Types of Jewish Holy People: An Historical Phenomenological Overview

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein
the Elijah Interfaith Institute

This lecture provides an introduction to the place of the holy person in Judaism. The lecture explores the topic linguistically, historically, as well as phenomenologically.

It begins with a discussion of the Biblical terminology used for saints, the two terms tzadik and hasid. The tzadik and hasid achieve this stature based primarily on their adherence to an objective, quantifiable, standard of behavior, whether codified in the covenant (Torah), or outside the covenantal relationship. This behavior is concerned both with the relationship to God, and to one’s fellowman. It is democratic, not limited to a chosen few, nor is it a hereditary privilege. Thus, this concept of saintliness constitutes an open invitation to all humanity to follow a saintly way of living. On the other hand, there are in the Bible religious virtuosi who have a special relationship to God that goes beyond what everyone is called to. There are three such types in the Bible; the priest, prophet, and king. Following the destruction of the Temple, when these roles ceased to exist, they were replaced by the dichotomy of the sage and the holy man. The sage is the master of the Torah, the wisdom of God, but is not characterized by any special relationship to God outside of his knowledge of the Torah. The holy man, on the other hand, is characterized entirely by this special relationship to God, and is known by the power of his prayer and even by his ability to perform miracles. In the Talmud we find a tension between these two models. This tension has continued to exist throughout Jewish history, and can still be found in our own time.

During the remainder of the session, Alon summarizes a eulogy he had heard the previous night in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim for the rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, on the occasion of the first anniversary of his passing. The eulogy was given by the rebbe’s son and successor, Rabbi Shmuel Barzovsky. Alon illustrates how the eulogy was an encapsulation, in one speech, of the entire Hassidic teaching of the meaning of the tzaddik (holy man), in both its devotional and theological aspects. It is important that the eulogy was not just a straight speech. It took on a literary form, combining the reflection on the figure of the departed tzaddik, interspersed with interpretations of Biblical texts, and prayer.