What is the Difference between Holiness and Purity?
By Avi Lazerson
It is it written in the Torah, "...be holy because I am holy" (Leviticus 11:45). This is a common theme in the Torah; G-d requires us to be kadosh (holy) since He is holy. Yet it is difficult to understand exactly what this means. What precisely is 'holy' so that we also may be holy?
In addition there is another concept that we must discuss and that is tummah and tahara, translated respectively as impurity (or defilement) and purity. The Torah stipulates that certain actions bring on tummah such as touching or eating a non kosher animal, touching a dead person, menstrual flow, plus a variety of other things.
It is important to understand clearly the concept of tahara which is generally associated with, but not the same as, kedusha (holiness). Where as tummah and tahara are opposites, there does not seem to be a word in Hebrew that reflects the opposite of kedusha (holiness). The rabbis of the Cabala use an Aramaic term, sitra achra, meaning the 'other side', to describe the opposite of kedusha (holiness). The 'other side' means something which does not come from the side of holiness. Yet in Hebrew there is no word that describes this.
Now let us understand the concept of tummah and tahara. As mentioned above tummah and tahara are opposites. To explain: a person's soul can be likened to a glass; a clean glass lets the light of the sun shine in and a dirty glass restricts the amount of light which can enter. A glass which is extremely dirty lets no light come through but it can be washed and revert back to its original state of letting light go through. A person is similar. If he becomes tummah his soul is impeded in perceiving holiness. But there are methods proscribed by the Torah for removing this tummah. The purification process depends largely on the cause of tummah if the action caused a minor tummah then the removal process is simpler, if the cause of tummah was more severe, then a more complicated process is required. Sometimes it is enough just to go to a mikva (a ritual bath a pool of natural water) and wait until the sun sets; sometimes it is a seven day purification process that requires the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer cow mixed in water (which existed during the time of the Temple). The exact process may change according to the Torah requirements, but the end result is the same: it brings a person back into a state of tahara.
Now what is the purpose of tahara? Tahara is not an end in of itself; tahara is a means of bringing or accessing kedusha (holiness) into the person. But again we return to the question of what is kedusha (holiness)?
We know that G-d is holy (kadosh) and that all holiness (kedusha) emanates from Him. But that does not define what kedusha is, it only tells us where it comes from not what it is. We know that by comparing words in Hebrew we can understand related words of a similar letter structure. A prostitute is referred to as a kedasha and that when one marries a woman, he utters the statement, "harei at mikudeshet le" - mikudeshet is derived from the word kadosh. In the case of the prostitute (kedasha) we find that she is a person who lives beyond the bounds of common accepted marital law and custom. She is available to all men and she knows no boundary; she is willing to have sex with Jew and non Jew, married man or single, etc. To her, there is no line, no division, all is the same, and all are equal.
On the other hand, when a man marries a woman and makes her his wife, she is mikudeshet; meaning that she is separated from all men and permitted only to the husband. She has her defined boundaries; she can not have sex with any man other than her husband. From the same three letter Hebrew word we have two opposite words; yet they are related in that they deal with boundaries.
From this we can begin to understand an important concept in kedasha. We can understand now that this relates to G-d's ability to go anywhere and anywhere, both here and there and at any time, past, present, future and all at the same time. He is not limited by any boundaries in time or space; He is everywhere and all at the same time. This is something that we can not fathom.
If this is true of G-d, how can we even think to emulate Him? We are totally limited by time and space. We certainly can not be in two places, nor can we travel to the past or the future. We are limited by our boundaries and can not break past them or so we think!
In reality, we can not be like G-d in the absolute sense of being in more that one place or existing in more than one time frame. But kedasha enables us to break beyond the constraints and boundaries of this world, to break out past the restraints that the physical limitations of the world have put upon us. We normally feel the over all physical-ness of the world, yet there is more to life that the gross material and seeking pleasures. When we reach a state of spiritual purity, a state of tahara, then we can draw into our inner being the holiness from our own G-dly soul which can shine into our being like an illuminated filament shines through a clean glass light bulb into a room.
When the G-dly soul's light is allowed to come into the body, the world no long is just a purely physical dungeon, but a garden of G-dly delights. Why? Because where as now we can not see any G-dliness in the world - we only see the physicality, the external aspect of the world but once we are pure, tahor, our soul permits us to see the truth of the world, that all exists because, not only is it G-d's will, but that the world is the external concealment of G-d. He Himself is the essence of the world. Reaching a state of purity enables us to perceive this ever so clearly.
But alas, at this time we can not purify ourselves to the degree needed for this. Not until G-d has mercy on us and allows us to rebuild the holy Temple in Jerusalem when we can bring sacrifices can we reach such a lofty spiritual level. Only then will we again be able to bring sacrifices and to achieve ritual purity. Then, and only then, will we reach the spiritual delights and pleasures for which we were created to see, and until then, we must beseech the Holy One to redeem us from our unholy thoughts and being.
from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine