Anthropology of the Holy

By Cantor Jonathan Friedmann, PhD

Academic Dean, MJS Program & Rabbinical School

Like much of the Book of Leviticus, this week’s Torah portion is concerned with defining and reenforcing conceptions of the sacred. It contains numerous rules, restrictions, and regulations regarding the appearance, behaviors, and obligations of the priestly class, who were tasked with upholding distinctions between sacred and profane. The details are lengthy, minute, elaborate, and remote, reflecting a ritual system and ritual actors distant from our own time (although the rudiments of our festivals and holidays are found therein).

The impulse to demarcate what is sacred/approved from what is profane/disapproved underlies all religions (in the usual sense of the term). Levitical laws and taboos are historically and culturally specific expressions of this universal phenomenon. Parshat Emor includes twenty-one instances of the term kadosh (holy/sacred) in various forms. Usually, the term involves a particular involvement or avoidance, such as who the priests can or cannot marry, how they should or should not style their hair, and proper and improper methods and types of sacrifice.

In its most basic meaning, the Hebrew term kadosh denotes “separation,” or the removal and elevation of something above the mundane. In this sense, the act of separating actually creates holiness—and recreates holiness with each repetition of a rule or ritual.

This is not to say that holiness is merely manufactured. From an anthropological perspective, sacred rituals, doctrines, and beliefs strive to replicate an original experience that is profoundly and ineffably separate from the ordinary. In Israelite culture, this would include epiphanies like Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:11–19) and Moses’ encounter with “a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2).

Such encounters are, according to Rudolf Otto, author of the seminal book The Idea of the Holy, “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 wonder that strikes us chill and numb.”

For most of us, expecting this intense, pre-rational, “wholly other” experience to occur with any regularity is unrealistic. By definition, the experience is extraordinary, or extra ordinem: outside the normal course of events. Otto’s preferred term is numinous. According to him, elaborate rules and rituals, such as those constructed by the Levites, are necessary but ultimately inadequate attempts to give language and structure to experiences that precede and transcend both language and structure. The intention is that, by engaging in rituals—routinized acts of deliberate separation—we might approximate, stimulate, or at least simulate the conditions of the original numinous experience.