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Home » K'doshim, Questions of Ethics

Kedoshim: Is Asceticism Jewish?

Submitted by on April 27, 2011 – 9:06 pmNo Comment | 1,491 views

The Contradiction

The great mystic Rabbi Yehudah Lowe, otherwise known as the Maharal, once explained that Matzah, the impoverished bread, comprised of merely flour and water, is a symbol of freedom because those who are truly free are unencumbered. Ordinary bread is slaved to sugar and yeast for flavor and texture. Matzah stands on its own; glorified in its unencumbered freedom. (1)

This argument appears to endorse asceticism. The ascetic eschews material pleasures and luxury because they corrode spiritual purity. They encumber us with, concerns, responsibilities and ultimately proclivities that pollute the mind and sully our wholesome attachment to G-d.

Yet this contention is belied by the promise G-d made to Abraham and delivered through Moses that our ancestors would be freed from Egypt with great wealth. If chaste austerity is the symbol of freedom, why did G-d muddy their crystal purity with the burdens of prosperity?is Asceticsm jewish innerstream

A similar question presents itself in this week’s Torah reading. The reading begins with an exhortation to strive for holiness as G-d is holy. (2) Kedusha, Hebrew for holiness, means dedication, usually defined as a single minded focus on one goal to the exclusion of all else. (3) Thus, an exhortation to holiness appears on the surface as a mandate to reject material absorption in favor of G-dly pursuits.

Yet, when the Torah elaborates on the dedication required it speaks of honoring parents, being charitable and honest, guarding against gossip and slander, hatred and revenge, idolatry and paganism. These values imply a material life style, not an ascetic, puritanical one. The ascetic is detached from society and has little opportunity to gossip, hate or be dishonest.

So which does G-d demand from us? Which is the truly Jewish way of life? Is asceticism Jewish or not?

The Sparks

In a fascinating insight the saintly Baal Shem Tov explained that both are true Jewish values. Eschewing the material for the spiritual is precisely what G-d desires, but G-d also wants us to embrace the world into which we were born including its material pursuits. (4) How can both be true?

To resolve this contradiction the Baal Shem Tov introduces the idea of Divine sparks. Jewish mystics taught that every physical object is endowed with mystical sparks cast from the original flame that is the Divine. These sparks are deeply embedded within our possessions such as the shoes we wear, the food we eat, the homes in which we live and the items with which we do business.

These sparks are trapped inside the physical until a human comes along and serves G-d with the object. When we use money earned in business for Divine purpose the mystical sparks in our place of business, in the items with which we conducted business and the people with whom we conducted business are released from their imprisonment and return to their original abode within the Divine. Every physical object is intended to serve G-d in one way or another and when it does it has fulfilled its purpose.

The Mystical Secret of Ownership

However there is a double catch. Firstly, any one object can carry multiple sparks. This means that a single object can be destined to be used in the service of G-d multiple times. Each time it is thusly used, a single spark is released. There are other sparks that remain embedded within it waiting till it is used again in G-d’s service so they too could be released.

The second catch deals with the assignment of sparks. Multiple sparks in a single object can be assigned to multiple individuals. The home in which I live has a number of sparks in it that were assigned to me, a number of sparks that were assigned to its previous occupant and a number of sparks that were assigned to whoever will live here after I move out.

Herein lays the Baal Shem Tov’s insight. The physical items and properties that belong to me were assigned to me before the world was created, but they only came into my possession when its previous owners successfully released the sparks that were assigned to them. Further, they will only remain in my possession till I release the sparks assigned to me. When I complete my assignment I will be led by Divine Providence to sell them to the people, who have been assigned the next set of sparks. (5)

The Paradox of Mine and G-d’s

With this we understand why Judaism cannot endorse the ascetic life style. We can no more eschew the comforts to which Divine providence led us than we can reject the primordial mandate assigned to us. These sparks belong to us and we belong to them. It is like a marriage destined from above. We should not reject the task to which we have been assigned and destined.

On the other hand, the Maharal is also correct. True freedom does entail freedom from all burdens.  We are not truly free so long as we are encumbered by a plethora of possessions, holdings, desires and responsibilities.

The trick then lies in recalling that these possessions are not ours, but G-d’s. They were assigned to us for the duration so that we can fulfill our mandate through them.  They came to our possession precisely when they were meant to arrive and they will leave our possession precisely when the time is right. Our possessions are not ours to obsess over; they are ours to keep safe for G-d. They are not ours to own; they were given to us for guardianship. They are not ours to fill us with pride, but to render us servants of the Divine.

This attitude can lead to true freedom; it endows us with a clarity that allows us to remain unencumbered by the multitude of things in our possession. Our lives can be simple and adorned, comfortable and sparse, enjoyable and dedicated.

So is asceticism is Jewish? The typical Jewish answer is yes and no. It is a paradox; but so is all of Judaism.

Footnotes

  1. Maharal’s commentary to the first passage of the Haggadah – “Hei Lachme Anya.”
  2. Leviticus 19: 1.
  3. Ohr Hatorah page 101 section 413.
  4. This
    is the basis of the Talmudic dictum one does not touch that which was
    destined for another. There is no need to be concerned with loss of
    income or property since what we are destined to hold will come to us
    regardless of another’s attempt to keep or take it from us. On the other
    hand, if we do in fact lose it, we know it was destined for it to move
    to another’s possession so to release the sparks assigned to them. This
    also underscores the terrible crime of theft. A thief deprives the
    victim because he will be unable to fulfil his mandate and the stolen
    item because its sparks will not be released. The thief will not be able
    to release the sparks of the stolen item because those sparks were not
    destined to the thief.

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