Shiur #24: Rihal's Attitude Towards Asceticism and Seclusion in the Service of God

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In this lecture, I will relate to two issues that R.YehudaHalevi raises with respect to the Divine service:


1)   The attitude to self-mortification and affliction in the framework of Divine service.

2)   Asceticism and seclusion in the service of God.




     Already in the period of the Mishna and the Talmud we hear of Torah scholars and other pious individuals who chose the path of self-mortification and affliction in order to refine themselves and purify their thoughts and traits.


     This path as a main axle in the service of God appeared among the pietists of Ashkenaz at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries as part of a process of repentance that included fasting, rolling in the snow, and all kinds of strange afflictions, such as sitting in the sun among ants and bugs, and the like.[1]


     In general, this path of fasting and mortification was not accepted among the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, and in this respect Rihal does not stray from the consensus:


The Rabbi: The Divine law imposes no asceticism on us. It rather desires that we should keep the equipoise, and grant every mental and physical faculty its due, as much as it can bear, without overburdening one faculty at the expense of another. If a person gives way to licentiousness he blunts his mental faculty; he who is inclined to violence injures some other faculty. Prolonged fasting is no act of piety for a weak person who, having succeeded in checking his desires, is not greedy. For him, feasting is a burden and self-denial. Neither is diminution of wealth an act of piety, if it is gained in a lawful way, and if its acquisition does not interfere with study and good works, especially for him who has a household and children. He may spend part of it in almsgiving, which would not be displeasing to God; but to increase it is better for himself. (III, 50)


     This approach of balancing one's various faculties appears in greater detail in the Rabbi's description of the pious man at the beginning of the third part of the book:


The Rabbi: The pious man is nothing but a prince who is obeyed by his senses, and by his mental as well as his physical faculties, which he governs corporeally, as it is written: 'He that rules his spirit [is better] than he that takes a city' (Mishlei 16:32). He is fit to rule, because if he were the prince of a country he would be as just as he is to his body and soul. He subdues his passions, keeping them in bonds, but giving them their share in order to satisfy them as regards food, drink, cleanliness, etc. He further subdues the desire for power, but allows them as much expansion as avails them for the discussion of scientific or mundane views, as well as to warn the evil-minded. He allows the senses their share according as he requires them for the use of hands, feet, and tongue, as necessity or desire arises. The same is the case with hearing, seeing, and the kindred sensations which succeed them; imagination, conception, thought, memory, and will power, which commands all these; but is, in its turn, subservient to the will of intellect. He does not allow any of these limbs or faculties to go beyond their special task, or encroach upon another. If he, then, has satisfied each of them (giving to the vital organs the necessary amount of rest and sleep, and to the physical ones waking, movements, and worldly occupation), he calls upon his community as a respected prince calls his disciplined army, to assist him in reaching the higher or Divine degree which is to be found above the degree of the intellect. (III, 5)


     This approach, which was also acceptable to the Rambam,[2] understands man as a harmonious creature - comprised of a variety of faculties and forces - whose role it is to allow each faculty to operate in the appropriate manner. When he veers from the straight path, it is not that he was enticed by an evil impulse or negative lust that a person must conquer and subdue, but rather there was a breach in the balance between his various faculties. This involves a removal of the limits set on a particular faculty, which in itself plays a positive role in man's psyche, provided that it remains in proper measure.


     He that "rules" his various faculties, according to Rihal, is not required to subdue any one of them, but rather he must give each of them its due measure and limit them when they try to breach those measures.


     This approach is founded upon the principle that "God fashioned man in an upright manner," and therefore we are not dealing with the repression of man's various faculties, but with imposing boundaries upon them.


