Two Moments in the Biography of Holiness (Qedushah)


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. 

Holiness is one of the least understood of the (religious) virtues, and there has been little discussion of it in contemporary philosophy of religion or in theological ethics. In part this may be due to the fact that, unlike all other divine attributes such as ‘merciful’ or ‘just’ that apply primarily to humans or creatures and only derivatively to God, the predicate ‘holy’—in Hebrew ‘qadosh’—is unique in applying primarily to God and only by extension to individuals, places, and times—hence, we have little grasp of its meaning as a divine attribute.  This essay focuses on two conceptions of holiness, based on the biblical prescription “You shall be holy (pl.: qedoshim), for I, the Lord your God, am holy (sing: qadosh)” (Lev. 19, 2), put forth by the two great Moses of medieval Jewish thought, Moses Maimonides and Moses Nahmanides.  Maimonides attempts to de-supernaturalize an earlier conception of holiness that treats it as an occult, magical, theurgic, “spiritual” power that holy people and things possess or as a kind of metaphysical or natural perfection.  In its place, he proposes to reduce holiness to perfect performance of all the commandments in the Mosaic Law, commandments that he in turn re-interprets as practices that prepare the individual for an incorporeal, purely intellectual life in imitation of God.   Nahmanides responds to this Maimonidean conception by arguing, first, that perfect performance of the commandments allows for scandalous behavior “between the lines of the law”—for what he calls a “scoundrel within the permissible domain of the law”—hence, for a life that is anything but holy.  Second, he proposes an alternative conception according to which the prescription to be holy is meant as a corrective to precisely this kind of abuse of the law and, in turn, enables a life that is more perfect than perfect performance of the commandments.  The last part of the paper explores two ways in which holiness might achieve this end and what such a life would be like.