This article appears as part of the Portal on Jewish Prayer and in Keeping God at the Center.


Holiness as an Attribute of God


            Holiness is a quality. One senses it in objects, in moments, in texts, and in certain people. It is not a feeling like joy or anger. It is not a commitment like love or loyalty. It is not a state of mind like happiness or gloom. It is not a thought or concept. It is an awareness of the sacred, a consciousness of the spiritual. It is an experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans,  a contact with the numinous. It is a perception of otherness, an intimation of the beyond.[2]

... The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other’, whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.[3]

... holiness is the abstract term taught man [sic] by God to mark God's difference and the nature of everything that comes to be included ... within his difference. ... That which enters the class of things of which he is a member (“holiness”) loses its provenance in nature and history at the moment it is restored to the precinct of divinity ... From the standpoint of human experience, therefore (the point of view of language), holy  is not in the ordinary sense a predicate, a word that asserts something about a term, but the sign of withdrawal of all reference into its source, a determinator of the radical disablement of metaphor and the absolute preemption of the truth of discourse at the supremely privileged moment of reference to reality.[4] 

            The holy is encountered in many places and moments: in the grandeur of nature, in the still small voice of conscience, in the silence of the soul, and in the rapture of beauty. It can be found in creativity of the mind, in gentleness of the heart, in the eye of a lover, and in the innocence of a child. The holy meets one in the depth of sacred texts, in moments of prayer, and in those rare moments when one truly meets an‑other.

            The holy approaches when one is weak, or when one is strong. It draws near when one is least expecting it. The holy can be sought but it cannot be found. It breaks in upon awareness. It interrupts.

            In the language of the tradition: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the fullness of the universe is God’s Glory ... And I said, ‘Woe unto me; I am struck dumb, for I am a man of impure lips and I live among a people of impure lips, and now my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’” (Is. 6:1-8). “You are holy, God Who dwells above the praises of Israel” (Ps. 22:4). “Holy are You and awesome is Your Name; there is nothing divine other than You ... Blessed are You, the holy King.”[5]


Words That Go in Circles


            There are no words; or rather, the words go in circles. The holy is a quality sui generis. One knows it intuitively, as one knows beauty. It is irreducible. It can only be described by synonyms, or by the traces it leaves. The holy is ineffable, yet it is identifiable. One can point to it and say, “This is holy” without being able to say what, or how, or why. One can identify the holy without being able to describe it, except by the word “holy” and its synonyms.

            The circle of the holy superimposes itself on other circles as one tries to grasp the holy and to live within it. As one integrates the holy into life, one needs other words. One reaches outward: King, Lord, Name, justice, beauty, purity, Shabbat, Israel, You. One probes inward: awe, wonder, radical amazement, sublime, love, joy, bliss, bless, worship. One gropes for forms: holy day, temple, mitsva, liturgy, charity, study, Torah, acts of kindness, martyrdom. The failure of language is transformed into a rich vocabulary of response, always haunted by its own muteness. Silence overflows into words, an echo of an unfathomable depth.

            The holy is intimately related to the beautiful, the personal, and the moral.

            The holy need not be beautiful: “Here is Behemoth which I have made; in comparison with you...” (Job 40:15); Behemoth was ugly, yet holy as creature. However, the beautiful can be holy, and the holy can be beautiful: “Bow down to the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 29:2; 96:9). And yet, the holy is more than the beautiful; it enfolds it.

            The personal and the holy overlap: “You are my God; I search everywhere for You; my soul thirsts for You; my body yearns for You ... Indeed, I have visions of You in the holy place” (Ps. 63:2-3). “You are holy and Your Name is holy ... Blessed are You, the holy God.”[6] But the holy is more than the personal; it envelops it.

            The moral and the holy are coterminous: “The holy God is made holy by righteousness” (Is. 5:16); “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The holy cannot be immoral or amoral. Still, the holy is more than the moral; it encompasses it. 

            The holy, the beautiful, the moral, and the personal overlap and interact with one another. The beautiful may be holy but, if the beautiful is immoral or unnatural, it is not holy, no matter how beautiful it is. The personal can be holy but, if the personal is immoral or unnatural, it is not holy, no matter how intense it is. The moral must be holy but it need not be beautiful, perhaps not even personal.[7]


Kavvana  and the Attribute of Holiness


            How does one integrate the unintegratable? How does one live within that which is wholly other? There are two kinds of kedusha  (holiness).[8]      

            There is hierarchical kedusha.  It is “a sensed mystical quality of certain objects, days, and persons.”[9] The tradition ranks these in hierarchies; for example, the sequence of locations within the holy land, the set of sacrifices, the ranks of priesthood, and the degrees of impurity and purity.

