Theorizing Asceticism In Rabbinic Literature

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Tomorrow I should be giving my presentation in the Theorizing Religion class on asceticism in rabbinic literature. The professor is writing a book and is using the class for feedback. I have an assignment to critique his thesis in general, and I’ll post that when it’s ready. In the meantime, I will focus on the current topic of discussion of Virtuosi Practices: Asceticism.

Dr. Riesebrodt views ascetic practices as the accepting of crisis upon oneself for the purposes of alleviating the crises of the laity. Meaning, when the virtuosi accepts the crisis on himself, the masses will reevaluate and devalue their own personal crises. This acceptance of crisis – or what would normally be considered crisis by the laity – may lead to an empowerment of some kind to perform some miraculous acts and to gain eternal life.1

I did not find sources in Rabbinic Literature which corresponded completely with the thesis. Most ascetic practices would either have a different purpose, and those actions which served the purpose are not typically “ascetic.” Fasting, would be a classic example of an ascetic practice. However, the virtuosi do these acts not for the masses to look upon their suffering and feel better about themselves but for repentance. R. Zadok fasted over 40 years so that the Temple would not be destroyed (B. Gittin 56a). Certain “individuals” fast during a period of drought, but if the drought continues this obligation extends to the community.(M. Taanit 1:4-5)2

There are instances of Rabbis going to extreme lengths to do mitzvot – especially facing financial hardship. When Hillel couldn’t afford the admission to the study hall, he climbed to the roof and was buried by snow.(B. Yoma 35b) This is certainly not a typical ascetic practice, but it does put the individuals’ daily struggles in perspective. Considering what Hillel did, it’s not so unreasonable for the masses to fit in some learning during the day.

These however are exceptional cases; normative Rabbinic law eschews personal asceticism.3 Shmuel calls someone who fasts (presumably optionally) a “sinner” and Reish Lakish says that a Sage is not allowed to fast because it will interfere with his “real” obligations.(B. Taanit 11a, 11b). Another formalized ascetic practice would be the Nazir who may not drink wine or get a haircut. The Talmud explains that even R. Elazer, who stresses that the Nazir is “sacred,” would only do so when there is no personal suffering.(ibid)4 Even in the event of drought, one should not necessarily resort to virtuosi practices. R. Shimon Ben Shetach nearly excommunicated Honi for his famed prayer in the circle.(M. Taanit 3:8)5

Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis, as presented here, partially works for Rabbinic Judaism or at least from the sources I have seen.6 The definition of “crisis prevention” should be expanded to include vicarious suffering or repentance on behalf of the masses. Other Rabbis held themselves to a higher standard of observance, but I would not classify those actions as “ascetic.” I don’t know of any explicit sources which describe individuals accepting ascetic practices for the purpose of alleviating the crisis of the masses. If anyone knows of something I might have missed, please let me know. (Just try to understand I’m trying to keep this short and I can’t cite every possible source).

For further reading on asceticism in Rabbinic Literature, see Sara Epstein Weinstein’s Piety and Fanaticism. For general stringencies, see the “Humra” mekorot (parts 1 and 2) and the section on Rabbinic and Communal Leadership from my mahshevet hazal shiurim.

1. Condensed version of the thesis. I will elaborate more in the overall review.
2. And even the “individuals” may be more inclusive. See B. Taanit 10b
3. M. Avot 6:4 does prescribe to live a life of privation. However, the 6th chapter of Avot is not Tannaitic. This statement does appear in later midrashic sources, but not anywhere in either the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmud. There is no indication that wealthy rabbis like R. Chisda gave away all their money to follow this “mishna.”
4. R. Elazer HaKappar in the name of Rabbi emphasizes that the Nazir is a “sinner.” This dispute is commonly assumed to be between Rambam and Ramban with Rambam taking the position of Elazar HaKappar. Ramban only partially follows R. Elazer. See Ramban on B’Midbar 6:14.
5. He didn’t because he couldn’t argue with the results. The result is that it should by no means be considered to be a normative or accepted practice.
6. Technically, it works a little better than as presented here, but I don’t have time to explain the intricacies of the thesis.


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