Of Perspective and Paradox: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Analysis of Holiness

In[1] the opening of his famous essay “Sacred and Profane,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “In the same fashion that kodesh and hol form the spiritual framework of our halakha, so do the kodesh and hol determine the dichotomy of living experience into sacred and profane… This dualism has often been misapprehended. The halakhic conception of the essence of hol and kodesh is… diametrically opposed to universally accepted formulation in the circles of religious liberalism, Jewish as well as non-Jewish.”[2] By explicitly attributing great significance to the role of kodesh in one’s religious perspective, and through provocatively claiming that the halakhic approach to kodesh conflicts with the common religious approach, Rabbi Soloveitchik beckons the reader to investigate the essential topic of the nature of kodesh and hol. In addition to the aforementioned essay,[3] the Rav analyzes the topic in other contexts, including in his major work Halakhic Man, where he uses the halakhic understanding of kedushah as a critical distinction between halakhic man and homo religiosus.[4] In order to both understand and appreciate the novelty of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach to holiness, it is necessary to understand both its philosophical and theological background. It is also important to examine the consequences of his opinions as expounded in his other writings and through the works of his students. This analysis will demonstrate how his understanding of holiness is both novel and very much consistent with a number of other critical elements of his broader philosophy of Judaism.

The Rav’s Approach

In Halakhic Man, the first of his book-length publications, the Rav sought to define the characteristics of a complex ideal type, the halakhic man. In order to do so, the Rav contrasts him with two other ideal types: “cognitive man” and “homo religiosus.” Cognitive man is a scientist solely focused on the physical world. Similar to the ideal type of “Adam the First” depicted in Lonely Man of Faith, cognitive man seeks to intellectually conquer and master the physical world. In contrast, the homo religiosus is otherworldly, attributing significance only to a spiritual world. He is a religious figure, engaged in the mystical and esoteric in hope of transcending the physical world. He seeks not to conquer nature but to encounter the mystery found therein. The homo religiosus is also often not emotionally and physically stable as a result of neglecting physical pleasures and abandoning earthly life.

Halakhic man contains elements of both cognitive man and homo religiosus, yet “taken as a whole he is uniquely different from both of them.”[5] Halakhic man, a synthesis of the other two types, recognizes the transcendent realm but instead of attempting to ascend up to it, he desires to bring it down it down to the physical world. The Rav succinctly describes it as “Homo religiosus ascends to God; God, however, descends to Halakhic man.”[6] Moreover, halakhic man is similar to cognitive man in that he sets up a priori concepts and laws that are the prism through which he views the world. In this manner, Halakhic man is also a creative being because he takes the laws given by God and creates his own interpretation and conceptualization of them. The Rav goes so far as to describe this relationship as a partnership between Man and God.

Within this framework, the Rav presents his approach to holiness.[7] He writes: “The idea of holiness according to the halakhic world view does not signify a transcendent realm completely separated and removed from reality… Holiness, according to the outlook of Halakhah, denotes the appearance of a mysterious transcendence in the midst of our concrete world, the ‘descent’ of God, whom no thought can grasp, onto Mount Sinai, the bending down of a hidden and concealed world and lowering it onto the face of reality… Holiness is created by man, by flesh and blood.”[8] Two critical points emerge from the Rav’s statement. First, while holiness may stem from God’s “descent,” it also exists in our earthly reality. Secondly, enduring holiness does not exist on its own but instead requires human action in order to be created. These two points form the foundation of the Rav’s halakhic understanding of kedushah,[9] and is strongly reminiscent of the Rav’s description of the Halakhic Man as conceptualizing divine realities so as to perceive them in the mundane, physical realm.

The Rav’s human-oriented approach to kedushah is reflected by many examples in a variety of contexts. In Halakhic Man itself, the Rav mentions a few relevant examples. One example is the Beit ha-Mikdash, where the Divine presence is brought down to the lower realm specifically by man to dwell in a confined physical space. An important proof the Rav offers is the Targum to the verse in Isaiah (6:3), repeated in the daily kedushah prayer, where it is clear that holiness  begins in the highest of realms yet is also proclaimed to exist in the physical and concrete world. The Rav also quotes the verses in Va-Yikra which describe observing laws that “regulate human biological existence” such as laws against certain foods and sexual relationships.[10] He also describes how human actions create holiness in other instances, for example, by the ability of human speech to consecrate animals as holy offerings, and the sanctifying the Land of Israel through human conquest. These are examples listed in Halakhic Man as instances where human input is necessary to create holiness.

