Man as Body and Soul
Chapter 3, Law 1
"Perhaps a person will say, 'Since lust, honor and the like are a bad way
which remove a person from the world I will separate from them exceedingly
and distance myself to the opposite extreme.' [And he will pursue this] so
much so that he will not eat meat, drink wine, marry a woman, live in a
nice dwelling, wear and nice clothes. Rather, [he will wear] sackcloth and
rough wool and the like as do the Edomite clerics ('komrei Edom'). This
too is a bad way, and it is forbidden to follow in it.
"One who follows this path is considered a sinner. Behold, regarding the
Nazir (who takes upon himself vows of separation -- not to consume grape
products, become impure, or cut his hair -- see Numbers 6) [Scripture]
states, 'And he [the Priest] will grant him atonement for that which he
has sinned against a soul' (v. 11) (implying denying himself the pleasures
of the vine was a form of sinning against himself). The Sages [further]
said, 'If the Nazir who only separated from wine requires atonement, one
who denies all things from himself [through fasting] all the more so'
(Talmud Ta'anis 11a).
"Therefore the Sages commanded that a person not deny himself other than
that which the Torah denies him. Nor should he forbid permissible things
by way of oaths. So did the Sages say: 'It isn't enough that which the
Torah forbade that you want to forbid upon yourself other things?!"
(Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:1). Likewise, people who fast constantly are
not following the proper path. The Sages forbade a person from afflicting
himself through fasting. Regarding all such matters King Solomon
commanded: 'Do not be overly righteous, and do not be too smart. Why
should you become desolate?' (Ecclesiastes 7:16)."
The overall theme of the Rambam thus far has been the importance of
following the middle path in life. At the end of the second chapter, he
singled out lust and honor (among other traits) as ones particularly
antithetical to spiritual living.
This week the Rambam offers an important counterpoint to his earlier
theme. We must eschew lust and honor, but not to the point of withdrawing
from the world. The Torah forbade many things upon us -- but the G-d who
created us certainly knows what our limits are. What the Torah forbade we
must forgo -- for G-d knows that we can do without such. Yet that which
the Torah did not forbid we may enjoy -- and show gratitude to the L-rd
who has granted us such.
(In addition, the Talmud writes that there is nothing forbidden in this
world for which G-d did not provide a permissible equivalent (Chullin
109b). Denial is not for the sake of making us suffer. It is because the G-
d who created this world knows that some things are spiritually harmful
for man. But He graciously offered us a permissible alternative. (Enter
imitation bacon bits, I suppose...))
I feel there are a lot of significant ideas in this law. The overall theme
is of course one theological man has grappled with throughout the ages:
How should man relate to the physical world? Doesn't physical enjoyment --
even the permissible sort -- basically draw us away from spirituality? Why
do our bodies crave so much of that which is antithetical to holiness? And
is religion basically a matter of choosing the soul at the body's expense?
Or is there some middle ground? But isn't any compromise with our bodies
basically a concession to our animal? And further, what is the ideal? That
we not be moved by physical lust in the slightest -- that we live as
the "Edomite clerics" of the Rambam?
(Pardon my betraying the Rambam's circumspection, but Edom is the name of
the nation descended from Esau (see Genesis 23:30 and Ch. 36). The Sages
see Esau as the progenitor of the Roman Empire and more generally the
Western world which was heir to its legacy. "Edomite clerics" are thus
Christian clergymen or devotees, Christianity eventually becoming the
official religion of that civilization. There is certainly a strain within
Christian thought which views pleasure as basically evil and to be
shunned. The truly holy person lives in a monastery or nunnery, celibate
and isolated from the outside world, accepting upon himself vows of
poverty, etc.) Needless to say, to make such a comment even in passing the
Rambam required great circumspection. Likewise, he could virtually write
nothing critical of Islam, the religion of the society in which he lived.
(He referred to Muslims and "Ishmaelites" and the like.))
I'd like to begin by making an even more basic point -- one with I think
will shed light on the true error of such behavior. The Rambam began by
stating that one may say that since both lust and honor are so evil, he
should avoid them to an extreme. He then continued by listing all sorts of
ascetic ways a person might be tempted to live -- not eating well, not
marrying, dressing in rags, etc. These all seem to relate to the eschewal
of pleasure. What about the Rambam's initial point that such a person may
want to avoid honor to an extreme as well? Did he just fail to illustrate
that? And if he did proceed to discuss lust alone, why did he bring up
honor to begin with?
