Between Passion and Principle

We are hardwired to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. But because pleasure disrupts order, religion looks for ways to convince us to resist its temptations. A look at how Judaism and Christianity differ in their approaches to indulgence and asceticism

Human beings are born addicted to pleasure. Our sense organs are fine-tuned instruments for seeking out pleasure in a thousand and one ways. Our bodies and souls change in anticipation. The skin with goose bumps, the mouths filled with saliva, the widened pupils, the blood-swollen sexual organs, the fast-beating hearts - all are signs of an anticipation that, if not satisfied, threatens to turn into frustration and misery. But, render unto the inner Caesar of passion the things that are his and he will make you happy. You will feel satisfied, your hunger satiated, your thirst quenched - "your cup runneth over." In the words of the psalmist (Psalms 122:7 ): "Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces" at least until you will again feel a craving for an additional bowl of the "red, red pottage" (Genesis 25:30 ) of pleasure. For underneath the seven veils of wisdom, human beings are very simple machines that recognize only two states: pleasure and displeasure. The rest, as Freud would say, is "sublimation."

But "the rest" is what culture is made of, and culture always entails prohibitions, limitations, fences. Pleasure disrupts order; it is outrageously subversive. That is why it must be bound by the 365 "lo ta'aseh" ("thou shalt not" ) commandments, and by countless other restrictions. Because not only do pleasure addicts regard the entire world as an instrument designed to satisfy their needs; they also selfishly demand objects that are blatantly "wrong."

All moral systems and all religions limit their adherents' sphere of pleasure. While certain actions are prohibited because they hurt others ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's" [Exodus 20:13 ), other actions are prohibited because they hurt God ("And [they] gave themselves over to do that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him" [2 Kings 17:17] ).

There is no "natural," unequivocal definition as to what actions hurt others and what actions hurt God. That question is assigned to the experts, who teach us that the God of Israel considers the camel, the hare and the rock-badger and the swine (Deut. 14:7-8 ) abominable, whereas Allah forbids his followers only swine, but considers the consumption of wine, which is permitted to Jews and Christians, an abomination. Every religion thus demands restrictions of one kind or another.

Christianity regards the pleasures of this world with suspicion and demands that believers place their trust in the next world ("But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep" [Luke 6:24-25] ). As Jesus himself defines it, the precondition of perfection, of finding grace in the eyes of the Lord, is relinquishment of earthly property and pleasures for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven ("Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven" [Matthew 19:21] ).

In contrast, Judaism holds that this world was given to humans to enjoy - as long as they avoid what is forbidden to them ("The Lord will command the blessing with thee in thy barns, and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto; and He will bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" [Deut. 28:8] ). The complete rejection of "the world that he created in accordance with his will" (a phrase that appears in the Kaddish ) is viewed as veiled criticism of the Creator of the universe.

In his typically clear and elegant prose, Maimonides expresses his opposition to an ascetic outlook on life: "A man may say: since envy and lust and pride and their like are vices that remove a man from the world, I shall abstain from them and go to the opposite extreme - thus he will not eat meat or drink wine or marry a woman, or live in a nice home or wear fine clothes, but wear sackcloth and a hair shirt and so on, like the priests of the Edomites [Christians]. But this is an evil path, and one must avoid it. And he who walks along it is called a sinner, as it is written concerning the Nazirite [who vows to abstain from wine]: the priest is 'to make atonement for him because he sinned in the matter of the soul [Num. 6:6].'

"And if a Nazirite, who abstains only from wine needs atonement, how much more so he who abstains from each and every thing! Thus the sages command that a man must abstain only from what the Torah orders him to abstain from, and must not vow to abstain from permitted things. The sages said: 'Is not what the Torah has forbidden enough that you forbid yourself other things?' It follows from this rule that those who always practice asceticism are not acting correctly. The sages did not allow a man to torment himself with fasting" (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 3:1 ).

We must not allow the complexity of Maimonides' words escape us. He does not attack asceticism, as it has sometimes been argued. He attacks the "excessive" asceticism of those who wish to do more that the Torah has prohibited ("Is not what the Torah forbidden enough for you that you forbid yourself other things?" ).

Athletic training

Essentially, Judaism is a behaviorist system that aspires to restrain passion not through the (Christian ) examination of one's soul to detect of the "seven deadly sins," but rather through the disciplining of behavior. In Judaism, passion is transformed from an unruly self-serving "instinctive" impulse to the obedient execution of a set of governing rules that have become second nature. These rules are not made only for religious virtuosi. Although the halakha, traditional Jewish religious law, is shaped by experts, all Jews are required to observe it. Permissible passions, such as sexual desire, undergo a process that neutralizes their spontaneity and turns even the most pleasurable act into the performance of a commandment. The Greek word askesis means training, like that of an athlete. Judaism is a rigorous system of self-training through action.

