The first thing I did when I received my copy of Alec Goldstein’s A Theology of Holiness (Kodesh Press, 2018) was flip to the back and peruse the bibliography. Jacob Milgrom? Check. Rudolf Otto? Check. Rav Soloveitchik? Check. Ok, this is going to be good.
I was definitely not disappointed. Beyond doing a tremendous service to the the Jewish people through his Kodesh Press publication, (I will admit, I always smile when I see the logo) Goldstein is a first rate talmid chacham and scholar as well. His scholarly prowess is evident throughout this comprehensive work where he seeks to provide a fulsome understanding of Judaism’s concept of kedusha, holiness.
Goldstein deftly guides the reader through the etymological background of the term, its various uses, synonyms and manifestations throughout tanakh and even traces the understanding of kedusha in ancient Greek thinking. The work then concentrates on how Chazal understood holiness by focusing on several important concepts in the talmud which pivot on the nature of holiness such as “Sanctifying yourself with what is permitted to you” as well as Imitatio Dei and the well known teaching of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair on the moral/ethical steps one proceeds through in seeking personal perfection. The final section of the book, which I enjoyed the most, deals with theories of holiness put forth by major Jewish thinkers from Rashi down to twentieth century’s luminaries such as Eliezer Berkovits.
The bulk of the work is a lexical analysis of the k-d-sh root and its synonyms as used in tanakh. Goldstein leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of clarifying and outlining when and how holiness as a terminology manifests. In so doing he is able to demystify terms which are often bandied about so imprecisely as to become devoid of all meaning. For example the n-z-r root is commonly associated with holiness through the shared association with separateness. Goldstein sources this in the Hebrew, Ugaritic and Phoenician lexicons but then layers in an additional affinity between n-z-r and k-d-sh, elevation.
- “The priest wears a nezer, “diadem,” on his head (Exod. 29:6).
- “Samson is given the title nezir Elohim, “the separated on of the Lord” (Judges 13).
- “the Temple officials are called n-z-r, “her n-z-r’s were purer than snow” (Lam. 4:7); the word has been various translated as “princes,” “consecrated ones,” “dignitaries,” and “nobles.” (p. 68-69)
Both of these elements are fundamental to understanding both the term n-z-r itself and the nazir’s special status.
I would like to make special mention of the language used in this book. I consider myself someone who has a descent vocabulary, and I very much enjoy learning new words. This book has a surfeit of terms which I met for the first time. Possibly my favorite paragraph, on page 95, has three in the span of three sentences: immurement, discalceation and circumambulation (all three of which my spellcheck is currently flagging, which makes me enjoy them even more).
Goldstein makes ample use of tables to outline and compare texts. This approach is especially helpful when breaking down all of the biblical verses relating to holiness as applied to people (p. 134-135) and in contrasting the opinions of various commentaries who seek to explain the famed braita of R’ Pinchas ben Yair (p. 189).
As mentioned the book culminates with a survey of comprehensive approaches to holiness from several great Jewish minds spanning the middle ages and down to the modern era. As much as I enjoyed this material I would have been grateful for the inclusion of other luminaries as well such as Sa’adya Gaon, Rav Kook or even Heschel. The omission of the latter whose insights on the holiness of time as portrayed in his work The Sabbath, was surprising to me and would also have been a welcome addition to the section on Holiness of Times. The only other major area of Judaism that this work neglected to cull from was that of Jewish mysticism. Obviously the corpus is vast and may require a work unto itself.
Often a reviewer will include her/his bonafides in a review by attempting to show expertise in the topic covered in the work. I must say that I approached this book completely differently. I make no claims to be an expert in holiness and I rather think this approach was to my benefit. The idea of kedusha is so pervasive in Judaism that I believe many people think they understand what it is and how it work simply by osmosis. What Alec is able to do is bring a rigorous and methodical approach to understanding what is otherwise an amorphous topic.