The real goal of Jewish philosophy was to provide a rational foundation for the Torah. It happens that during the its heyday (10th to 13th centuries, largely in Spain) Aristotelian thought was the standard to judge all rational truth by, so it makes sense that Jewish philosophers used it as a barometer of truth. A few decades after the death of Maimonides in 1204, however, numerous European rabbis contested this very point. They refused to accept a foreign source as a guideline for understanding God’s Torah.
What emerged from this controversy was a milder form of philosophy that was tempered with a good deal of traditional rabbinic thought and smatterings of the ever-growing movement known as mysticism. It may seem strange that mysticism and rationalism could co-exist in one religious belief system, but such were the results of the times. One product of this synthesis was a fascinating work of uncertain authorship known as the Sefer Hahinuch, or Book of Education. Its aim was to explain the core purpose of every single mitzvah in the Torah in some sort of rational manner.
The Hinuch, as it is commonly known, followed a centuries-old practice of enumerating the commandments. Talmudic tradition stated that there were 613 commandments, 248 positive and 365 negative. In contrast to the historical content of the Torah, which was fixed to a specific time period, the commandments were timeless. The details of those commandments remained just as relevant as when they were actively being practiced. The study of the ‘who, what, when, where, and how’ of these commandments – became a noble substitute for actual performance.
The major innovation of the Hinuch was to provide the ‘why’ of the commandments – their underlying spiritual purpose. With very few exceptions, the author had almost nothing to base his explanations on. Only rarely did Scripture or the Talmud give any indication of any underlying purpose. In fact, the prevailing rabbinic view at the time was that there was no underlying purpose. There was simply the mitzvah and its details – any ‘rational’ explanation was seen as mere human justification for divinely ordained laws that needed no justification. While that outlook has remained popular to some degree, the Hinuch opened up the playing field for a whole new look at the purpose of the commandments and the goals of the Torah.
Commandment number 296 is the positive mitzvah of sanctification of God (more specifically: sanctification of God’s name). In the brief discussion of the purpose of this mitzvah the following is found: For man was only created to serve his Creator and one who does not give up his body for the service of his master is not a good servant. Since people give up their lives for their masters, certainly (they should do so) on the command of the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
A bit of background is necessary to understand the subject of sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem in Hebrew). First off, for those who aren’t aware of it yet, we have occasionally been using the common Hebrew name for God, Hashem, in the course of these essays. Strictly speaking, Hashem is not a name of God at all. It actually means ‘The Name’ – a kosher way of mentioning God without violating the rule of indiscriminately using the so-called ‘ineffable’ (unspeakable) real name of God. This real name is a four-letter Hebrew word that is traditionally understood as a combination of the Hebrew words for ‘was’, ‘is’, and ‘will be’. These three temporal states and the Hebrew words that describe them most simply, are the essence of the Jewish concept of God. God is timeless. God is eternal - always, everywhere and everything. God is being. This four-letter name expresses this idea better than any possible book or picture or speech. It cuts to the core of what God is, as best as can be done. The name is the essence.
So a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the name, really means a sanctification of God’s essence, God’s timelessness. Looked at in this way, it means that a person who actually accomplishes this lofty feat, has sanctified the timeless nature of God. One might ask, how can God’s timelessness possibly be sanctified any more than it is already? Furthermore, how can a creation that is locked in time, such as a person, possibly dream of sanctifying God’s timelessness? The answer perhaps, is that these rare and precious acts are also timeless. They lift the doer above the fog of time, above the rat race, above the looming dread of old age and death, above the continuous feeling of time passing right underneath our feet, into the realm of the ultimate. In spite of all our shortcomings and hang-ups, we can be the emissaries of God in bringing the sensation of timelessness into the world.
This is pretty heavy stuff. How does one go about finding one of these rare opportunities for timelessness? The Hinuch, in elaborating on the details of the mitzvah discusses only a single method – giving up one’s life to avoid violating one of the three cardinal principles of the Torah. These three principles are murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations. One must be willing to give up one’s life rather than commit one of these sins. Rising to the triumph of martyrdom rather than submitting to defeat of sin constitutes a Kiddush Hashem. Submission constitutes its opposite, a Hillul Hashem, a profanation of the name of God. In other words, one who passes up this opportunity for timelessness and elects to violate one of the cardinal prohibitions has profaned the name of God.
It’s not exactly a walk in the park. But the Hinuch, as we have seen in that quote earlier, emphasized that this is the reason that we were created – to serve God. The ultimate service to God is the willingness to give up one’s life for God, or for God’s laws. Looked at in that sense, it is still a stiff price to pay but the reward is fulfilling one’s essential purpose in creation. Nobody said Judaism was an easy religion, but it certainly provides a framework for finding ultimate purpose.
