The Amidah Kedusha
If the Amidah has a ‘high point’ then it is the section referred to as ‘the kedushah’ or ‘holiness’.
It is a responsive communal prayer. It is missed out in the silent version of the Amidah, and though there are varying customs on how it is said, it is always the case that the sh’liach tzibbur (service leader) says some parts and the community say some. It has unusual choreography. Not only must we be silent during it, but also immobile, except for bowing and a rather strange practice where we rise up on our toes. It has several versions, including different Ashkenazi and Sephardi versions, but all versions have text in common. In particular, the first line said by the community, which is a quote from a prophetic vision of God seen by the prophet Isaiah ‘Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tzevaot, m’lo kol-ha’aretz k’vodo’.
This verse is a remarkable text. It is usually translated ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts’ (meaning armies; usually assumed to mean armies of angels), ‘the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’ It is however, one of those occasions where translating the words misses out quite a lot. First, the concept of ‘kadosh’ has different associations from that of ‘holy’: it carries with it notions of separateness more than goodness. Some have argued that the passage really means ‘God is Other, Other, Other!’ Also, the word ‘kavod’ can mean ‘honour’, but God’s ‘kavod’ often means something closer to God’s ‘presence’.
If we read it with those meanings, the verse is capturing the essential paradox of religion: God is unknowable and unreachable; yet at the same time is present everywhere. It does not make sense, yet we proclaim it.
The text becomes even more radical if we look at the grammar carefully. The word ‘m’lo’ does indeed come from the root meaning ‘full’, but it is not really an adjective (‘the whole earth is full’) as that would be ‘maleh’. It is a noun – fullness, meaning everything – as in the well-known verse from Psalms ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. So what it is actually saying is that ‘the fullness of all the earth’, meaning everything that exists, ‘is God’s presence’. In other words, that physical existence itself is a manifestation of God.
This is not simply weird metaphysical speculation. It is making an important statement about how we approach our religion. Clearly, we reject the secular materialist idea that there is just the physical world and that is it. But we are also rejecting the proposition that there is a (bad) material world, and a (good) spiritual world, and that we need to detach ourselves from the material in order to get closer to the spiritual. That is not the Jewish way. Rather we seek, through rituals and through moral behaviour, to turn the material into a means of encountering the spiritual. That is what we affirm when we say the kedushah.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue and a founder of its Assif minyan.