     R. Kook expresses a similar position:


The foundation of the perfection of [man's] service lies in arranging every thing and every faculty, both in the soul and in the world, in upright manner in its place, and not to overturn the order and prevent thereby the impact of the faculties. God fashioned man and the world in an upright manner, with all the faculties and means required for the perfection of the body and the soul… and one who nullifies the order resulting from God's governance destroys and devastates. This is like one who deprives a body of the movement that it requires, e.g., who lies folded over at all times, not moving from his place and not moving his limbs. Without a doubt he will nullify thereby the vitality of his body. So, too, one who deprives his soul of the movements that it requires deprives it of its necessary due and it will perforce suffer damage. (Mussar Avikha, Siddur Kochot Ha-Nefesh Be-Darkhei Avodat Ha-Shem 4, 3)


     It is for this reason that R. Kook did not accept fasting and mortification as the preferred manner of serving God. The room that he gives them is indeed exceedingly limited:


Someone who is fit for the most exalted comprehension, but his traits and actions have not been sufficiently refined, is at times overcome by exceedingly great dismay and sadness. If his body is strong, he must use fasts and afflictions to guide him through the transition. (Orot Ha-Kodesh III, Perishut, 25)


     There are times that this approach is legitimate, but only as a "transition." And even then the act of mortification can be seen as making room for the force appearing in the person at that time in the form of great dismay and sadness, as is implied by R. Kook.


     This idea finds expression in the next section as well:


The truth is that the middle path is the path of life that provides happiness and is fit for all people. This is the counsel of God in the spirit of the Torah, "And you shall tell them the path that they shall take and the deed that they shall do," the path – this is the house of their lives. Nevertheless… there are individuals who will find that the world of supernal contemplation, and a life of radical asceticism together with extreme purity, is most appropriate for them, in order to pave a road for the entire world, to illuminate eternal paths… Even though their holy path demands extremism and stringency, nevertheless they too must be involved with other people and know that there is a time for everything. (Orot Ha-Kodesh, III, Perishut 1)


            R. Kook recognizes that the middle path is the path of life, for it alone allows all of a person's faculties to find expression in a balanced manner. But he also recognizes that there are certain individuals for whom an ascetic life is appropriate, though even in their case there is a qualification that obligates them to maintain a connection with the world.


     The moral foundation underlying the approach that advocates self-mortification and fasting may be found in the Mussar movement based on the teachings of R.YisraelSalanter.


     Whereas the approach of Rihal and R. Kook is based on the assertion that "God fashioned man in an upright manner," the alternative approach is founded on the assumption that "the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth." According to this approach, a man must subdue certain forces that come only to destroy and to deflect man from the true path. Their only remedy is their eradication.[3]


One's attitude toward the structure of man's spiritual faculties has ramifications in two additional realms.


The first relates to the measure of man's involvement in the affairs of this world. The approach that sees all of man's faculties as positive forces from which maximal benefit must be derived, and this by way of satisfying their needs in fitting measure, as R. Kook writes, will argue that man's aspirations, even the material ones, have a place, though in a measured and fitting manner. This paves the way for an affirmation of the world together with all its various components, including its material components.


R. Kook expressed this idea in the beginning of the aforementioned passage: "The foundation of the perfection of [man's] service lies in arranging every thing and every faculty, both in the soul and in the world, in upright manner in its place."


And so, too, Rihal writes in the passage cited above: "Neither is diminution of wealth an act of piety, if it is gained in a lawful way… but to increase it is better for himself."[4]


And similarly in his description of the pious man:


The Rabbi: According to our view, a servant of God is not one who detaches himself from the world, lest he be a burden to it, and it to him; or hates life, which is one of God's bounties granted to him, as it is written: "The number of your days I will fulfill," "You shall live long" (Shemot 23:26). On the contrary, he loves the world and a long life, because it affords him opportunities of deserving the World to Come. (III, 1)


     According to Rihal, a pious man loves life and this world and his eyes are not directed at the World-to-Come.[5] He does not aspire to cut himself off from the world, but rather to march on through it and harness it to the service of God, in order to elevate himself to the highest possible level while still deeply immersed in the real world.