It is interesting that the alternative to Kiddush Hashem is not simply passing up on fulfilling one’s purpose in creation. It is Hillul Hashem - profanation of the name of God. This seems a bit unfair. It hardly seems right that one who blew a chance at sanctification should be considered worse than one who never had the opportunity to either sanctify or profane. Perhaps the answer to this puzzle lies in the ultimate nature of Kiddush Hashem. If one is presented with such an opportunity, the bar, for that person, has been raised. The stakes are now a quantum level higher and this person has encountered a moment of truth. Moments like these, according to this lofty ideal must be grasped with two hands and taken all the way. Refusing to reach for the moment is tantamount to slamming the door in God’s face.
Thankfully, this is not the only path to Kiddush Hashem. A much more prosaic method is also available to anybody who wishes to make use of it. While the Hinuch doesn’t mention it, Maimonides does, in his major work, the Mishna Torah. He says that anytime a person overcomes his or her natural urges and chooses to follow the spiritual and ethical path of God, that person has actually performed a Kiddush Hashem. These acts could be entirely private. They could happen in the realm of the mind, like overcoming negative thoughts or desires.
The classic examples of Kiddush Hashem behavior, however, are found in midst of society. They occur anytime a person has done some deed, however trivial or great it may be, that enables others to recognize God’s role in creation. One example of this found in the Jerusalem Talmud concerns a rabbi of the second temple era named Shimon ben Shetach. His students bought him a donkey from a gentile to enable him to make a living. They found valuable jewels hidden somewhere on the donkey. When Shimon declared that he would return the jewels, his students retorted that the law didn’t require him to do so. His reply was that he refused to behave in a manner that he considered to be uncivilized. Rather, he said, he wished for nothing other than to hear the name of the God of Israel being blessed. His action was a classic Kiddush Hashem, an act that inspires others, whether Jews or gentiles, to understand that the ultimate spiritual motivation for a godly deed is God. Inspiring such an understanding is the reason we are here.
The opportunities for doing a Kiddush Hashem are literally all around us. Hardly a day goes by without some possibility popping up. This doesn’t mean you have to go around looking for some way to give up your life for your religion. It’s much simpler and a heck of a lot less dangerous than that. For instance, consider the following scenario. You are on your way back from somewhere, riding the bus/train/whatever. You are seated comfortably but the compartment is filling up. A tired looking person gets on looking for a seat. Upon seeing none, the person just stands there, frustrated, and probably angry at just about everything. No one notices. Well, maybe they do notice, but no one makes a move. In a flash of mindless and timeless altruism, you stand up and gallantly offer the person your seat. The person takes up your offer and you stand holding on for dear life. Everyone looks at you with a mixture of sympathy, envy, and awe. You’ve done it. Whatever might be going on in the forefront of everybody’s mind, in some deep recess lurks the feeling that this fool did what they all should have done.
Whether they believe in God or not, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, or anything else, they cannot escape the conclusion that they have witnessed a random act of kindness. It touches a raw nerve, a nerve that may inspire them someday to emulate your feat. Your act, in a sense, has stopped time. Watches and clocks and computers keep ticking away, but in the spiritual realm a snapshot has been taken that will forever enshrine your act as one of God’s fondest memories. Other people sense this, even if they cannot verbalize it or admit it. It is the feeling of godliness in the world. It is timeless and precious. This act, as simple and as easy as it is, constitutes a genuine Kiddush Hashem. Opportunities await us everywhere, like beautiful red apples waiting to be picked.
Unfortunately, an equal or perhaps greater number of opportunities exist for doing a Hillul Hashem. There is no end to the chances that can reinforce the feeling that our own lives and the lives of those around us are devoid of godliness. Lousy manners, rudeness, cruelty, arrogance, lust, apathy, you name it, it’s out there ready to put another nail in God’s coffin. It’s probably not necessary to give an example of this phenomenon, being as we are all so intimately familiar with it.
But wouldn’t it be great if everyone made a daily exercise of doing one Kiddush Hashem - just one little deed, even something private, to make yours and a few other people days a little holier. That act will sanctify the few moments you spent being engaged in doing it. It is holy, timeless. It is your personal way of telling God that you want him/her/it in your life. Both opportunities are out there waiting for us, Kiddush and Hillul. Which do you prefer?
Food for Thought
We all have the spiritual ability to sense the triumph of a Kiddush Hashem and the letdown of a Hillul Hashem. Why, then, do we so often lose sight of this glaring difference and choose the latter over the former?
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