Saints in Judaism


The Jewish saint or tsaddik need not perform miracles, nor is a saint formally canonized. Tsaddik can describe one whose conduct is morally and spiritually superior. The very first tsaddik in the Bible is Noah, who stands out as a virtuous paragon in a world rife with immorality. Males exemplify Jewish sainthood because, until the late modern period, women’s saintliness was measured in terms of how much they contributed to the development of husbands and sons into saints.

Originally, the tsaddik demanded emulation, not veneration. Etymologically rooted in justice, tsaddik bears a legal status of innocence, so the first biblical appeal to divine justice invokes the clear distinction between the guilty and innocent (Genesis 18:23-25). In Genesis, indiscriminate suffering that does not distinguish the tsaddik from his guilty compatriots profanes God’s judicial integrity. The tsaddik is one who is judicially vindicated (Deuteronomy 25:1), and therefore a living embodiment of justice. People can point to him as evidence that the rule of law is operative in their society.

The Jewish term for charity, tsedakah, derives from the same root as tsaddik, because it corrects an imbalanced society. Among the biblical heroes, Joseph is singled out by the rabbis as the tsaddik for his Herculean self- restraint in the face of sexual temptation from his master’s wife. Saintliness in this act of self-denial lies in its moral implications. Joseph refuses, not out of chasteness, but out of ethical obligation to his master, who invested utmost confidence in him (Genesis 39:9). Joseph is the quintessential Jewish saint because he sacrificed his ego to preserve a sacred trust with another human being. His final role as provider for his starving family is but the logical culmination of that act of self-abnegation.

The archetype of all saints is God Himself the supreme tsaddik, whose sainthood is measured by an impeccable administration of justice: “All His ways are just, a faithful God, tsaddik (saintly) and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The Jewish rationalists extended this meaning to the human character trait of granting everything its proper due. For them, the tsaddik lives in perfect equilibrium— cultivating a measured existence, not given to extremes, along the path of imitatio Dei.

Of the sages who constitute the rabbinic chain of transmission initiated at Sinai, the one known as the tsaddik—Simeon the Tsaddik, third century BCE—is notable for eschewing the Nazirite vows. The Nazirite’s self-imposed restrictions deny experiences that God has allowed, and therefore upset the balance that the tsaddik enjoys.

As with all other Jewish concepts, the saintly paragon can assume different guises in different periods. “The tsaddik is the world’s foundation” (Proverbs10:25) is the verse that looms large in the evolution of the tsaddik as understood by Judaism. The tsaddik’s responsibility to the world may be as simple as being fifty-one percent virtuous. The world is sustainable only when there is more virtue than vice and so a single tsaddik’s moral choices can tip the planet’s balance from chaos to survival.

Some Talmudic traditions see the contest between God’s will and the tsaddik’s, resolved in favor of the tsaddik. In response to the golden calf, God commands Moses to Let me be. (Exodus 32:10) so that he can destroy the people, because He can only do so if He is released from Moses’ grasp. Moses, as the tsaddik, overpowers God Himself to preserve humanity.

This notion of the tsaddik winds its way through the kabbalistic tradition to reach its zenith in the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth century. There, the tsaddik is the link between the physical and spiritual worlds who channels divine vitality down to his followers. Imitatio Dei transforms itself into imitatio tsad-dik as the primary religious mandate of this movement. The Hasidic tsaddik is the earthly mirror of the tsaddik within the Godhead itself —the divine phallus that unites its male and female dimensions, seeking cosmic harmony. Whether as learned sage or as axis mundi, the saint emerged to take the place of the ruined Temple when Judaism’s sacred center shifted from space to person.

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