     The second approach, which sees physical desires and material aspirations as forces that must be repressed, will, of necessity, negate those things in this world that supply the needs of these desires. This leads to a negation of this world, and especially to its material aspects, in Mussar teachings.


According to Rihal, a servant of God must harness all of his inner reality, as well as all of external reality, to the service of God, by giving measures and limits to all of the forces found within them.


The second ramification of one's understanding of the spiritual structure of man touches upon the nature of man's service of God.


In general, the discussion of this issue moves between two extremes: serving God out of fear and serving God out of love. It is only natural that the Mussar masters were drawn to service out of fear. Rihal adopts a different approach, as he writes:


Our law, as a whole, is divided between fear, love, and joy, by each of which one can approach God. Your contrition on a fast day does nothing the nearer to God than your joy on the Sabbath and holy days, if it is the outcome of a devout heart. Just as prayers demand devotion, so also is a pious mind necessary to find pleasure in God's command and law; that you should be pleased with the law itself from love of the Lawgiver. You see how much He has distinguished you, as if you had been His guest invited to His festive board. You thank Him in mind and word, and if your joy lead you so far as to sing and dance, it becomes worship and a bond of union between you and the Divine Influence. (II, 50)


     Rihal's words on this matter are consistent with his fundamental position. The force of fear and the force of love that finds expression in joy are two spiritual forces found in man, and it is impossible to give preference to the one over the other. Each one has a place in the service of God as long as it is found in appropriate measure, that measure not being a matter for man to decide:


Our law did not consider these matters optional, but laid down decisive injunctions concerning them, since it is not in the power of mortal man to apportion to each faculty of the soul and body its right measure, nor to decide what amount of rest and exertion is good.[6] (II, 50)


     Allowing man to decide the measures of these forces is liable to be destructive, as Rihal warns elsewhere:


Love and fear no doubt enter the soul by these means, and are measured with the measure of the law, lest the joy felt on Sabbaths and holy days overstep its bounds and develop into extravagance, debauchery and idleness, and neglect of the hours of prayer. Fear, on the other hand, should not go so far as to despair of forgiveness, and make him spend all his life in dread, causing him to transgress the command given him to feel pleasure in all that sustains him, as it is written: "You shall rejoice in every good thing" (Devarim 27:11). It would also diminish his gratitude for God's bounties; for gratitude is the effect of joy. He, however, will be as one alluded to in the words: "Because you did not serve the Lord your God in joy… you shall serve your enemies" (Devarim 28:47, 49; Vayikra 19:17). Zeal in reproving "your neighbor," and in study should not pass into wrath and hatred, disturbing the purity of his soul during prayer. (III, 11)


     The mitzvot, according to Rihal, as we have seen also in the past, guide man in the proper and precise use of all his inner faculties; they limit joy to its appropriate place and fear to its appropriate place, and therefore only when they both exist can man live a harmonious life and give expression to all aspects of his personality.[7]


     Let us add two points regarding Rihal's position:


1)   As we saw in the series of lectures dealing with the mitzvot, Rihal rejects the possibility of achieving the Divine influence through deeds that a person devises on his own based on his heart or his intellect. From this perspective as well, Rihal is unable to see in fasting and self-mortification, which the Torah did not command, a legitimate path in the service of God.


2)   Rihal does not ignore the conceptual value of observing the mitzvot.[8] As an example, he offers Shabbat and the beliefs that are learned from its observance regarding the creation of the world. And thus he argues that the conceptual and cognitive foundations of Judaism cannot be learned from fasting, mortification and numerous prayers.[9]




     This issue is not detached from the previous issue that we discussed. Asceticism and seclusion are mentioned in the writings of Chazal as paths to the service of God.


     On the one hand, seclusion and asceticism sever a person from the outside world, and on the other hand, they stand a person up against himself without any distracting factors. This forces a person to engage in piercing soul-searching, and this, so believe the proponents of this approach, allows a person to stand before his Maker.


