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The Jewish Ethicist: Asceticism

The Jewish Ethicist: Asceticism

When exactly is deprivation praiseworthy?


Q. Many extremely righteous individuals lived simple, even deprived, lifestyles. Should we follow their example?

A. We wrote in a previous column that Judaism doesn't encourage asceticism. Yet we wrote in the same column about Rabbi Eliezer ben Charsom, who is praised in our tradition for the life of deprivation that he chose. And we can find many other examples of individuals who were praised for their ascetic habits. For instance, the Talmud states that in the time of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa the entire world was nourished through his merit, yet he himself subsisted the entire week on a small measure of breadfruit. (1)

We can reconcile this paradox on two complementary levels. When exactly is deprivation praiseworthy?

The simple answer is that every individual is happiest when he enjoys worldly pleasures in moderation. For each of us excessive consumption turns at some level into a cloying surfeit. However, this level differs from person to person. One individual may feel deprived if he doesn't have meat each day; another person may feel disgusted at the thought of meat if he eats it more than once a week. Even an unusual degree of moderation may be worthy in an individual who has little interest and appetite for material delights; conversely, for someone who will feel deprived, excessive deprivation will harm his joy in God's service.

But this answer is only partial. It doesn't explain why these ascetic individuals were considered especially righteous, or why our tradition encourages each of us to tame his appetites to a reasonable extent.

The deeper answer is that true enjoyment and appreciation of the wonders of this world is possible only when we have a profound awareness of the spiritual source of these wonders. Our enjoyment is complete only when we are conscious that they are a Divine blessing. "You open Your hand and satisfy the wants of all the living" (Psalms 145:16); our wants are truly satisfied only when we recognize that they come from the hand of God. In effect, a channel needs to be opened connecting the seemingly disparate worlds of material and spiritual. Such a channel is created by a specially holy person.

In most cases, initiating a connection to holiness can only be done through a process of partial withdrawal from this world. We see this in the example of Moses, who brought the Torah to our world only after a period of 40 days without any food or drink. Once a person reaches the state where he or she can withdraw from the world and enter a world of spirituality, then he or she can serve as a conduit to infuse our everyday experience with sanctity and elevation.

This explains the Talmudic statement about Chanina ben Dosa. Because he lived a life of withdrawal, subsisting on a measure of breadfruit, the rest of the world merited plentiful sustenance with a vital connection to its Divine source.

According to both explanations, asceticism and withdrawal are the path for the few, not the many. Most people feel deprived, not enlivened, by excessive privation. And the privation required to create a conduit to holiness is not an end in itself; ultimately, it is meant to enhance our worldly enjoyments by infusing them with inner life, not to diminish them. Just as some individuals must serve as channels for this flow, others must serve as recipients.

For most people, happiness is achieved through the golden mean, through a level of material enjoyment that is ample enough to be satisfying yet not excessive and cloying. Too much deprivation means a diminishment of our enjoyment of the wonders of creation. However, there are a few people in each generation who find that it is precisely measured withdrawal from worldly pleasures that satisfies and exhilarates them. For these individuals, asceticism is indeed appropriate and righteous. Their withdrawal from this world is just the corollary of their entry into a world of blessing and spirit.

A well-known Hasidic story tells of a man who suffered greatly, and went to his teacher to learn how to bear his privations. His teacher told him to relate his sorrows to Rabbi Zusha of Annapoli, one of the great early Hasidic masters who lived a life of extreme poverty. When the man approached Rabbi Zusha, he explained that he was consulting him because he, Rav Zusha, had learned how to live joyfully despite tribulations. Rav Zusha was astonished. He told the man, "I don't know why they sent you to me. There must be some mistake -- I've been fortunate never to have suffered deprivation!" A person like Rav Zusha, who can live a life with few material comforts yet feel that he is not suffering in any way, can serve God best through such a lifestyle, but most people will reach their highest level of devotion through the golden mean.


(1) Berakhot 17b.

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February 14, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) al puglisi, February 18, 2004 12:00 AM


It was always my understanding that material goods are acceptable and that engaging in material pleasure is acceptable until they become the reason for our lives and not just part of them, until they become a wall that separates us from the divine, from the spiritual, and from other people. The crime is not in enjoying material pleasure, but in becoming enslaved to it.

(5) Audrey Fishel, February 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Golden Mean is subjective in today's affluence

In todays society of limitless materialism, if anything, we have gone overboard and need to actively limit our involvement in physicality and strengthen our spirituality. The 'Golden Mean' is very subjective. The rule should be: if it will take away from my ability to feel and relate to Hashem, my awareness and concern for the needs of others, or my ability to grow in my character, it should be avoided. There are ever higher levels of pleasure waiting for us to enjoy if we stop wallowing in the lower ones.

(4) Denise Rootenberg, February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

This is an excellent article

I knew that Judaism doesn't encourage excessive asceticism but was wondering about e.g. Rabbi Zusha. I know a rabbi who totally trusts Hashem to provide for him and he is so inspiring. He wastes no time wondering how he will pay that month's bills.

(3) Bill Kurry, February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

All or nothing

How sad it is that many of us don't have the patience to increase our spiritual awarness of Ha Shem in our everyday lives. We seem to want spirituality all at once or not at all.

Bill Kurry

(2) raye, February 15, 2004 12:00 AM

To be, or not to be deprived

The timing of this article is just perfect for me. I am just about ready to reject opportunities of a material nature that place a burden on my "aestheticism". This may or may not be a trait inherited from childhood.
The article by Rabbi Meir is helping me rethink and to react with an 'in moderation' attitude. Ironically, I am always advising people "You don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

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