            There is also non-hierarchical kedusha. It is created by an individual act of will.[10] By it, one declares an object consecrated to God. Through it, one dedicates an act to God. It is a function of mitsva, of commanded act, and of the intention to fulfill that command. Holiness is generated by kavvana, by intent to holiness.

... Rather than just a mystical quality alone, kedushah  is now something that must be achieved through effortful personal conduct. ... The kedushah  achieved through fulfilling the mizwot  is throughout, therefore nontheurgical. Instead, it is an experience in normal mysticism, an experience of a close relationship with God ... Such an experience of relationship can take place, of course, only when a mizwah  is fulfilled with kawwanah. Indeed, kawwanah  in this connection, we have noticed, itself implies an awareness of a relationship with God, a consciousness that a particular mizwah  is a communication by God here and now.... During the process of performing a mizwah  with kawwanah, a person has an experience of kedushah. It is a mystical experience and yet, being normal mysticism, it is in some degree describable.[11]

            Holiness, then, is a matter of experience. It is an awareness that humans bring to the performance of the acts of daily living. Holiness is focused openness to holiness. It is numinous otherness within the mundane same; the ineffable within the effable.

            Kavvana  is the mode of consciousness by which one performs ordinary acts yet remains alert to the dimension of holiness concealed in them. Kavvana  is the method by which one holds the presence of the holy in one's mind while doing everyday deeds: “I sleep but my heart waketh.”[12] Kavvana  is the process by which one opens one's consciousness to the multiple levels of reality that are implicit in any act, particularly to the sacred dimensions of action. Kavvana  is the way one transforms routine acts into moments of awareness of the ineffable. Kavvana  is the key to nonhierarchical holiness, to the holiness which does not greet one but which, rather, one must achieve.

            “Normal mysticism” comes closest to describing the way one integrates the unintegratable. Everyday acts with everyday objects, when handled with an intent to be aware of the holy, yield a mysticism which is not ecstatic, not annihilative, and not theurgical, but “normal,” habitual, usual. Life, which is composed of commonplace events, when approached with a willingness to be open to the sacredness of all existence, yields a spirituality that is customary, regular, familiar.[13]

            The holy is, thus, encountered in the wholly other, at the edge of human existence. But the holy is also met in the confluence of the wholly other with the wholly mundane, at the center of normal existence. The holy is ec‑static, standing outside; it is also famili‑ar, standing within. God is holy person; humankind, created in God’s image, is holy person.


Holiness, Fear, and Joy


            Holiness overwhelms.  It compels; it frightens. And holiness also comforts; it draws forth; it embraces. Holiness pervades existence and consciousness. There is no escape -- neither from the tremendum  nor from the intimate holiness of God's presence. The holy engenders fear, but the holy does not frighten God.

            The human flees the holy. Moses pleads inexperience (Ex. 3:11 - 4:17). Isaiah pleads impurity (Is. 6:5). Jeremiah pleads youth (Jer. 1:4-10). Ezekiel must be coerced (Ezek. 2:8 - 3:3). Jonah takes flight. The Psalmist cries: “Where can I go away from Your spirit and where can I flee from Your Face? If I rise to heaven, You are there; if I plunge into the netherworld, You are there. If  I travel on the wings of dawn or dwell at the horizon of the sea, there too Your hand will rest upon me and Your right hand will seize me. If I say, ‘Let darkness envelop me and let night be light for me,’ even darkness is not dark for You and night is as lit up as day; like darkness, like light. For You have possessed my insides; You encompassed me even in the womb of my mother” (Ps. 139:7-13).

            Sin leads one away from the holy; it tempts. The forms of temptation are as many as the imagination: the tasks of daily living, sexual fantasy, ambition, despair. Purity and sin fluctuate; hope and despair alternate. “Be generous to me, God, according to Your gracious love; in the abundance of Your compassionate love, wipe away my rebellion ... Truly, I know my rebellion; my sin is before me always. I have sinned before You alone and I have done evil in Your eyes ... Let me hear joy and gladness; let my bones which You have oppressed rejoice ... Hide Your Face from my sins and wipe away my iniquities ... Do not cast me away from before You, nor take Your holy presence away from me” (Ps. 51:3-14).

            Holiness and sin are lovers; fear and flight are indissolubly linked to the call of holy presence. To know one is to know the other; to be attached to one is to cling to the other. Humankind struggles to incarnate the one and to resist the other, but they are a pair. God, too, struggles to let the one preponderate over the other: “May it be My will that My compassionate love predominate over My anger, overwhelming My other qualities, so that I comport Myself with the quality of compassionate love toward My children, engaging them beyond the requirements of the law.”[14]


            Joy is not happiness.