     After Rihal explains, as was cited above, that "a servant of God" does not withdraw himself from this world, he describes several types of seclusion.


     The first is that of the great philosophers. Such seclusion is meant to distance the philosopher from that which distracts his mind from contemplating the rational truths.


     The second is that of the disciples of the prophets, in their day, the objective of this seclusion being to strengthen each other in knowledge of the Torah and its mitzvot.


     As opposed to these two types of seclusion, the Rabbi describes the highest level of seclusion, that of Enoch and Elijah and their likes. This seclusion made it possible for them to become "free from worldly matters, and to be admitted to the realm of angels."


     These phenomena are true, and withdrawal and seclusion were good for them. About each one, however, there is a reservation, and this reservation stems from Rihal's fundamental position, as it found expression in the previous issue with which we dealt.


     Rihal argues that man is a harmonious creature, and as such he also has certain social needs that direct him to his surroundings. Ignoring these needs without providing a substitute will upset the balance that will eventually lead to futile bitterness and suffering. Therefore, argues Rihal, the three groups of recluses find their peace in a different type of society.


Philosophers and scholars also love solitude to refine their thoughts, and to reap the fruits of truth from their researches, in order that all remaining doubts be dispelled by truth. They only desire the society of disciples who stimulate their research and retentiveness, just as he who is bent upon making money would only surround himself with persons with whom he could do lucrative business. Such a degree is that of Socrates and those who are like him. There is no one nowadays who feels tempted to strive for such a degree. (III, 1)


     First of all, asserts Rihal, even the philosophers need their disciples in order to fertilize their thoughts and intellects, and second, this seclusion is compensated by the wisdom that is acquired and which constitutes a sort of "society" for them. Thus, their seclusion does not lead them to feelings of frustration and emptiness.


     The same is true about the disciples of the prophets:


But when the Divine Presence was still in the Holy Land among the people capable of prophecy, some few persons lived an ascetic life in deserts and associated with people of the same frame of mind. They did not seclude themselves completely, but they endeavored to find support in the knowledge of the Law and in holy and pure actions which brought them near to that high rank. These were the disciples of prophets. (III, 1)


     Like the philosophers, the disciples of the prophets satisfied their social needs with each other, and here, too, the emptiness was filled, this time by the Torah and the mitzvot and ultimately by prophecy.


     Socrates and Aristotle, who for Rihal represent the pinnacle of intellectual capability and the highest rational achievement, found their satisfaction in the wisdom that they acquired. Similarly, the disciples of the prophets, who for Rihal represent the pinnacle of the unique abilities of Israel, found their satisfaction in prophecy and the holy spirit.


He, however, who in our time, place, and people - "while no open vision exists" (I Shmuel 3:1), when acquired wisdom is little and natural wisdom is missing - would like to retire into ascetic solitude, only courts distress and sickness for soul and body. The misery of sickness is visibly upon him, but one might regard it as the consequence of humility and contrition. He considers himself in prison as it were, and despairs of life from disgust of his prison and pain, but not because he enjoys his seclusion. How could it be otherwise? He has no intercourse with the divine light, and cannot associate himself with it as the prophets. He lacks the necessary learning to be absorbed in it and to enjoy it, as the philosophers did, all the rest of his life. (III, 1)


     In our time, acquired wisdom, the knowledge of the philosophers, cannot be fully acquired, and one who chooses a life of seclusion in order to gain it will lose out on both ends. He will forfeit human society and the wisdom that was supposed to fill that vacuum will still be missing.


     Natural wisdom, the holy spirit and prophecy, is also missing in our time, and therefore, according to Rihal, seclusion undertaken in order to obtain it is also inappropriate.


     Common to both groups, the philosophers and the disciples of the prophets, is the fact - which Rihal takes pains to emphasize - that a certain connection between them and society at large still remains. They also share the fact that they find satisfaction in phenomena that substitute for their social needs and find expression in the world – wisdom and prophecy.


This common denominator is missing from the third group discussed by Rihal:


He even reaches the degree of Enoch, concerning whom it is said: "And Enoch walked with God" (Bereishit 5:24); or the degree of Elijah, freed from worldly matters, and to be admitted to the realm of angels. In this case, he feels no loneliness in solitude and seclusion, since they form his associates. He is rather ill at ease in a crowd, because he misses the Divine presence which enables him to dispense with eating and drinking. Such persons might perhaps be happier in complete solitude; they might even welcome death, because it leads to the step beyond which there is none higher. (III, 1)


     Enoch and Elijah, as opposed to the philosophers and the disciples of the prophets, totally severed themselves from the world and from society. They found companionship among the angels and spiritual satisfaction in gazing upon the kingdom of heaven, which has no concrete expression in the world, as do wisdom and prophecy.


     Only in their case, argues Rihal, is total seclusion fitting, but the meaning of this seclusion, or put differently, its cost, is absolute severance from this world. Disgust with this world and looking forward to death are direct consequences of this total detachment from society.


We can say, then, as follows: According to Rihal, as long as a person has to remain connected to the world, he should maintain a certain relationship with society and the world around him. This might be by way of simple society, or by way of individuals with whom he comes into contact, or by way of ideas that find expression in the world and maintain a connection with it – wisdom and prophecy. Rihal speaks unequivocally: Man is a social creature and he is unable to realize all of his potential without social interactions.


R. Kook relates to this issue as well,[10] and takes the matter one step beyond Rihal. He, too, speaks about seclusion as a means to comprehension, but he is not referring to an external aspiration, that a person is striving to reach some external goal (wisdom or prophecy). Rather, R. Kook makes room for a spiritual need that stems from the greatness of a person's soul. He recognizes the natural need of certain elite individuals to seclude themselves from human society.


We find a much more radical position on this issue in the writings of R. YosefDovSoloveitchik. Whereas Rihal, in sweeping manner, sees seclusion as opposed to man's nature, and it is only elite individuals whom R. Kook removes from this generalization, R. Soloveitchik challenges the very principle of the need for society:


The question is not only economic-social, but rather existential. Was the image of God, human charisma, bestowed upon man in isolation and seclusion, or upon man in a social framework? In retreat from society or in companionship – where does man find his true self? (Divrei Hagut Ve-Ha'arakha, Ha-Kehilla, p. 225)


     And similarly in the continuation:


From an existential perspective, there are times that a person recognizes his loneliness and senses that all talk about living in society is but an allusion. (ibid. p. 228)


     The advantage enjoyed by the isolated individual, argues R. Soloveitchik, lies in the creativity that he is able to reach ("social man is superficial, he imitates and copies"), and in his ability to stand up to society and shatter faulty norms, in the manner of Abraham and Elijah.


     I shall not analyze in depth R. Soloveitchik's position regarding man as an isolated individual vs. man as a social creature. It is clear, however, from the passages cited above that for R. Soloveitchik, seclusion is an existential need stemming from man's very nature. In the first few chapters of his Lonely Man of Faith, R. Soloveitchik describes man, at least in one of his dimensions, as he is reflected in the second chapter of the creation story, as an isolated individual, an autonomous creature that has no entry into the hearts of the people surrounding him.


     According to this, not only does seclusion not contradict man's natural needs, but rather it satisfies them, and without it man would feel alienated from his very self.


     The great novelty in R. Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith is the fact that, notwithstanding his existential outlook that leads man to uncompromising ontological loneliness, he argues that redemption will come and that there is a way to breach the walls of loneliness and reach society and fellowship:


His quest is for a new kind of fellowship which one finds in the existential community. There, not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; there, one hears not only the rhythmic sound of the production line, but also the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy and experiencing the grandeur of the faith commitment; there, one lonely soul finds another soul tormented by loneliness and solitude yet unqualifiedly committed. (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 28).