In several other works, the Rav uses his approach to kedushah to either explain or disagree with certain opinions. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the Rav’s approach to kedushat Eretz Yisrael (the sanctity of the Land of Israel), where he takes a very strong stance on the source of its holiness.[11] In Emergence of Ethical Man, the Rav writes:

“Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority. The halakhic term kedushat ha-aretz, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest (heroic deeds) or the mere presence of the people in that land (intimacy of man and nature). Kedushah is identical with man’s association with Mother Earth. Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.”[12]

This statement by the Rav explicitly reflects his opinion that at least from a halakhic perspective, holiness derives only from the acts of man and is not inherent to anything. For the Rav, kedushah must always be human-produced. This is also an example of where his broader understanding of holiness leads the Rav to take very strong stances on issues debated by prominent Rishonim, as will be discussed later on.

Kedushah as Sacrifice

In his posthumously published book Family Redeemed, the Rav makes a critical qualification as to what types of human acts can produce holiness. In context of a broader analysis of Judaism’s approach to marriage, the Rav argues that the term kiddushin is a proof of the holiness that is implicit in the marital relationship. Marriage for the Rav is a holy convention. Within this framework the Rav makes an important statement that “Sacrifice and holiness are synonymous concepts in Judaism. The more alluring the vision of conquest, the stronger the temptation, the more intoxicating the performance, the greater and more heroic the act of retreat - the more the threads of the person practicing it are woven into the fabric of sanctity.”[13] This is an essential point because it limits the categories of human acts which could produce holiness only to acts of sacrifice and courage. The Rav’s qualification is further developed later on in the book when he writes that “Judaism considers the body the wellspring of kedushah… Kedushah is a passional experience born of bewildering and painful events, of struggle and combat with one’s self and others… it is a heroic performance attained only when one’s life story becomes an epos, a narrative of great and courageous action. Holiness is not won easily, at no sacrifice.”[14] Consequently, the types of human acts that create kedushah are cut down. The Rav explicitly mentions that both prayer and the cult ceremonial acts can never bestow sanctity upon a person because despite their obvious religious merits they are only symbolically sacrificial and cannot be considered passional actions.

Using this background which places man’s perspective as the pivotal condition for holiness, the Rav masterfully explains a surprising and confusing mishnah found in Tractate Gittin. The mishnah details a few opinions of what are considered to be legitimate and appropriate grounds for divorcing a woman. One opinion quoted is that of Rabbi Akiva, who is quoted as saying that if a man finds another woman to be more attractive than his wife that is appropriate grounds to divorce her. This seems surprising because it would seem to undermine the integrity and strength of the marital relationship if this alone is sufficient grounds for dissolving the marriage. The Rav explains that “this very desire is an adulterous thought which cancels the pristine sanctity of the marriage. A sinful wish and inner betrayal of the wedded partner desecrates the covenantal endowment of marriage… The marriage has been desecrated and de-covenantalized.”[15] The Rav’s explanation of Rabbi Akiva’s seemingly startling opinion flows beautifully with his earlier statements about kiddushin. Since kiddushin is a reflection of the sanctity of the relationship as invested by Man,[16] when the man corrupts the marriage with desire for another woman, he has thereby profaned the sanctified marriage and thus divorce is merely the formal action which concludes the process of disintegrating the marriage.[17] As the Rav succinctly puts it, “If something is not experienced as sacred, the object or the institution forfeits its uniqueness and numinous character.”[18] This example demonstrates the far reach and implications of the Rav’s approach to holiness.

Historical Approaches to Holiness[19]

In order to properly appreciate and comprehend the novelty and significance of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position on holiness, an understanding of the Rav’s historical background is necessary.[20] During the Rav’s time, the prevalent and most popular approach to the nature of holiness was that of Rudolf Otto, as presented in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto famously considered holiness to be something “wholly other” and beyond man’s understanding. He argued that holiness is entirely removed from reality. He writes that holiness is a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.”[21] The Rav clearly had Otto on his mind when he wrote, as he had incorporated some of Otto’s thought into his own philosophy. This is implicitly clear when the Rav describes holiness as “a mysterious transcendence,” similar to Otto’s perspective. Like Otto, he considers it to originally exist removed from the world. Yet the Rav also clearly diverges from Otto when he writes of how holiness can be brought down to exist “in the midst of our concrete world”[22] since Otto believes that holiness is entirely removed from our reality.

