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Reform Magazine | May 23, 2024

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A good question: What is holiness? - Reform Magazine

A good question: What is holiness?

One question, four answers

‘It is deeply inclusive’

God’s holiness is part of God’s extraordinariness, the breathtaking majesty and beauty of God. Holiness might make you think of Moses taking off his sandals on the holy ground by the burning bush in his encounter with God, or of Isaiah in the temple hearing the Seraphim declaring God’s holiness. Or holiness might make you feel uncomfortable, a reminder of our unworthiness, our unholiness.

The call to be holy might be associated not with something loving or beautiful, but with a judgement or an impossible demand. We cannot possibly live up to God’s incomparable holiness, as Hannah sings in 1 Samuel: ‘There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you.’ How, then, can we make sense of a calling to holiness as individuals and churches?

In the Bible, there are holy times, holy places, holy things, and holy people. These things are all holy because God has declared them so, or because God has come into contact with them and they have been set apart for a particular reason. God made the Sabbath day holy, and Israel is called to keep it holy by remembering the Sabbath, as a sign of the covenant between them. Jerusalem, and the temple in particular, is referred to in the Psalms as God’s ‘holy hill’, because it is the place above all where Israel experienced and expected to encounter God’s presence….

Alison Gray is Tutor in Old Testament Language, Literature and Theology at Westminster College, Cambridge


‘Holiness is what Christianity is all about’

The primary definition of holiness is living in communication with God and others. Holiness comes from God alone, so people and creation can only be holy if they are related to God. The Old Testament book of Leviticus gives us a framework for holiness according to the statutes of God – an explanation of what is required of people in order to please the Lord God Almighty. Leviticus 17-26 gives us the theme of holiness as per God’s requirement. According to the Old Testament stories, holiness is about morality and living well with ‘others’. When there is moral bankruptcy, the consequences are calamitous and even punishable by death.

God wanted the Israelites to live a holy life and to be in communion with him all the time. Holiness was embedded in the whole fabric of societal life – a way of life, lived every day, that reflected the goodness of God. As Leviticus 19 puts it: ‘You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.’ This was God’s call to Israel and the sojourners to live together within the holiness and harmony of God’s creation in their distinctiveness and diversity…

Naison Hove is the Minister of Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Worthing; St Andrew’s URC, Rustington; and Littlehampton United Church, West Sussex

‘Action that ties us to the Divine’

Most Jewish blessings fall into one of two categories: something God does or something we do. The blessing over bread? God brings forth bread from the earth. Fruit and vegetables? God creates the fruits of the vine and the earth. However, when we participate actively in the ritual, the blessing expands. The blessing for lighting the Sabbath candles? God makes us holy through God’s commandments, commanding us to light the Sabbath candles. For ritual washing of hands? God makes us holy through God’s commandments, commanding us concerning handwashing.

Holiness in Judaism is action that ties us to the Divine. The blessings above make that clear: asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, (‘we are made holy through God’s commandments’). When we engage in divine commandments, we are sanctified: from rituals like hand-washing, candle-lighting, and donning prayer shawls and phylacteries, to intellectual matters like studying Torah and reading the book of Esther. I imagine that if you were to ask a practising Jew when they feel most ‘holy,’ they may mention these moments.

Sarah Grabiner is Cantor at Radlett Reform Synagogue in Hertfordshire


‘It is achievable, but not easy’

As Muslims, we are told that the Qur’an calls God Al Quddus. It is one of the 99 names of God, and the basic meaning is: ‘absolutely pure, perfect and blessed’.

At a practical level, when the word ‘holiness’ is mentioned, I think about someone who is holy, a godly person. But then I ponder over this term from a very Christian perspective, thinking of the Pope, for example. You may think: What a strange thing for a Muslim woman to say! However, the word ‘holiness’ is not something that I have thought much about, except in terms of conversations with my Christian friends.

For me, holiness can also describe a place, one made holy, where God is worshipped, such as a masjid/mosque where congregational and individual prayers take place. Or the place on the mountain where God spoke directly to Prophet Moses and the ground was made holy. It is said that God tells Prophet Moses to take off his footwear as he is on ‘holy ground’…

Anjum Anwar is a teacher and was formerly Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral


This is an extract from an article published in the September 2021 edition of Reform

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