Kadosh

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 21, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Vayikra, Kedoshim, Machshava/Jewish Thought, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer

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How does one attain the status of kedusha (holiness), commanded in parshat Kedoshim? (Leviticus 19:2)

Some maintain that the pathway to holiness is to separate from the real world. Suppressing the body is the only way the soul can soar.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik points out that this is the predominant approach of most faith communities. The ish ha-da’at, the universal religious person, as Rav Soloveitchik terms it, is the religious figure who sees the escape from the body as a prerequisite for spiritual striving.

There is a more mainstream Jewish approach to kedusha. It suggests that the body is neither to be vilified nor glorified. Every aspect of human physical activity is to be sanctified. This, writes Rav Soloveitchik is the goal of the ish halakha (halakhic man). To apply Jewish law to every aspect of life, ennobling and yes, “kedushifying” our every endeavor.

This analysis sheds light on our approach to the concepts of kodesh and hol (commonly translated, the holy and the profane). Some Orthodox Jews feel that disciplines that are not pure Torah are simply hol (profane). Hol is only useful when it helps us to better understand kodesh. For example, through chemistry one can better evaluate the kashrut of food products. One may study language in order to be viewed as a cultured Westerner so that Torah will be more respected. Or, one studies medicine to provide for one’s family or one’s charity. In each of these examples, hol is intrinsically not kodesh and can never transform into kodesh.

The ish halakha understands kedusha differently. Every discipline, whether it be chemistry, language or medicine, are all potentially aspects of Torah. As Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook has pointed out, “There is nothing unholy, there is only the holy and the not yet holy.” If one studies Torah in an intense fashion, it will give new meaning, new direction, new purpose and in the end, sanctify hol. Hol is not a permanent status; it can transform into kodesh.

For the ish halakha there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint. The way one loves, the way one conducts oneself in business, the way one eats, are all no less holy then praying, learning and fasting.

For the ish ha-da’at, the movement is from this world, the world of the body and soul to the next world, the world of pure soul. Death is a release from the imprisonment of the body. This philosophy is espoused by many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. For them, redemption comes through death. This approach to life has been used in some parts of the Arab world to induce young men and even women to become suicide bombers – terrorist, homicidal bombers. “Kill yourself,” these youngsters are taught, “and murder countless numbers of innocent people and you will receive true reward in the afterlife.”

For Torah, the movement is in the reverse – from the other world to this world. To take the teachings of the Torah – from the world beyond – and to apply it to this world sanctifying every aspect of human life. For Torah, ultimate sanctification comes through living every moment a life of Torah ethics. This in fact is the challenge of this week’s portion — kedoshim tihyu, you shall be holy.