Another critical historical perspective on holiness was that of Hermann Cohen. Although Cohen and Rabbi Soloveitchik never met, the Rav was clearly very familiar with Cohen’s philosophy as reflected by his choice to write his dissertation on other areas of Cohen’s thought.[23] In stark contrast to Otto, Cohen defined holiness as an ethical category. For Cohen, “Holiness becomes morality.”[24] The Rav diverges from Cohen in that holiness is based in the halakhah and not morality. Secondly, the Rav argues with Cohen by calling holiness “a mysterious transcendence,” clearly not just an ethical category.[25] Yet the Rav does agree with Cohen in that he believes man’s input is critical for the creation of holiness. Thus the Rav diverges from two popular conceptions of holiness which were intellectually dominant in his time period.

The Rav and Rishonim

As previously mentioned, the Rav had a very strong stance about the nature of Kedushat Eretz Yisrael. He sharply comments that “objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.” Nevertheless, as the Rav himself mentions, this is actually the opinion of a number of prominent rishonim. He explicitly mentions the views of R’ Judah Halevi in the Kuzari and Ramban in his commentary on the Torah.[26] He writes that “Judah Halevi…attributes special metaphysical qualities to the land and endows it with a spiritual climate: the air of your land is the breath of life for our souls… Nahmanides followed in Halevi’s footsteps as did the mystics. For them, the attribute of kedushah, holiness, ascribed to the land of Israel is an objective metaphysical quality inherent in the land.”[27] The Rav’s strong attack on this approach is both uncharacteristic and surprising given his respect, admiration, and appreciation for rishonim. Nonetheless it certainly reflects how deeply seated this position was for Rav Soloveitchik that he was willing to go so far as saying this opinion “smacks of fetishism.”

Another opinion in the rishonim from which the Rav diverges is that of Rambam. Rambam, a rationalist, didn’t think holiness actually existed in the world, so no one object or place is more sacred than any other. In his book Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, Menachem Kellner neatly sums up the Rambam’s approach. He writes that

“Maimonides… held a different view of holiness. Holy places, persons, times, and objects are in no objective way distinct from profane places, persons, times, and objects. Holiness is the name given to a certain class of people, objects, times, and places which the Torah marks off. According to this view holiness is a status, not a quality of existence. It is a challenge, not a given; normative, not descriptive. It is institutional (in the sense of being part of a system of laws) and hence contingent. This sort of holiness does not reflect objective reality; it helps constitute social reality.”[28]

The Rav clearly disagrees with this understanding of the Rambam’s approach.[29] Holiness as a “mysterious transcendence” for the Rav surely does exist. This demonstrates how the Rav’s stance dramatically diverges from two major opinions found in the Rishonim.

Impact on Talmidim

The Rav’s novel understanding of the nature of holiness had a clear impact on the thought of his disciples.[30] One major disciple, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, is a very clear example of this phenomenon and an analysis of his thought will provide greater insight into the Rav’s approach. In a sermon titled Sanctity and Impurity,[31] Rabbi Lichtenstein addresses the nature of holiness. He writes:

“The Jewish approach in this regard differs from the two other prevalent attitudes to this issue. The magical approach claims that there are in fact forces of sanctity and impurity inherent in the world, but they are primordial, embedded within the natural order. There are demons, evil spirits and the like, but man does not and cannot bring them into existence; they emerged together with the rest of creation. The scientific approach, by contrast, maintains that no forces of sanctity or impurity exist in the world whatsoever. No object can be seen as more sacred than the next, no given place can be considered holier than the next, and no quality of impurity can be attributed to corpses or anything else. Simply put, science outright rejects all these concepts.”

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s statement is noteworthy for two reasons. The first is his titles for the other approaches, the magical and scientific approaches. He claims that neither of these represents the Jewish approach. Such sharp words are surprising because as noted, many ascribe these positions to the great figures of Jewish thought, namely, Ramban, the Kuzari, and Rambam. Secondly, it is clear Rav Lichtenstein is following in the Rav’s footsteps by rejecting these approaches. In the continuation of the sermon, Rabbi Lichtenstein explicitly makes use of Rav Soloveitchik’s understanding. He argues that Judaism rejects both of those positions since it believes in the existence of holy and unholy, and also rejects the “magical” approach because sanctity is not inherent, but rather emanates from Man. In the same vein as the Rav, he writes that it is Man who creates holiness.

