The Idea of Holiness

Most modern Jews understand the concepts of good and evil and, right and wrong, but holiness is a much more difficult concept to understand. The Hebrew word for holy is kadosh; for holiness, kedusha. These terms literally mean “set apart.” Kedusha refers to a level of reality beyond the physical. Jews have holy time, holy space, and holy relationship. According to Judaism, being wise implies being able to distinguish between the holy and the profane–kodesh and hol. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “Holiness is the descent of divinity into the midst of our concrete world.”

How is one to achieve holiness? The classical Jewish answer is, through following the commandments. The main purpose of the commandments is to help us achieve holiness. Judaism’s concept of holiness is “Shvil ha-Zahav,” where one achieves holiness by striking a balance between two extremes, asceticism and hedonism. Therefore, with respect to sex, holiness is not achieved through celibacy–as in Chatolisism–but rather by having sexual relations with pleasure, in marriage within specific limits, and for the sake of the fulfillment of Gods will.

Jewish tradition contains the powerful statement, “In the world to come, a man will have to account for every legitimate pleasure which he has denied himself.” Sex is viewed as a vital part of Gods creation; it is good, and meant to be enjoyed. However, while modern secular culture emphasizes a hedonistic approach to sex, pleasure in Judaism is intimately tied to the commandment “mitzva”–to a higher purpose. The Torah views certain sexual encounters as detracting from holiness and others as enhancing sexual relations. Only humans can elevate the sexual act above the biological level, thereby bringing to it a spiritual quality. As a purely physical act, sex outside the context of proper marital relationship, is considered “zenut” and, as such, detracts from holiness. In the Talmud (Yevamot 61-b), the Rabbis broadened the definition of zenut from actual prostitution to any form of sexual promiscuity.


Prostitution has always been forbidden in Judaism. This prohibition contrasts sharply with the practices of other nations, whom the Israelites lived among and, in which cultic prostitution was considered the norm. Although the Bible, the Talmud, and our Sages acknowledge prostitution as a fact of life, it has always been considered the antithesis of holiness. Although Talmudic Rabbi, Elazar, tried to broaden the definition of zenut even further to include all sexual relations between unmarried adults, his opinion was rejected. The strong reaction to Rabbi Elazar’s position seems to indicate that other Rabbis excluded certain sexual relations between unmarried adults from the category of zenut. Sages, like the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David,) defined zenut as sex when used as purely release, with no pretense of relationship. Under this circumstance, zenut includes all forms of prostitution, promiscuity, and pornography. These acts of sex, performed for purely physical release, recognize only our animal bodies and do not include our Holy Spirit. It may be ethical in that it does not hurt anybody, but according to Michael Gold, “…it does violence against the divine soul.”