            Happiness comes from setting goals and achieving them. Happiness is social. It is a state of well-being derived from those around us. Not everyone is happy, and no one is happy all the time; yet  we all know happiness from time to time.

            Joy is an inner awareness, a moment of insight through our selves into that which is beyond. It is a connectedness between our inner being and that which transcends it.

            Happiness requires contention, fighting for what one believes, compromise; joy is a moment of wholeness, and purity. Happiness is rooted in time and space; joy suspends us in a realm beyond ourselves.

            Joy can strike us at any time. But it is more likely to come to us in moments of service, at times when we see ourselves within the larger meaning which embraces reality. Joy does not derive from accomplishment, but from centeredness within the greater whole.

The rule is that, when a saint worships God, even the simple people have joy because the pious, by performing their mitsvot, bring blessing and joy to all the worlds. Thus, it happened that the people of the city of Shushan who were not Jews also had joy even though they did not know its cause, for Mordecai’s stewardship brought blessing and joy on all  the people, as it says, “the city of Shushan” -- that is, its people, the non-Jews -- “was cheerful and joyous” (Esther 8:15-16). But the Jews had special reason to be joyous because they had been saved from Haman. And the rule is that, when a person knows the reason why he or she is happy, then he or she experiences a joyous light, for reason enlightens them as to the purpose of things. Therefore, it also says, “and the Jews had light and joy” (ibid.)[15]

            There are many kinds of joy.

            There is the joy of knowing that God loves us, of knowing that we are objects of God’s grace. And there is the joy of having served God, of having done a mitsva simply because it brings pleasure to the Creator.

By the acts which people had to do -- to plant and to sow, to raise cattle and to sacrifice -- the Creator, blessed be He, caused the flow of blessing to descend upon them.... When Israel was in the  desert, however, they were in the state that the Holy One, blessed be He, showered His blessing upon them because of His great grace as in the case of the manna and the well of water for, in these, there was no action of humans at all.[16]

            There is the joy of seeing the solution to a problem, and the joy of actually solving it.[17]

            There are also the joys of worship:

...one should tremble and faint when standing to pray before the great King. And it is proper that one’s limbs shake. Similarly, after praying, one should think, “How can I dare to bring out of my mouth useless words and enjoy them? Have I not just spoken before the great and awesome King? And will I not have to speak again before Him Whose Glory fills the universe?”[18]

... For when one meditates well on the greatness of the Creator, may He be blessed, -- that He is the root and principle of all worlds, that He encompasses and fills all reality, that no thought can grasp Him at all, and that all the worlds, souls, and angels are all annihilated and as nothing and emptiness before Him -- then one’s soul is awakened to yearn and to be consumed in the flame of sweetness, bliss, and love. Then, one desires and has a passion to worship God at all times... one’s heart is enflamed to worship God.[19]

            Even God experiences joy.

A person, in his or her worship of God, may He be blessed, through Torah and mistvot, brings great joy above. And so, when a person wants to know if God, may He be blessed, has joy from this worship, the criterion is this: If one sees that one’s heart burns like a fire and that one feels religious enthusiasm always to worship Him and that one has a passion and a will to worship the Creator, then it is certain that God, may He be blessed, has joy from that person’s worship.[20]

            The holy is joy-ful, even as it is fear-ful.


Second Thoughts


            Does one have a right to speculate about God this way? Has the holocaust not intervened to force a distortion of categories, a rupture of language itself?

... On the march to work, limping in our large wooden shoes on the icy snow, we exchanged a few words, and I found out that Resnyk is Polish; he lived twenty years at Paris but speaks an incredible French. He is thirty, but like all of us, could be taken for seventeen or fifty. He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?...

         Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

         Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

         If I were God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer.[21]

             May one understand God as wholly other, as sacred, after Auschwitz? May one think of God as holy, if the holy cannot be immoral? Does one have a right to say that God is fair, addressable, possessed of power, loving, and choosing? Is not speaking of God's anger blasphemous in the context of the holocaust? Can one talk of God's essential attributes as holiness and personality after hearing the testimony of the distortion of personality and transcendence? Is any language adequate after the rupture of all human communication in the camps? [22]

            And yet, can one  not  talk of God? Can one abandon God Who, for better or for worse, is the creator and judge? Can one cast even God into the abyss of silence? Can one deny one's own experience of God's holy otherness and of God’s intimate personal presence?

