What exactly does the word “holy” mean in various religious traditions? What is the opposite of it in translations from the Hebrew? Is the antonym of “holy” in the Old Testament not, as many of us assume, “profane” but “unclean?” And, if so, what are the theological implications and in human affairs of that difference?
How did Biblical figures such as Moses and Joshua justify brutal levels of violence against their enemies? What motivated that violence in the first place—and is there, in fact, any evidence that any took place at that level in those times?
What did leading philosophers from Maimonides to William James to Abraham Joshua Heschel have to say about the concept of the “holy” and is there a difference in meaning between the words “sacred” and “holy?”
Is it even rational to believe that something is “holy” or are such beliefs relics that have only been used to justify religious violence? Is there a place for the concept of the holy in our time and in our actions and world views?
These are some of the questions that Alan L. Mittleman addresses in his 2018 book, Does Judaism Condone Violence?: Holiness and Ethics in the Jewish Tradition
(Princeton UP, 2018).
Given that in recent years we have seen the desecration of religious sites and murders and assaults by and on religious people of all faiths across the globe, Mittleman’s book is timely for not only Jewish readers but anyone who wishes to know more about the history of violence and the often seemingly contradictory ways God and otherwise humane people employ it or condone it.
The book is a learned study of our sometimes blood-stained, but also noble, past.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.