Rabbi Michael Graetz
There is another aspect of holiness that has become a most common phrase in Israeli parlance, and that is “kedushat ha-hayyim”, literally the holiness of life. While trying to pin down the usage of that phrase I came across it’s use in halakhic responsa, all in the 20th century. The usage in these responsa was so fascinating that I decided to send another specific essay on that subject.
The first usage is found in a teshuva of R. Yisrael Lau, the immediate past Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Lau writes a fascinating teshuva on the question of whether it is our duty to force a sick person to undergo treatment against his will. The case is of a man suffering from Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis. The treatment suggested is new, and it is very painful and with very uncertain effect. It cannot cure, but may help alleviate some of the patients symptoms. Against this, the patient does not want to suffer any more than he has until now. The bottom line is that Lau decides that there is no obligation to engage in non standard therapy whose main outcome would be to prolong suffering, and that when the time came the doctors could respect the patients request to refrain from any intervention. (Yahel Yisrael 62)
In reaching this decision Lau writes that he searched diligently for the right path to follow: “… a path that takes into account “kedushat ha-hayyim” and the prolonged suffering of the patient”. Our phrase is opposed here to suffering, and it is presumably the opposite of a life of suffering. In this context “kedushat ha-hayyim” is life which is sanctified by minimizing the suffering which a person undergoes while alive. It reminded me of that most disturbing and challenging case of the Jew who became a hangman at a death camp because he could not stand the poor way that the Nazi hangman did his job, leaving the victim to squirm and die a painful and prolonged death. This Jew volunteered and made sure that those condemned to die by hanging died immediately and with little pain. This case too has been discussed under the rubric of “kedushat ha-hayyim”.
The second usage is in a responsa of the Chief Rabbinate courts in regards to the burial of a suicide in the main part of a cemetery. This teshuva quotes the long and beautiful comment of Pithei Teshuva on YD 345 (seif katan bet), by which it is assumed that no person could fulfill the halakhic requirements of suicide because one of the requirements is that a person be totally clear and committed to killing themselves until the very end of their life. The assumption is that somewhere a person must feel some regret before their life gives out, and thus, the requirement cannot be fulfilled. In this teshuva the Bet Din writes that their decision, to allow burial and full mourning etc., is based upon two inherent qualities in humans: a natural desire to live and “kedushat ha-hayyim”. Here too our concept of “kedushat ha-hayyim” is found in contrast with another concept, namely the assumed desire to live. It seems that the point is that even if the will to live dies out, no Jew ever completely gives up their commitment to the notion of “kedushat ha-hayyim”. Every Jew has reverence for life as something holy, something which must be protected and not frittered away. So, the assumption is that even if the will to live is gone and a person starts to take their own life, at some point before they die they regret their action because of a deeply ingrained commitment to the value of “kedushat ha-hayyim”. (Piskei Din Rabaniim Part I, p. 464)
The final usage is from a teshuva of R. Ouziel, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi during the first days of the State of Israel (elected in 1939). Ouziel writes about the practice of deciding halakha on the basis of rationales given in the tradition for a given ruling. While it is possible to change a halakha on the basis of it’s rationale, still Ouziel cautions that too often the rationales given are “tiny and insignificant and they darken glory of the Torah and turn Torah into a mere book of human or veterinary medicine and thus diminish its holiness.” (Mishpetei Ouziel vol. II YD 23)
The Torah and the Mitzvot are meant to help humans achieve holiness, and all of the commandments are included in the verse “you shall be holy” (Lev. 19, 2). God sanctifies Israel at Sinai, as the text of the blessings testifies: “asher kidshanu be-mitzvotav”, He who has sanctified us through the commandments”. Yet, Ouziel writes, this sanctification must be EARNED by avoiding actions which diminish holiness, and by living by the mitzvoth. The life of a Jew should be a life lived in an effort to make each relationship and each action holy, each action needs to embody concern for the welfare of the other and awareness of God in our lives. This, Ouziel calls “kedushat ha-hayyim”. The term stands for a process of making our personal lives kadosh by means of Torah and Mitzvot. When the ethical, spiritual and transcendental are manifested in our lives, then we can say that we have achieved “kedushat ha-hayyim”.
My friend and teacher Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman sent me a bibliographical note:
An article about the holocaust by Shalom Rosenberg, whose translation I just completed, contains the following note: