Robert Cherry
Author: Why the Jews?

Modern Hasidic Asceticism: Its Historical Origins

In a penetrating article in Tablet, Benjamin Brown assessed the growing ascetic tendencies within some Hasidic sects. To begin his analysis, Brown stated:

Kedushah (holiness) was developed as a pietistic ideal for the virtuous few, encouraging married men to limit to the minimum the frequency and modes of sexual intercourse with their wives. Today, the Hasidic groups of Gur, Slonim, and Toledot Aharon (Toldes Aaron) have radicalized this ideal by imposing it on the community as a whole.

As I document in Contrasting Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure, the history of asceticism in Judaism begins with Moses. We are told that when in God’s presence, he permanently terminated sexual relations with his wife. This led the priestly class to abstain whenever they anticipated going into the holy sanctuary of the Great Temple; and apocalyptic groups like the Essenes who were preparing for the end time. Indeed, the progenitors of rabbinic Judaism, the Pharisees, were taunted by the priestly class for their asceticism: ‘‘The Pharisees are bound by tradition to deny themselves the pleasures of this world; yet, in the future world, they will also have nothing.’’

After the destruction of the Second Temple, many rabbinic sages frowned upon the enjoyment of bodily pleasures. This was exemplified the asceticism of Rabbi Meir who, during the subsequent Bar Kochba revolt, witnessed the Romans execute his illustrious teacher, Rabbi Akiba, and his father-in-law, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon. Increasingly, however, the sages began to take a firm position against ascetic practices. Rabbi Judah, the compiler of the Mishnah, preached moderation: “Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. But to mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.” The Sifre, a 3rd-century Palestinian text, came down fiercely against ascetic practices.

The Jewish marriage contract is very specific on the sexual obligations of husbands. It prescribes that when rabbinic students are living at home, they are expected to have conjugal relations every Friday night. If they are students at a distant academy, they should come home every other month. Indeed, the ketubah includes a story in which Rabbi Rehumi missed returning home because ‘‘he was so attracted by his subject.’’ When he failed to arrive, his wife ‘‘became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed.”

The ascending Babylonian community rejected ascetic behavior. For Babylonian Jewry, ‘‘the joy of marital sex is apparently in the pleasure of sex itself.” This is most explicit in the passage in which the Babylonian Talmud recounted the advice that the late-3rd century Rav Hisda gave to his daughters: ‘‘When with your husband, delay relations until his desire is great’’ (Shabbat 140/b). Indeed, Rashi’s commentary is explicit:
When your husband is touching you out of sexual desire, and he is holding the breasts in his one hand and with the other he reaches out to the known place— give him the breasts, so his passion will grow, and do not give him the sexual place too fast, so his desire and love will develop, and only then give it to him.

Fast forward to 1492 when the traumatic Spanish expulsion of Sephardi Jews reawakened ascetic impulses. In Palestine, Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, turning toward kabbalistic practices, developed religious rituals to highlight the losses experienced. After the Ukrainian pogroms, Lurianic views gained adherents among the Eastern European religious elite.

Asceticism complemented a deeply pessimistic worldview in which joyfully accepting suffering was central to religious perfection. Sukkot would be ignored because its joyfulness was incompatible with the central themes—weeping, worrying, self-mortification, and despondency. Fasting on Mondays and Wednesdays was advocated. Even the Sabbath was to be, for the truly devout, a day of tearful mourning—despite clear halakhic statements to the contrary.

In the 1740s, Baal Shem Tov (Besht) began to foster a new outlook for the Hasidim. He sought to bring God to the common Jew so that over the next decade, he came to forcefully reject ascetic behaviors. He mandated the enjoyment of material pleasures as a means of spiritual elevation. Indeed, the Besht believed that the soul cannot rejoice in the spiritual until man has rejoiced in the corporeal.

Many of those who joined the movement had embraced ascetic practices. Indeed, one of his most influential followers, the Maggid, continued with these practices even after studying with the Besht. Almost all of the senior disciples of the Besht did not accept the Maggid as his successor. Jewish historian Ada Rapoport-Albert noted that Jacob Joseph did not accept the leadership of the Maggid and did not join his circle after the death of the Besht.

Jacob Joseph’s Toledot Yaakov Yosef (1780) was the first major Hasidic work to be broadly circulated. He strove to bring the Besht’s teachings to a broader group within the Jewish community: rabbis, itinerant preachers, learned ritual slaughterers, and teachers. Once a leading disciple of the Maggid, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, published The Tanya in 1797. Zalman advised others that God does not desire fasts: ‘‘Contriteness and humility are what fasts are supposed to accomplish and these can be achieved through meditation.” As a result of these efforts, the Besht’s exhortations that the common Jew should rejoice in pleasurable activities, including sexual relations within marriage, triumphed.

While preaching to the common Hasid the joyfulness of bodily pleasures, ascetic behaviors still dominated the private lives of many of the religious elite. Their proscriptions for ascetic behavior reflected the rules—hanhagot—drawn up for themselves following this Lurianic tradition. The Maggid and his followers are associated with Tzavvat ha-Ribash (The Last Will and Testament of the Baal Shem Tov) which includes: “He should attach his thoughts on high and he should not eat or drink overmuch and should not give himself pleasure.”

Indeed, in his discourses to the elite, Zalman’s expected the religious elite “to strip himself of all material desires; there is repeated reference to the ideal of ‘breaking’ one’s appetites for the physical world.’’ The Besht’s great-grandson, Nahman of Bratslav, focused his asceticism solely on “the ‘true tzaddik” who should seek pain rather than pleasure during the sexual act.”

Most relevant here is the beliefs of Mendel of Kotzk who promoted celebrate-like marriages because he believed that Adam’s downfall was not due to the sexual act but his lustfulness. However, Mendel considered this behavior exclusively for the religious elite and so as the scholar David Biale noted, “Gur Hasidim, which derived from Kotzk, lacks [his] ascetic element.” Biale was right about the nineteenth century Gur but as Brown documented, it is no longer the case today.


About the Author
Robert Cherry is a recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Author of Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasures: Their Origins and Relevance to Twentieth Century (Wipf & Stock, 2018); Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
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