Originally published in The Jewish Spectator, Winter 1990.
A member of my congregation took issue with me for using the term saints in reference to Jewish righteous personalities. In the opinion of my critic, the term was Christian and ought not to be used in a Jewish context. Judaism certainly knows of holy persons. Hebrew terms vary (hasid, tzadik, kodesh). The word saint is a reasonable English rendering. Decades before, Louis Ginzberg had published a book, Students, Scholars and Saints. He found the term apt.
Unlike saints in Christianity, there is no formal process of beatification or canonization, but rather recognition of saintliness through popular acclaim. Biblical heroes are certainly regarded in that vein, as are the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud. After the classical period, others, by virtue of scholarship, piety, martyrdom, or charismatic personality, have been accorded such status by “catholic Israel” (a term coined by Solomon Schecter, which would probably make my lay critic cringe even more).
The saint, according to Louis Jacobs (Holy Living: Saints and Saintliness in Judaism by Louis Jacobs, Jason Aronson, 176 pp., May 1990) is by definition a person given to extremes. Perhaps that is why there is not a single mention of any personality associated with a modern non-Orthodox movement. As the heterodox movements arise out of a need to come to terms with modernity, they are not given to extremes of piety. Still, Jacobs, himself a Conservative Rabbi and Professor of Talmud at the liberal Leo Baeck College in London, seems very much the yeshiva bocher of his youth in this book. A quarter century ago, Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox establishment was rocked by the “Jacobs affair,” at which time Jacobs championed the legitimacy of modern critical scholarship in application to the sacred texts of Judaism. For Jacobs, Judaism was not revealed full blown at Sinai, but is a product of a complex historical development.
But if Conservative and Reform Jews are not given to extremes, then why no mention of Jewish saints from Jewish “heresies” such as the Karaites? This group had pietists aplenty. Jacobs writes that Judaism knows nothing of monasticism, as such. But what about the Qumran community? The very idea of Christian monasticism may very well derive from their model. In spite of Jacobs own very considerable contributions to the positive historical approach, he seems to accept the notion that there is a normative ‘official’ Judaism, and, in effect, puts himself and his own school outside of it!
Jacobs concludes this excellent study by writing that he has “given lie to the absurd suggestion that Judaism is too matter-of-fact to have room in its theology for Heaven-stormers who count the world well lost in their attempt to come closer to God.” He effectively refutes the neo-Kantian “Judaism: the religion of reason” legacy still held in some circles. Jewish saints are usually scholars, but there were personalities who were given to mortification of the flesh in a manner usually associated with some trends in Christian pietism.
There is a total absence of women in this book. Women saints do exist in Judaism, but usually as rather masochist sorts, sacrificing themselves so that their scholar-husbands can study. There are a few exceptions to this rule. They would be worth of study.
Although the book mentions some figures who died as recently as the 1960s, Jacobs finished his study by giving expression to “the hope that the tale I have told will be a little more than an investigation into personalities and events belonging solely to the past.” Perhaps there will be saints in the future, but one must be cautious of cults of personality, so open to abuse. Certainly a bit of skepticism is in order; dead saints are safer to deal with than live charlatans. Perhaps we will still be able to find a bit of saintliness in the personalities of the “menchen,” the ordinary good people who abound.
Rabbi Cohen is spiritual leader of Beth Shalom of Howard County, Maryland.