Rabbi Lichtenstein mentions a number of other examples in addition to the previously noted examples of korbanot and holidays. The first is that Man writes Torah scrolls and tefillin, which Man infuses with holiness. More significantly though, he cites another example from the Rav. He relates: “Rav Soloveitchik writes that Mount Sinai, the site of the most sacred and exalted event of all time, stands today bereft of any sanctity whatsoever; we do not even know where it is. By contrast, the most sacred site in the world for Jews is perhaps the Temple Mount, which received its sanctity from specifically human endeavors: it is the place where man reaches out to the Almighty. Mount Sinai lost its sanctity, as its kedushah emanated from God alone, not man.” Aside from being another example of the Rav’s approach to holiness, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s example is significant for two other reasons. First, it presupposes that there can be two types of holiness depending on whether it stems from Man or God. Secondly, it seemingly introduces another factor for consideration, the stability of the holiness. Kedushah created by Man is more permanent and significant in Judaism than kedushah that emanates from God alone.[32]

Fitting In With Broader Themes

The Rav’s opinion about the nature of holiness fits in with his broader philosophy of Man and Judaism and therefore may explain his conviction.  In other works, the Rav emphasizes the majesty and humility of Man.[33] On the one hand, Man is clearly majestic and capable of great accomplishments. In Halakhic Man, Man is described as a partner with God. In Lonely Man of Faith, Adam the First is an accomplished and creative being who achieves a great deal in his quest for dignity. In Uvikkashtem mi-Sham the Rav speaks about how man can draw close to God. Yet man is also humble. When he draws close he also retreats, and recognizes his distance from God. He is awed by his encounter with God and realizes how small he is. The Rav’s approach to holiness can also be similarly understood. On the one hand man is capable of bringing down the mystical transcendence of holiness to this concrete world, thus reflecting his “majesty.” On the other hand, holiness is also a mysterious transcendence which needs to originate in the higher realms and not on man’s earth. This reflects the humility of man via the recognition that some things are beyond him.

A second way the Rav’s approach fits in with his broader philosophy is that the Rav doesn’t see religion as a paradise, where all is calm and no effort or struggle is necessary. As previously mentioned, the Rav believes holiness can only be created through sacrifice. Man needs to act in order to create holiness. This fits in with the Rav’s broader philosophy of Judaism. In many of his writings man is portrayed in a state of dialectical tension,[34] thus reflecting the conflict and difficulty inherent to religious life. Additionally, in his homiletical address Sacred and Profane, the Rav writes about the struggle of holiness. He declares that “kedushah elevates man, not by vouchsafing him harmony and synthesis, balance and proportionate thinking, but by revealing to him the non-rationality and insolubility of the riddle of existence. Kedushah is not a paradise but a paradox.”[35] This declaration by the Rav reflects the necessity of struggle and for human input in religious life. Similarly, holiness does not exist on its own but rather requires human effort and devotion for it to be created.

Issues with Man Creating Holiness

While it has been demonstrated how the Rav’s approach to holiness works smoothly in many cases, there are a few examples which seem to conflict with the Rav’s understanding. The first is Shabbat, which is described as a holy day, seemingly independent of man’s input.[36] Shabbat seems to be sanctified by God, unlike the festivals which seem to be sanctified by Bnei Yisrael.[37] In Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari, the Rav suggests that one aspect of Shabbat’s kedushah is dependent on human sanctification. While this diminishes the problem by including some element of human input, the God-created aspect of Shabbat’s holiness still poses a problem for the Rav. Another case which seems to contradict the Rav’s approach is bekhor. The firstborn animal is considered to be sanctified from birth. This poses an issue for the Rav because there seems to be an element of sanctity which is inherent and not created by man. Similar to Shabbat, though, one can suggest that the Halacha of sanctifying the bekhor despite its already being sanctified is that man is adding an additional dimension of holiness to the animal. Nevertheless, the inherent sanctity of the bekhor from birth is still a question for the Rav.[38]


The Rav’s philosophy of holiness is a novel one which clearly diverges from the prevalent philosophical approaches to holiness which were current in his day as well as from the opinions of highly esteemed Rishonim.[39] The reason for this conviction may be because his approach to holiness is part and parcel of the Rav’s broader philosophy of Judaism, which believes in the majesty and humility of man as well as the necessity of struggle and turmoil in Judaism. Thus the Rav’s teachings about the nature of holiness are not only important for the specific issue of kedushah but rather provide insight and lessons relevant to religious life as a whole.

Avraham Wein is a third-year student at Yeshiva University studying Jewish Philosophy, Psychology, and Tractate Kiddushin.


[1] I would like to thank Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier, and Dr. Moshe Cohen for their help in preparation of this article.