I believe, however, that the Rambam in his illustrations did not omit
honor. Mistreating oneself physically is not only a way of crushing one's
physical drives. It is a way of destroying one's self-respect as well.
Degrade and debase yourself and you send yourself a message: that you're
just not worth taking care of. I'm an evil animal which craves the basest
of pleasures. And by crushing and repressing your entire physical side you
destroy your sense of self-worth as well. You go about treating yourself
as the worm you've convinced yourself you are. And not only are you
denying yourself the permissible pleasures the human body needs and the
Torah permits, you are telling yourself you're so evil you're not even
worth the trouble.
And this sheds light on the true tragedy of such behavior. On the simplest
level, disproportionate asceticism is a denial of human nature and is a
failure to appreciate the wonderful pleasures G-d has granted us in this
world. But as we're beginning to see, there are far more profound evils
Firstly, as we've already stated, crushing my physical side destroys my
sense of self-worth. Degrading myself implies I'm basically totally evil
inside -- I must repress all those awful tendencies within. And if I tell
myself that too strongly, I'll convince myself that deep down I truly am
an evil animal. And it will be completely consistent with such a mindset
to occasionally slip and commit the worst of abominations -- once I get
fed up with repressing myself so much. That's why it's not uncommon to
find people who live the most ascetic of lifestyles to be caught engaged
in the most abhorrent behavior. (Of course the media is always gleefully
there to report it too.) Not only does unwarranted denial often backfire,
but the self-negation itself tells the person that deep down he really is
all that bad.
One who crushes his body will perhaps feel that his soul will then soar
free, unencumbered by physical drossiness. But I somehow doubt that once a
person has negated half of himself that the other half will thrive. At
best he will be a half-alive cripple. Telling yourself half of you is a
mistake (or at best a "challenge" G-d has given you to overcome), is a
great way of convincing yourself that overall you're not worth all that
much, that you're hardly a divine being fashioned in G-d's image. And it's
also making the most basic theological mistakes in the book -- imagining
that G-d actually made a mistake -- that He gave you a body which you
would be much better off without.
Rather, we must take care of ourselves and live normally. And this is not
simply because otherwise we'll go hungry and frustrated. It is because it
tells us an important message about who we are. The Midrash (Vayikra
Rabbah 34:3) writes that the great sage Hillel once excused himself from
his students, saying that he needed to go perform a mitzvah (good deed).
When his students inquired which mitzvah, he responded: going to the
bathhouse. His students asked further, what kind of mitzvah is that? He
explained that when the king places his statue in public places, the
fellow who is appointed to wash and clean it is paid wages and accorded
honor. And all the more so I, formed in the very image of G-d, as the
verse states "For in the image of G-d did He make man" (Genesis 9:6).
Hillel was a person who recognized everything G-d grants us must be
revered and treasured. And it was hardly in the sense of body worship, but
an appreciation that all G-d has given us is worthy, and a utensil to be
used in service of the Divine.
We can thus appreciate the danger of falling into some of the traps that
some sincere truth-seekers -- both Jew and Gentile -- occasionally fall
into. Denying yourself certain pleasures that you feel are getting the
better of you may certainly be appropriate. Recall that not long ago (Ch.
2, Law 2) we discussed the Nazir, who realized he had to do without the
wine the rest of us can enjoy. There is a time for such abstention -- in
prudent and carefully-considered steps. But the complete denial of the
human nature or the total debasement of ourselves as human beings: such
are wholly outside the scope of the Jewish weltanschauung. (I'm just
showing off; it means world-view. :-)
Rather, the Jewish view is much as people say, "My body is a temple."
True, many things don't belong in a temple and are not in accordance with
its sanctity. But our bodies must in a sense be revered. For debasing
ourselves utterly is implying that we are worthless and contemptible
beings. And in the Jewish view, nothing could be further from the truth.
Before we close, I do have to confess that we haven't yet really answered
our basic question above -- can we really enjoy physical pleasures without
drawing ourselves away from spirituality? True, crushing ourselves is not
the Jewish way. Yet aren't physical pleasures basically anti-spiritual? I
feel the answer to this will be addressed in the next law in the Rambam.
So G-d willing we'll wait for the next installment.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org