            And, can one close one's ears to the  other  testimony -- the testimony of faith, the witness to the Jew's love of God? “Yea , though God slay me, I turn expectantly to God” (Job 13:15). [23]




            The theology of image, a personalist theology, proposes, in humility and embarrassment, that there is no choice but to retrieve the hermeneutic of personal and of holy language; that one must speak, as best one can, always aware of the silence that haunts one's speech, of God and of humankind as holy person, in dialogue. The theology that understands God's essential attributes as personality and holiness teaches that there is no alternative to forming a vision of God and humankind that is rooted in personality and holiness; that one must do this, as clearly as possible, even as one must remain aware of the darkness that encompasses and threatens humanity.

[1] This first appeared as Chapter 3 in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster / John Knox, Louisville, KY: 1993).

[2] R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy  (New York, Oxford University Press: 1958) ch. 27. Otto, following Schleiermacher, characterizes these moments as Gefühle,  usually translated as “affections.” However, the English translator, following the popular German usage, renders this as “feelings.” “Feelings,” as I see them, are more transient while “awarenesses” or “moments of consciousness” are more intense and less the product of psychological stimuli. I also distinguish “feelings” from “dispositions” or “sustained emotional attitudes,” the latter being more enduring and constituting virtues to be cultivated (cf. D. Saliers, The Soul in Paraphrase  [New York, Seabury: 1980] and below, yyyy, “Intimations”).

[3] Otto, 28.

[4] A. Grossman, “Holiness,” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. A. Cohen and P. Mendes-Flohr (New York, Scribners: 1987) 389-90. Cf. also A. Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name  (Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson: 1992), reviewed by me in Modern Theology   xxxxxxxxxx.

[5] The New Year liturgy, The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, ed. J. Hertz (New York, Bloch Publishing: 1960) 850.

[6] The daily liturgy, Hertz, 137.

[7] Cf. below, yyyy, where I have set forth these universes of discourse and their overlapping.

[8] The following discussion is based upon M. Kadushin, Worship and Ethics  (Chicago, Northwestern University Press: 1964) 216-37.  Cf. also A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man  (New York, Meridian Books: 1951) Part Three.

[9] Kadushin, Worship and Ethics,  216.

[10] Cf. also J. Neusner, Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah  (Chicago, University of Chicago: 1981) 270-81.

[11] Kadushin, Worship and Ethics,  224-5, 232. I have not changed the spelling to conform to my own. Thus: kedushah = kedusha; mizwah = mitsva;  and kawwanah = kavvana.

[12] The quotation is from Song of Songs 5:2 and is used by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed,  3:51 (transl., S. Pines [Chicago, University of Chicago: 1963] 623) to allude to the ongoingness of kavvana.  For a fuller discussion of the levels of kavvana,  cf. D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism,  vol. 2 (New York, Ktav Publishing: 1982) 112-16, reprinted in idem., God at the Center,  186-90 (cf. also the Index, there) and in News Notes   ([Fellowship of United Methodists in Worship, Music, and Other Arts, Atlanta] summer, 1989) 3-5. When I wrote this passage, I was not yet sensitive to inclusive language but it should be read in that style and tone.

[13] Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind  (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary of America: 1952) esp. 20-3.

[14] Talmud,  Berakhot 7a, used in modified form in the High Holiday liturgy, Hertz, 882; cf. also, below, yyyy, “The Abusing God,” at n. 35; and “Facing the Abusing God,” at n. 19.

[15] Cf. D. Blumenthal, God at the Center,   205. Levi Yitzhak was a nineteenth century hasidic master beloved by all. He wrote a compilation of homilies entitled, Kedushat Levi.  This quotation is taken from that compilation. On Levi Yitzhak, see God at the Center,  xiv-xvi, and S. Dresner, The World of a Hasidic Master  (New York, Shapolsky: 1986).

[16] Ibid.,   75, quoting Levi Yitzhak’s Kedushat Levi.

[17] Ibid.,  197.

[18] Ibid.,  37, quoting Levi Yitzhak’s Kedushat Levi.

[19] Ibid.,  152, 148-50, 183-5, quoting Levi Yitzhak’s Kedushat Levi.

[20] Ibid.,  56, quoting Levi Yitzhak’s Kedushat Levi.  Cf. also A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man,  199, italics in the original: “The mystic experience is an ecstasy of humanity; revelation is an ecstasy of God.”

[21] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz,  transl. S. Woolf (New York, Summit Books: 1960) 65-6, 129-30.

[22] Cf. above, yyyy, “Introduction,” for references to Shapiro and Langer on this.

[23] For stories of Jewish religious heroism, cf. M Prager, Sparks of Glory  (New York, Shengold Publishers, 1974). For Christian stories, cf. C. Ten Boom, The Hiding Place  (New Jersey, Spire Books: 1971). There are other examples of this genre.