the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Is Holiness A State or a Process?
Dr. Raphael Yarhi
The verses in the Torah that mention the sanctity of the people of Israel do not indicate conclusively whether Qedusha, sanctity is immanent, a permanent state that is the result of being chosen by the Holy One, blessed be He, or whether the people of Israel sanctify themselves through observing His commandments. The essence of sanctity can be understood either way and often the very same verses can even be used to support one idea or its opposite, according to the approach of the commentator.
Sanctity as a state
From several verses in the Torah
referring to the sanctity of the people of
Sanctity through observance
A different approach to the sanctity
of the people of
“You shall be holy” – you shall set yourselves apart.  “For I, the Lord your G-d, am holy” – meaning that if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, but if you do not make yourselves holy, I shall view you as if you have not sanctified Me. Or, perhaps it is to say none other than if you make Me holy, then I am sanctified, and if not, then I am not sanctified? The text says, “for I am holy.” In My sanctity I exist, whether or not others sanctify Me.
The picture that emerges from the midrash
in Sifra and from the verses of the Torah that support it is that the
Lord is a holy G-d, and He set aside the people of Israel to be His people,
giving Israel commandments through whose observance they become holy.
The commandments were given in order to
purify human beings (Genesis Rabbah 44.1), and the idea that upholding the
commandments adds sanctity is found in the words of the tannaim:
The Sabbath is said to be “holy to you,”
indicating that the Sabbath adds holiness to Israel (Mekhilta de-Rabbi
Ishmael, Tractate De-Shabbata I).
In contrast to the previous approach,
sanctity is not a one-time act in which G-d confers everlasting holiness on
Sanctity is not supernatural
Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik said on this subject that sanctity is not a supernatural, heavenly title that descends from on high and lands on some object or other. Things do not become holy of themselves. If things became holy automatically, Judaism would turn into a religion of magic, Heaven forbid. Sanctity is the creation of man. 
Malbim took a similar approach. He distinguished between the notions of a “chosen people” (‘am segulah) and a “holy nation,” (goy qadosh) giving the following interpretation (loc. sit., Mekhilta 19, Jethro, p. 150):
They are called ‘am segulah, a chosen people, insofar as the Lord chose them (without any action on their part), even if they do not act as servants of the Lord and a holy nation, but they were called “a holy people” when they became holy and elevated themselves in the sanctity of their actions;
Regarding the sanctity that the
When a person sanctifies himself and elevates himself above material things to spiritual comportment which he chooses, and the divine soul is in him, then the Lord becomes sanctified in the world and becomes elevated to lead the world miraculously; and this is what is meant by saying, “if you make yourselves holy, I shall credit you as if you had sanctified Me, ...” Thus My sanctity, insofar as I am your G-d, depends on your sanctity.”
According to Malbim, the meaning of being a holy people is that the people make themselves holy through performance of the commandments, and in this act of sanctification the people also sanctify the Holy One, blessed be He.
To summarize Sifra and Malbim, in human existence sanctity is a challenge placed on man and in no way is it a trait that is found inherently in man or conferred on him from above.  Nor is sanctity an immanent component in the essence of an object or in the essence of time (save the for the sanctity of the Holy One, blessed be He, as stated above); rather, it is the result of the deeds that human beings perform.  Human beings can undo the sanctity of something through the reverse action, by desecrating or contaminating it.
The significance of the sanctifying act and its characteristics
I would like to follow the approach taken by Sifra, which emphasizes that sanctification is elicited by an action that creates holiness, and to examine the significance of the sanctifying act and what characterizes it. One characteristic of the sanctifying act is that sanctification (holiness) is always in a process of becoming, and there is no upper limit to sanctification. Scripture does not say, “You are holy,” rather, “You shall be holy,” and towards the end of the passage it says, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” (Lev. 20:7), indicating that only in your act of sanctifying yourselves are you holy; once you cease sanctifying yourselves, your holiness ceases to be. Similarly, in the passage on tzitzit (fringes; Num. ), it says: “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy,” meaning that if you lay off from observing My commandments, your holiness abates. 
Holiness through morality – sanctity as expressing spiritual-moral perfection 
Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik said that sanctity as a transcendental concept (stemming from an external binding authority) signifies a divine-like separation. That is to say, Man removes himself from material things and desires. G-d, Who asks that we adhere to His characteristics, provides a moral example that finds expression in our aspiring, continual struggle to attain moral perfection.  The struggle to attain holy comportment through moral perfection demands a level of morality which is conscious and reflective, in which choices are made between alternative ways of behaving, and not a habitual, stereotyped behavior.
Sanctity of consecration and sanctity of separation.
Sanctity of consecration refers
to bringing sanctification to things that are mundane, as the Sages said,
“Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted you” (on the verse, “For you
are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d,” Deut. 14:2; Rashi, loc. sit.,
Sifre, loc. sit.).
Sanctity of separation or isolation, in contrast, is sanctity which is
achieved by separating that which is sacred from that which is mundane, as in
the separations in the
Overt sanctity and inner sanctity . 
Overt sanctity find expression in behavior which is there for all to see, in one’s outer appearance and actions. Perhaps such overt holiness impresses those who behold it, however it carries with it the risk of arrogance. In contrast, inner sanctity lies within and is experienced by the person himself or between the person and G-d.
 “But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6); “You shall be holy people to Me” (Ex. 22:30); “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d: of all the people on earth, the Lord your G-d chose you to be His treasured people” (Deut. 7:6); “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d” (Deut. 14:21); “I the Lord who sanctify you” (Lev. 22:32); “The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d and walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9).
 Schwartz, B. J., Torat ha-Kedushah, Magnes Press, 1999, p. 259.
 Y. Knohl, Mikdash ha-Demamah, Magnes Press, 1993, p. 172, n. 44. Knohl notes the names of several Bible scholars who take this approach.
 For a discussion of the meanings of the root k-d-sh, see Schwarz, pp. 250-258.
 See E.E. Urbach, Hazal, Emunot ve-De’ot, pp. 322-324.
 Knohl, pp. 171-172; Schwartz, p. 262.
 Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, “Yemei Hashivah u-Kedushah,” in Divrei Hashkafah, pp. 140-141.
 Y. Leibowitz, Sheva Shanim Sihot al Parashat ha-Shavua, Parashat Kedoshim, Keter Press, 2001, pp. 523-524.
 A variety of actions can bring about holiness or consecration: blessing – “And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy” (Gen. 2:3); sprinkling – “and sprinkle upon Aaron and his vestments, … Thus shall he and his vestments be holy” (Ex. 29:21); anointing – “And anoint the laver … to consecrate it” (Ex. 40:11); setting bounds – “Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it” (Ex. 19:23); washing clothes – “stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes” (Ex. 19:10); abstaining from intimate relations – “do not go near a woman” (Ex. 19:15); safeguarding, observing – “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Deut. 5:12); touching – “Anything that touches these shall become holy” (Lev. 6:11); cleansing, purifying – “Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it” (Lev. 16:19); dedicating, consecrating – “I herewith consecrate the silver to the Lord” (Judges 17:3); praying – “And one would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy!” (Isa. 6:3); setting a time for special rituals – “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time” (Lev. 23:4); proclaiming liberty for the land and for people – “and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release [liberty] throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10), and other such actions.
 See Y. Leibowitz, above, note 2.
 Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik, “Yemei Teshuvah u-Kedushah, in Divrei Hashkafah, p. 140.
 Ibid., pp. 141-142.
 Following Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik, “Ishiyut Geluyah ve-Ishiyut Nisteret,” in Sod ha-Yahid ve-ha-Yahad, pp. 305-308.