On Holiness and the Boundaries of Holiness

In essence, any deliberation on the subject of the boundaries of holiness is superfluous, or altogether impossible. One who knows and feels holiness does not need to discuss it; and the one who does not know cannot be made to know. One cannot describe to a blind person the nature of color and he who sees can comprehend it of his own accord. Still, it is possible to speak of boundaries, of defining boundaries, in a way that will be meaningful even to those who do know. And therefore, I shall say a few words about that which probably should not be spoken about.

I will begin with a distinction that was made many generations ago, between “holiness” and “the holy.” One possible definition can be that holiness is the essence, the base of the matter.The holy is all that touches upon the holiness, all that imbibes from the holiness, or relates to the holiness. Because there is the essence that is holiness itself, and there is that which becomes holy because it is related somehow to the holiness.

Many books have been written about holiness and about the sense of holiness and they all face one fundamental dilemma – how can one speak about the unspeakable? This is the quandary of mystics, sometimes of philosophers and even of artists. One definition that carries with it a large measure of truth is that holiness is that which is found beyond all boundaries, that which reaches absolute infinity and absolute transcendence. And actually, our perception of holiness can be expressed by the term (used but not coined by Freud) an “oceanic feeling,” that attempts to explain or touch upon the comprehension of holiness.

A person facing the ocean for the first time, or at any other moment of heightened sensitivity, faces something grand and immeasurable, something infinite. The feeling of “me against infinity” is, I would imagine, the basic sensation of one who stands against the holiness. This definition is imperfect; the “oceanic feeling,” like the ocean itself, is finite. Although it is very big, it is still limited. Our perception of infinity is, in many ways, an attempt to grasp the unlimited, the unperceivable, that which cannot be understood, that which is, in essence, the unattainable, by its very definition.

The attempt to enter the realm of holiness is paradoxical. Because I have entered it, then, by definition, it is not truly holy; and if it is truly holy, I shall always stand outside of it. The reply in the Torah to Moses’ prayer, his request to see the face of God, is: “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live- and you shall see My back parts, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23). This, indeed, is the point: it is impossible to see the Face; at most, we can reach an indirect, “lateral” recognition of these things, but never a direct-fundamental view.

And, on a second level, from holiness come the holy things, those things that are touched by holiness or are inspired by it. Here it is possible to speak of levels, of degrees, of inner holiness and of external holiness, of the Holy of Holies and of other Holy entities. Here there are boundaries, levels and things we can connect and relate to; but the starting point must still be remembered: the holy is that which relates to the holiness.

This reminder is especially important because the concept of holiness, like many other things, has undergone a process of reduction and diminution over the course of time. Now holiness is ascribed to everything in the world: holiness of labor and holiness of the right to strike, holiness of the Supreme Court, of the State, and of the Israel Defense Force, and more, a world full of holinesses.

First of all, it must be said, that this sort of multiple use of the word “holiness” is not only secularization: simply, when I take the concept “holiness” and ascribe to it things that are not holy, that is actually a process of secularization. But another aspect of the process, which is possibly even worse, is that it is degradation, a cheapening of the concept. When “holiness” becomes everything of importance, significance or a matter worthy of attention, this is actually degradation. It does not really matter what it is that is being termed “holy” – be it “the holiness of human life” or any other trendy item, it is always a cheapening of the term. This debasement does not only break the term into small pieces, it damages its very essence, so that the imagined “holy” loses its association to the holiness.

This calls for a pun, not mine, but a pun from the Hebrew language. The degraded kadosh(“holy”) becomes kadesh (cultish, a prostitute). And things to which the title of holiness are unduly attached become a pile of “kadesh”; and so many of them are cheapened only because of this cheap, degrading, uncontrolled use of Holiness – that which should have been untouchable.

Examination of the boundaries of holiness raises a fundamental question, and I do not know if it has a complete solution. Holiness is infinite; and any glimpse at it means breaking through its boundaries, from outside the realm, outside the system. And the question is – is it possible to stand on the periphery of holiness ? and yet remain within its bounds? Is it possible to actually be on the threshold of holiness? Is it not a matter of either: I am inside – and then I am in an entirely different reality – or I am outside?

It is also possible to raise this question in a different, more comprehensive and specific way.Doesn’t the very fact that I am touching upon holiness necessarily mean that all other values become nullified, that all other values become meaningless? For coming in contact with holiness can be likened to relating to infinity in mathematics – in relation to infinity, everything else is zero. And the question is: is holiness concerned with all other systems of life, with all other ways and entities? Is holiness concerned with things such as science, politics, society and beauty? Is holiness, by its very characterization, not self-defining, self-sufficient, a negation of all other entities? Because in actuality, that which is holy necessarily goes beyond all bounds and all definitions, turning everything else into zero.

