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The Jewish Ethicist: Asceticism

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

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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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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