     R. Soloveitchik objects to the functionalism that social communication creates, and cries out for a society that will strive for a deeper and more spiritual meeting of individuals - a meeting in which the individual's self will not be run over by the press of the masses. Such a society, argues R. Soloveitchik – and this is not the forum in which to expand upon this idea – is based on faith. For our purposes, however, we see that even R. Soloveitchik, who begins with the assumption that solitude is one of man's existential needs - in total opposition to Rihal's position - wishes to redeem man from that loneliness that he so desperately needs.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] Yosef Dan, who has studied the period, argues that these practices - other than fasting – were hardly every observed (Yosef Dan, Chasidut Ashkenaz).

[2] "Indeed, the mean is truly praiseworthy, and it is toward the mean that a person must direct and weigh all his actions at all times until they reach the mean" (Shemoneh Perakim, chap. 4).

[3] On this matter, I wish to point the reader to the fascinating position of R. YosefDovSoloveitchik, which contains elements of both approaches. On the one hand, R. Soloveitchik recognizes the destructive forces that exist within man. On the other hand, he maintains that these forces should not be suppressed, but rather they should be harnessed to the service of God. This is due to the fact that the destructive forces in man are so much more powerful than his constructive forces. (He offers as an example the person who would go out in a snow storm in the middle of the night for some meeting directed against his enemy, in contrast to a person who would lazily stay home rather than go out for the sake of his friend.)

Based on this approach, he offers an interesting interpretation of the rabbinic dictum that "in a place where repentant sinners stand, absolutely righteous men are unable to stand." During their wayward days, these repentant sinners allowed the destructive forces within them to find expression, and now these forces are available to them as they follow their new path in the service of God. But as for the absolutely righteous, the only forces available to them are the constructive forces which, according to R. Soloveitchik, are much weaker than the destructive ones (Al Ha-Teshuva, p. 184).

[4] It seems to me that the difference between the two approaches is that for R. Kook the underlying assumption is that man is a microcosm of the world, and just as man was fashioned in a harmonious manner, the world was as well. Therefore, for the same reason that one must find the role and objective of each and every force within man, he must do the same regarding the world. Rihal, on the other hand, does not make any inferences from man to the world.

[5] I shall expand upon Rihal's approach to the World-to-Come in the coming lectures.

[6] It should be noted that later Rihal says: "Because it has been appointed to establish the connection with the Divine Spirit and to serve God in joy, not in submission (keni'a), as has been explained before" (III, 5). These words do not contradict that which was cited above. It seems to me that when Rihal speaks of keni'a, he is not referring to "fear," which surely has a place in the service of God, just like love and joy. Rather, Rihal is referring to the fasts and afflictions that suppress man's powers. According to Rihal, there is no room for them in serving God. Support for this understanding may be brought from the fact that these words were stated against the backdrop of the heading at the beginning of the third part of the Kuzari, "A servant of God is not one who detaches himself from the world" (III, 1).

[7] It seems to me that on this point, R. Kook's approach is different in that he gives priority to service based on joy and love over service founded on fear (even though he does not disqualify the latter, but rather  gives it its due place in the framework of the service of God).

According to R. Kook, serving God out of love is not merely "another alternative," but rather it is what allows a person to relate to all the forces within him in a positive manner and to draw the most out of them. According to him, as opposed to Rihal, joy and love do not serve a particular force or a specific need within man, but rather they fashion the spiritual state in which a person relates to his powers and desires. This positive approach is necessary for acquiring the ability to view all of his faculties in a positive manner and realizing all of the potential within them. For this reason, joy and love take precedence over any spiritual struggle.

[8] We have already noted that on this point he brings to mind the Rambam's spiritualization of the mitzvot.

[9] It should be emphasized that with these words Rihal channels the religious act from experience to cognition, but in light of his well known understanding of the mitzvot, we can say that the objective is not cognition, but rather the precise performance of the mitzvot as commanded.

[10] See Iggerot Ha-Kodesh III, Perishut 4.