For those who have any contact with holiness, this is no trivial matter. This is not a problem for one who creates a Chanukah lamp, or one who draws pictures of Jewish genre; it is not his question. The problem begins on the other side: Can one who has touched upon holiness emerge without being totally burnt? Aaron’s sons, who entered holiness, came out – as our Sages describe it – with a “burnt soul and an intact body.” The entrance into holiness is, in actuality, a dead-end with a sort of warning attached – “Everything burns!” Where “everything” means things like a homeland, a family, life; all of these must, almost by definition, be nullified against absolute infinity.

Not all of those who enter holiness can come out in peace. Therefore, when speaking of holiness, of its boundaries and of its values, it is possible to speak about it, not from the vantage point of those who are inside, but from the vantage point of those who are outside, looking in from a distance: sometimes it is a distance of yearning, sometimes of dread and sometimes it is a distance of emotion that often prevails among the more sensitive in our midst: if I get too close, I shall never be able to come out, I shall never be able to remain what I am, maybe I shall not be able to survive at all.

This is the reason why there are people, and among them good people, who have a phobia of holiness, just because they are so strongly attracted to it, one stands before holiness and keeps a distance from it, in sort of a struggle. There are people who escape holiness by constantly running in the opposite direction. They pursue the mundane in order to avoid the temptation of holiness, which perhaps is the greatest temptation of all, as well as the greatest threat. In order to escape the world of problems, one goes out, behaves wildly, exults, becomes drunk or philanders only to avoid any contact with the temptation or the threat of holiness.

Yet there are still people who observe holiness with a great degree of longing; and their difficulty is with the points that maybe cannot be referred to as connecting points, but are, nevertheless, points of contact. Because in a certain way holiness is, in essence, similar to what is known in chemistry as “noble elements” – those basic elements that never mix with others and never become part of compounds, but can still be touched from the outside. So, when a person touches holiness, even only superficially, the problem arises of those who wish to create a sanctuary of any kind. That problem is ? how can one confine holiness, represent it, or give it space, in a way that can still be perceived by human beings.

One of the loftiest and universal prayers in the Bible is King Solomon’s blessing or speech that he delivered at the inauguration of the Temple (I Kings, chapter 8). He makes a statement that should be perceived from the outset as a clear verbalization of this dichotomy: “The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in for ever.” God decided to dwell within the thick darkness, and thus it should be: within the unknowable, the indescribable, the limitless, as it says in that same prayer: (Ibid. verse 27): “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built.” When I am facing the heaven and the heaven of heavens, I am standing on the side, distant and separate – yet the house that I am building should be the place of the holy, not a house for holiness.

For holiness will never be inside a house or closed in by a fence – not within the limits of our galaxy or beyond it and not anywhere within our cosmos. It cannot be within anything at all; and yet, we can try to create a place for the holy, for those things that derive from holiness, those things that resonate with holiness. And those things that resonate with holiness are what we can term truly holy, those things that acquire something from the attribute of holiness because they are sensitive to it, they know it and recognize it. And it is in those things that are holy that we can speak about bonds, and about ways in which things are done through their connection with others.

Every mathematician knows that there can be a correct mathematical formula that has something wrong with it because it is not elegant. In other words, in a subject that has no connection with the concept of beauty, there is a working definition of “inelegant formulas”; and a formula that is not elegant is flawed. This, then, is a slightly strange approach to truth and beauty, in a different sphere. It is not a sphere of visual aesthetics or of philosophy; and yet, things that contain values of reality or of truth do have some kind of relationship and connection to beauty.

It turns out that, although truthfulness is not examined in terms of beauty, its boundaries, its definition and its correct presentation do bear a relationship to beauty. This is somewhat similar to the attitude towards the holy. (And note: towards the holy, not towards holiness.) For holiness there is no standard for measuring and no measuring stick, for with holiness, there is no way to build a network of values, borders or definitions. But for whatever lies between us and holiness, definitions can be created.

And so the holy, that which stands at the point of contact between holiness and reality, must be in harmony with many other things. It must be in harmony with concepts such as truth, honesty, morality, reality, and even beauty. The holy, when it appears and reveals itself, must relate to this issue, and must be beautiful. The holy does not need beauty as an ornament; but, like mathematical elegance, it is part of the harmony of its being. This beauty is well defined; it is also complex because it stands at the meeting point between two values – between holiness per se and beauty per se. And yet there is some point at which these two things can somehow interconnect.

Let me finish with a verse that, however simple, is also quite enigmatic: Ze Eli ve’Anvehu, “this is my God and I will adorn Him” (Exodus 15:2). This verse has two classical interpretations.According to one, anvehu is interpreted as ani ve’hu – me and Him, what is known in Latin asimitatio Dei – imitating God, being like Him in attributes, in actions and in other ways. The second interpretation sees anvehu as derived from beauty – the commandment to adorn and to beautify, to make the holy beautiful.

In a certain sense, these two interpretations are not alien to each other and are certainly not mutually exclusive. In fact, they speak about one and the same thing. When one comes in contact, closely or remotely, with the holy, the holy must somehow emanate upon him. This emanation must find expression in ways that are perfect in terms of other values as well: in terms of conduct, existence and beauty. When these things join together, I am still on the periphery, within the holy; but perhaps then it is possible to glance at holiness from a distance.