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A Theology of Holiness: Historical, Exegetical, and Philosophical Perspectives

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Despite the book’s title, A Theology of Holiness does not offer one specific theological presentation of the concept of kedushah. Rather, it provides the reader with a kaleidoscope of views on the matter, giving much fodder for further discussion and consideration. Photo Credit: Amazon

Written by: Rabbi Alec Goldstein
Reviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018)

In this wonderful masterpiece, Rabbi Alec Goldstein considers the meaning of a term ubiquitous to the Bible, but not readily understood: kedushah. While we tend to translate kedushah as “holy” or “sacred,” that hallowed concept is not truly explained by those hollow words. Rabbi Goldstein—the proprietor of the aptly-titled Kodesh Press—attempts to give meaning to this concept and clarify what is exactly meant by the word kedushah.

The first third of Rabbi Goldstein’s book considers the meaning of kedushah in linguistic terms, and begins by seeking out the etymology of the Hebrew root KUF-DALET-SHIN and its Semitic cognates. Some argue that kedushah is derived from the verbs “to separate” or “to cut”, while others connect kodesh with hadash (“new”). A third view considers the core meaning of kedushah to be “conflagration”. Finally, Rabbi Goldstein cites authorities who maintain that kedushah itself is not derived from any other root, but is an original three-letter root on its own.

Rabbi Goldstein’s linguistic analysis continues by searching for the meaning of kedushah via contrasting it with its antonyms in the Bible—namely, hillel (“defile”) and tamei (“impure”). By clarifying the concepts antithetical to kedushah, one can reach a better appreciation of what exactly kedushah itself entails. The final chapter devoted to the linguistic aspect of kedushah highlights the words commonly found in the Bible in tandem with kedushah and its cognates. This chapter uses those counterpart concepts found alongside kedushah to hone in on the exact meaning of kedushah.

The next bulk of Rabbi Goldstein’s gem mines through the Bible and provides a thematic survey of the different contexts in which the concept of kedushah is invoked. These include places, times, and items which are said to be imbued with kedushah—and, of course, God and the Jewish People who are said to be kadosh. The Bible clearly associates kedushah with the abstinence from inappropriate sex, food, and idolatry, and Rabbi Goldstein explores the common denominator between those three elements.

Rabbi Goldstein then contemplates the implications of kedushah from a philosophical perspective. Besides drawing from the timeless wisdom of the Talmud, Rabbi Goldstein reflects upon several approaches proffered by such medieval authorities as Rashi, Maimonides, Nahmanides, Gersonides, and R. Yehudah ha-Levi, as well as more recent Jewish thinkers such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. J.B. Soloveitchik, and Eliezer Berkovits. He also considers the concept of kedushah from the perspectives of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rudolf Otto.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes: “The first third of Rabbi Goldstein’s book considers the meaning of kedushah in linguistic terms, and begins by seeking out the etymology of the Hebrew root KUF-DALET-SHIN and its Semitic cognates”

What emerges from those viewpoints is that some understood kedushah to be commensurate with following specific precepts of the Torah, or even the Torah as a whole, while Nahmanides clearly understood that kedushah refers to extra-legal asceticism which requires abstaining from that which is permitted by the letter of the law. Others define kedushah as referring to objective morality or ethics, while a slightly more esoteric definition of kedushah refers to imitatio Dei—the imitation of God.

Throughout his scholarly dissertation, Rabbi Goldstein strives to remain loyal to the text of the Bible, as well as to Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, this textual positivism does not bar him from looking beyond the Bible and classical Jewish works. In fact, Rabbi Goldstein’s work demonstrates that its author’s mastery is not limited to Jewish Rabbinic sources, but also includes Jewish Hellenistic sources and works of Greek Philosophy. Rabbi Goldstein is also clearly familiar with epigraphical texts found by archeologists, and uses them to buttress his arguments when appropriate.

Despite the book’s title, A Theology of Holiness does not offer one specific theological presentation of the concept of kedushah. Rather, it provides the reader with a kaleidoscope of views on the matter, giving much fodder for further discussion and consideration. In the end, the exact definition of kedushah eludes us, but with this book in hand, we are much more knowledgeable about the matter.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). He studied for over a decade at such premier institutes as Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem, and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ. He currently lives in Beitar Illit, Israel where he continues to deliver lectures and publish articles in rabbinic and academic journals. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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