[2] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurei Harav  ed. Joseph Epstein (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 1974), 6

[3] Sacred and Profane is from the homiletical portion of the Rav’s yahrtzeit shiur and thus is not meant to be the same type of philosophical treatment of holiness as found in some of the Rav’s more rigorous philosophical works. Therefore this paper will primarily not be addressing that piece but will relate back to it towards the end of the paper. (Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, personal communication).

[4] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 44-48.

[5] ibid. 3.

[6] ibid. 45.

[7] Kedushah is a function both of man’s yearning for transcendence as well as his concrete engagement with the material world; creating kedushah is therefore an essential goal of the halakhic man. This point is made explicit by S. Spero, “Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and the Philosophy of Halakha,” Tradition 30:2 (1996), reprinted in Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Marc Angel (New York, 1997) pp. 147-178

[8] ibid. 45-47.

[9]See Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, (New York, NY: OU Press, 2012), 311-312.

[10] The statement in the book would seem to include both positive and negative commandments.

[11] It is also worthwhile to compare Rabbi Soloveitchik’s views with Rav Kook’s. Rav Kook believed that Eretz Yisrael was bestowed with holiness even prior to Bnei Yisrael’s conquest. See Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, (New York, NY: OU Press, 2012), 294-295.

[12]  R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 150. For a similar formulation, see Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships (Hoboken, NJ: Toras Horav Foundation, 2000), 64.

[13]Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships (Hoboken, NJ: Toras Horav Foundation, 2000), 63-64.

[14] ibid. 74.

[15] ibid. 66.

[16] For a presentation and analysis of the formal aspects of kedushah in a marriage and the relationship to hekdesh, see Rabbi Danny Wolf’s chapter on kiddushin in Minhah Le-Aharon

[17] Dr. Moshe Cohen pointed out to me that this sounds like a classic hakirah, logical division, between the ma’aseh, formal act, and the kiyum, essential fulfillment.

[18] Family Redeemed, 66.

[19]I came to much of the information in this section as a result of an unpublished article by Shlomo Zuckier entitled Whence Holiness: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Kedushah, sources available at www.yutorah.org/download.cfm?materialID=515907  

[20] By historical background I mean the dominant theories of his time to which he might have been reacting.

[21] Rudolf Otto, The Idea Of The Holy, p. 112.

[22]  Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 46.

[23] For a discussion of the impact of Cohen on the Rav’s thought specifically regarding holiness and purity see Dov Shvartz, Religion Or Halakha: The Philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Brill: Boston, 2007) pp. 37-53, 79-82, and 287-288.

[24] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 96.

[25] The Rav makes his divergence from Cohen’s view (and that of Moritz Lazarus) explicit in note 51 on p. 150 of Halakhic Man, although the Rav does not call attention to his view of holiness as an objective reality.

[26] The opinion of Ramban in particular deserves further study beyond this simple categorization. See Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006) p. 10, 51 regarding the Ramban’s position.

[27] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 149-150.

[28] Maimonides, 88. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation of Rambam is contentious. Kenneth Seeskin, in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, wrote (p. 8) that Kellner’s essay on this topic was the most religiously controversial in that collection.

[29] It is worthwhile to note, however, that the Rav himself does not directly ascribe this view to Rambam.

[30] See Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s essay on holiness in his book The Living Tree (2014). He explicitly makes reference to the Rav’s impact on his own approach to holiness.

[31] http://etzion.org.il/en/sanctity-and-impurity

[32] For an approach similar to the Rav’s in some respects, see A.J. Heschel’s book The Sabbath.

[33] He even has an essay by that title.

[34] The most prominent example of this is of course in Lonely Man of Faith.

[35]  Joseph Epstein, Shiurei Harav (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Pub. House, 1974), 7-8.

[36] See Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways, p. 211.

[37] This is reflected in the brachot made in the prayers of those day; mekadesh hashabbat vs. mekadesh yisrael v’ha’zmanim.

[38] My esteemed teacher Rabbi Shalom Carmy once argued that the kedushah of the kohen also poses an issue for the Rav. See pages 109-122 in Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Mevakshei Panecha for a discussion between Rabbi Haim Sabato and Rabbi Lichtenstein on the same matter.

[39]For a comparison of the Rav’s perspective to other modern thinkers see Shlomo Zuckier’s unpublished article entitled Whence Holiness: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Kedushah. For the sources themselves see Meshech Chochmah to Ex. 32:19, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “The Territories,” Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, p. 227, and Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 79.