Kedusha - Sanctity


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by Mendy Feder


A very central theme throughout Judaism is the concept of “kedusha”, sanctity. Although the term seems rather abstract, as Torah Jews, we are commanded to constantly strive to be kadosh, to be holy. In Leviticus chapter 19 verse 2, we are commanded to be kadosh because “I the Lord your God am holy.” Chazal teach us that kedusha means to be “poresh mey arayot”, abstain from the sexual prohibitions. This implies that if not for this commandment, there would be no reason for one to live a moral life style. Throughout the generations, the greatest philosophical minds without the benefit of the Torah have come to the same conclusion, based upon their rational faculty. The best life is one of abstention from the physical pleasures. It would therefore seem that the Torah is redundant.


The Torah additionally instructs us to be holy because God is holy. This creates a dilemma based upon our aforesaid definition. If holy means merely to abstain from the sexual prohibitions, what relevance does it have respecting God?


The concept of a “poresh”, an abstainer, must have greater significance than simply abstaining. Pure abstention infers that the person is withholding something from himself. This would imply that the person really has the desire to do the prohibited action but he is just controlling himself. Such an idea would be nothing more than an exercise of self-restraint and denial. The Torah’s concept of a poresh is not so trite. The essence of a poresh is an individual who is poresh because it is a reflection of his true nature. His energies are no longer attracted to the areas of the sexual, but flow naturally to the area of wisdom. Insofar as one’s essence is truly that of a poresh, he partakes of the “image of God” in himself. The Creator by His very nature, is extraneous to, and not limited by, the physical. Thus, in order for one to be a poresh from the Torah perspective, requires great intellectual conviction, whereby all ones energies flow to the acquisition of knowledge.


There is a critical distinction between the Torah’s concept of “prishah” – abstention – and that of the philosophers. The philosophers, although advocating a lifestyle of abstinence, based it upon their appreciation of human nature. They recognized that human nature has two components. Man has an instinctual nature and an intellectual nature. Based upon their investigation of human nature they concluded that man could only achieve true happiness in the pursuits of his essential, intellectual nature. They therefore preached a lifestyle of abstinence. However to the Torah Jew the concept of abstinence has much greater significance. We are taught that if we lead a lifestyle of abstinence, then we can have a relationship with G-d. We strive to mold our nature to be essentially a Poresh - one who abstains - and attain sanctity in order that we can relate to God. In Judaism, there is a metaphysical dimension if one is a true Poresh. This metaphysical relationship with the creator is only possible when one is a poresh. If one succeeds in redirecting his energies so that they naturally flow to wisdom, only then will he relate to the creator, the source of reality. If a person abstains from the physical because of fear of punishment than he is not truly a poresh. Such a person is still guided by the pleasure principle. The fear of punishment is merely a means to control the person from being punished, and thereby remain in a state of pleasure. He is abstaining from the physical prohibition only because he feels that indulging said physical desires would ultimately cause him greater physical pain. However a talmid chacham – a wise person – is naturally drawn towards the principles of the Torah. He is in a unique state, whereby his energies naturally flow to the metaphysical. Thus we can appreciate the Torah imperative to be holy because “I your God am holy.” At such a high spiritual level a person can relate to God as his energies naturally flow to wisdom.


The Rabbis agree with the philosophers, that the life of the ideational is the best life since they hold that “kol d’racheha darchay noam”, “all the ways of the Torah are pleasant”. It would be absurd that God would command man not to live life the best way. It is obvious that God desires man to achieve happiness by living life in line with his essential nature. However the Torah recognizes that by living a life of wisdom, one initiates a relationship with the creator. God, who is not physical and whose essence is mirrored in the world of the ideational, commands that man aspire to live a life based upon the intellectual dictates of the Torah not predicated on the physical. Only then is one able to approach God through wisdom. Since God is not subject to physical whims and passions, so too man is directed to be holy because “I your God am holy.” We are taught that the Rabbis did not fully partake of the pleasures of this world. This does not mean that they essentially sought an austere existence. They did not believe in repressing their desires simply because they felt there was a virtue in moral restrictions. This philosophy is characteristic of Catholicism, which venerates the lifestyles of priests and nuns. Nor did they have an emotional repulsion to pleasure. Quite the contrary is true because we are taught “ei efshar bli basar chazeer”; one should not refrain from eating pork because he doesn’t like it. The proper attitude is for one to say that he really desires pork, but that he is not having it to demonstrate his acceptance of the mitzvos. He struggles to elevate his behavior from purely the instinctual to the level of kedusha – holiness – which is based upon mans true nature, his tzelem Elokim, his intellect. Maimonides in his Mishna Torah in his book on kedusha incorporates the laws of the forbidden foods and prohibited sexual relations. His point is evident. One can only attain kedusha by channeling his energies from the basic instinctual drives of man, the sexual and appetitive and directing them to the intellect. This does not mean denial of the physical but rather an appreciation of the life of wisdom.


Chazal did enjoy the benefits that God offered in this world. We are told that Rebbi was very wealthy and there was nothing lacking from on his table. However, he did not direct his energies to the physical. He had the blessings of the physical world, which he did not deny, but his energies were not drawn to the physical. He lived the life of a kadosh as evidenced by his appellation. His energies naturally flowed to wisdom.


Alternatively, the Rabbis taught that the reason Job lost his wealth was because he had an over attachment to materialism. He viewed it as an end in and of itself. However, after he realized that the physical was only a means to relate to God, not an end, was he capable of regaining his riches. After learning this lesson and redirecting his energies, he used his prosperity simply as a means in Avodas Hashem, worship of God.


The Vilna Gaon explains the concept of “pas bemelach tochal” that one should subsist on bread and salt. This is not to be taken literally as espousing an austere existence. The Gaon explains that at the beginning of one’s learning he must “pas b’melach tochal”. This means that if one is to succeed as a talmid chocham – a wise student of Torah – he demands total commitment. If one is fortunate to live a life of kedusha his energies must naturally flow toward wisdom of Torah.


Rashi teaches us that the parsha of Kedoshim is so basic that “kol goofay hatorah teluyin bah”, all the basic principles of the Torah are summarized within it. This obviously cannot be taken literally for most of the 613 commandments are not within the parsha of Kedoshim. Rashi is expressing the importance of the concept of kedusha. It is such a vital and essential concept to the Torah observant Jew, that adherence to its basic principles can lead one to perfection as a Ben Torah.


Therefore, the mitzvah of kedusha is an extremely valuable concept in Judaism. The imperative of “kedoshim teheeyu” must be appreciated in the proper perspective. We must be scrupulous in our pursuit of true holiness. If one abstains from being a glutton because of health reasons, he is not fulfilling the commandment. He is simply pursuing one desire in favor of another. His desire for longevity has displaced his appetitive desires. Such a person’s energies are still rooted in the physical pleasures. True sanctity requires a painstaking process where one works to channel his energies to the learning of Torah and its teaching. Ultimately he can aspire to kedusha where his energies will naturally flow to wisdom since the learning of Torah will give him the greatest pleasure. Thus, he will obtain true kedusha and be blessed with an appreciation of “I your God am holy” and be fortunate to have a metaphysical relationship with the creator.