vrijdag 29 november 2013


To call something ‘holy’ is one thing. To call two rather different things ‘holy’ is something else. One may wonder whether the latter is possible at all.

If someone says: “My car is sacred to me”, and two sentences later: “My family is sacred to me”, don’t we want to know what is really most sacred to him, for example, if he has to choose between his car and his family?

Curiously, there seems to exist in Jewish culture something like a double sanctity. On the one hand, the traditional texts are clear: the commandments of Sinai are sacred, the people must be a holy people.

On the other hand, there is no other non-Christian ethnic group or religion that with such fervor has welcomed the breakthrough of the equality of people and peoples and human rights. Indeed, precisely as ethnic group the majority of Jews, since the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, closed the ideas of universal liberty, equality and fraternity in their hearts.

Christians did so as well. Indeed, those ideas came up in a Christian society. But the dominant trend within that group turned out to be that one form of holiness (the Christian) was exchanged for the other (the humanist or Enlightenment ideology). Large-scale secularization was the result, without the problem of the double holiness.

For most Muslims double holiness is also not an issue. Enlightenment ideas appear not to be particularly appealing to them. Certainly not to the extent to which Jews were and are enthousiastic for them.

You can say, the reason why Jews were so enthousiastic is because those ideas helped to end their actual subordination in society and made possible their emancipation. I think that factor has indeed importantly contributed to the Jewish sympathy for the Enlightenment ideas.

But I am convinced that Jews embraced universal enlightened ideas also because they recognized a type of holiness that reminded them of the sanctity of their own particularistic Jewish tradition. Consider the task of improving the world (tikkun olam) or the high value assigned to a person’s life in that tradition.

Which is not to say that these two types of sacred things – the universalist and particularist – pass seamlessly into one another. Therefore, the question remains : Can two things be called holy at one and the same time?

Also see Mission Completed and Holy Fire