Thanks to everyone for their comments, e-mails, and IM’s about the “nice guy” post. Please feel free to continue sending in feedback. I’ll do a follow up sometime in the next week and a half or so.
Also, many thanks to Potter for telling me about ieSpell – a free spell checker for IE text boxes. Highly recommended – especially for bloggers.
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.
First off, it’s interesting to note that the story of Hillel is brougfht to inspire the laity in context. The Gemara there in Yoma tells a person that he has no excuse for not learning Torah, whether he is rich, poor or prone to desire. By holding up the examples of Rabbi Eliezer, Hillel and Yosef (who himself defeated his desire by thinking about his father), the Talmud seems to reccomend garnering strength from the extraordinary (if not ascetic) practices of our great leaders. However, one can not discuss “sacrifice for the masses” without wondering about the Sabbatean or even Christian leanings of your professor and I think you should be extra cautious when evaluating his thesis because of the potential polemics he may be trying to put over on you.
That said, looking at calssical sources may not help you much but certainly the idea of asceticism plays a much bigger role among Hassidic Rabbis. There are many stories about Hassidic Rebbes entering heaven or confronting 5the Satan in order to prevent some calamity from befalling the community (usually an exhorbitant tax, a pogrom or a forced conscription). As well, in Hassidic literature there is an obsession with the 36 Tzadikkim, who through extreme piety secretly save the jews and the world, while themselves leading a life of suffering (kinda like spiderman).
*chuckle* I, um, know that professor slightly — and trying to imagine him as a Sabbatean has given me a good belly laugh. (But, trust me, no. Nor a proselytizing Christian — in fact, I couldn’t tell you offhand his religious affiliation, which seems perfectly reasonable given that I’ve always encountered him in an academic context.)
Still, it never hurts to pay attention to the primary traditions or topics people study, because those are the ones which tend to shape their more general theories about religion. If I may generalize, Martin’s work has revolved around rereading Weber and interpreting the turn to fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. And Weber didn’t know rabbinic Judaism too terribly well — I’m thinking here of an essay in The Sociology of Religion (yes, I read Weber in translation; I’m a weenie) on socioeconomics in Judaism and Christianity which claims not only that Judaism is completely un-ascetic and Christianity derived every bit of its asceticism from Hellenistic roots (yeah, right) but also that rabbinic Judaism doesn’t regulate commerce with non-Jews.
I feel certain that Martin is much more conversant with recent scholarship on rabbinic Judaism than Max Weber ever was, but I also suspect that you have an opportunity to poke some holes in his theories if you so choose. From what you tell me, I’m a little dubious about whether the talmid chacham/am ha-aretz distinction you find in certain currents of rabbinic Judaism really maps smoothly onto the (just as historically variable) clerical/lay splits in Christianity and Islam and the virtuoso/populace language you seem to be adopting as all-inclusive categories.
Anyway, tell us how it went. :)
The presentation was postponed to Friday.
He doesn’t seem to do much by way of Judaism, but then again neither did lots of other people. Look at Eliade` – he quotes Old Testament material pretty well, but uses secondary German sources for his Talmud. Part of the “master plan” is to contribute something to this overlooked area. We’ll see if/how I can pull it off.
how about TB berachos 5a, or so, accepting issurim beahava, and issurim shel ahavah in general – are these not ascetic and stuff…
how wide and general an ascetism? does anything stoic count. How about Job? Many sages saw themselves as Jobs. Job is Job.
Backwards — Accepting one’s fate is not the same as willingly making your life more difficult. The issurim shel ahava and Job bother more deal with how one deals with tragedy or the unexplainable. Asceticism would be intentionally putting yourself in that position.
But how about stoicism? Let’s take a poor talmid chacham; and someone offers him a share in a business; let’s say he rejects the offer with the words “My life is Gan Eden the way it is. Poverty is Gan Eden.” To call such a talmid chochom a stoic and an ascetic is fair, no? So stoicism and ascetism intersect on the venn diagram of rabbinic judaism… ;)
Chassidim are about Simcha, Happiness, Dancing THROUGH the pain that we have ANYWAY in our lives… not being obsessed IN “suffering’… you got it wrong!