In contrast, Christianity, which Maimonides cites as an example of excessive asceticism, is actually seen by its great interpreter, St. Paul, as liberation - from the asceticism of Judaism's commandments. The Christian laity operates in a world where the decision of whether and how to restrain one's passions is primarily the product of free choice. Asceticism is for those who "would be perfect." Perfection, however, is a personal choice, not a universal duty. The number of prohibitions incumbent upon a Christian layperson in his daily life is in fact very limited.

A binding ascetic system is incumbent only upon the priesthood and upon the "regular clergy" (i.e., monks and nuns ). In a deep sense, they have remained "Jewish." Every detail in their lives, which are devoted to the worship of God, is disciplined and monitored. The priest and the monk live in a strictly "halakhic" world that is considered more than ordinary Christians can handle.

Thanks to the religious virtuosi's strict asceticism and readiness to meet God's severest ascetic criteria, other members of the Christian community enjoy a very large measure of freedom. In this division of labor, it is enough that some members of the community produce enough virtue for all. Whereas the entire male Jewish community stands together before God, the Christian community stands before him sharply divided between those who live in the "secular world," where religious demands are minimal, and those who dedicate their life to God, who face very exacting religious and moral demands.

This is not to say that lay Christians can do whatever they want. Quite the contrary: Christianity is a religion that believes that salvation depends on commitment to the rigorous moral and religious demands voiced by the Savior in his Sermon on the Mount. However, Judaism's ascetic demands have undergone, in Christianity (except, as noted above, for the clergy ), a process of delegalization. Christians cannot rely on the halakha's clear guidelines, which allow those who perform the commandments to know that their actions are correct; Christians are left with much vaguer, guidelines - guidelines for the most part not couched in legal terms. They must decide whether they find grace in the eyes of the Lord by a complex process of psychological self-examination that always leaves room for existential scruples (it is not surprising that some Christians have found the certainty of predestination a relative relief ).

Now for some Christians this division of labor is a satisfactory arrangement. .They are not required to observe the deluge of commandments, restrictions and prohibitions incumbent on an "observant" Jew. In order to be considered good Christians, they have to take on only a fairly small number of prohibitions -- such as, for example, abstinence from the consumption of meat during certain periods (such abstinence being considered a "fast" in Christianity ) and from sexual relations on certain days; confession of their sins from time to time; recitation of some very simple prayers; and participation from time to time in the Church's ceremonies. Of course, there are much more complex ethical and devotional expectations from a Christian, but they are mostly related to observing social mores, cultural etiquette. Beyond that as we have seen, it depends to a large extent on the individual's wishes.

For other Christians, however, this "arrangement" has been a source of great anxiety. They were indeed not required to obey copious "commandments," but on the other hand they were given very high moral standards. Would obeying the minimum requirements truly suffice when they reach the gates of Heaven. What could they do, if they were still not sure? It is reasonable to assume that they would increase the intensity of their religious activities, like a Jew who has "become stronger" religiously: They would attend church services more frequently, recite more prayers, go to confession more often, visit Christian holy sites. There are, however, also those Christians who are unhappy with the relative exemption from active participation in the practical realization of the Christian ideal they have received.

No sleep or sex

Whether sincere Christians are motivated by guilt or by a desire for religious excellence, Christianity favorably views their decision to increase their asceticism and to express their choice to opt for the Kingdom of Heaven, which other, lay Christians have abandoned to the "professionals." The Christian model of institutionalized asceticism is monasticism which, in the fourth century, became a mass movement. Whether in group settings or in solitude, monks tormented their bodies in order to save their souls and the souls of their spiritually weaker brethren. They deprived themselves of all bodily pleasures. They refrained from sex and from sleep, they prayed for many hours, they tortured themselves with whips and scorpions, stood in the scorching sun of the deserts of Egypt and Syria or in the freezing cold of Europe. They fasted frequently, they wore hair shirts.

This savage assault on the body aroused considerable concern among the leaders of the Church, not because they were worried about the well-being of the ascetics (who sometimes lost their sanity or died prematurely ), but rather because, in their actions, the ascetics "were holier than thou." Whatever they said explicitly, their behavior was implicitly rebellious, not a model of restraining one's base impulses. Although the rebellion was ostensibly intended to show a radical distancing from the pleasures of this world, the leaders of the Church suspected that, in attempting to escape the sins of the body, the ascetics were falling prey to the sins of the spirit and, through their suffering, were becoming overly self-confident and rebellious.

What made matters worse was the fact that while asceticism supposedly expressed a distancing from power, the Christian laity saw it as an effective technique for acquiring it. In the marketplace of religious ideas, the organizing principle is bartering. The relationship between human beings and God (or gods ) is one of give and take: Human beings give God the firstborn of their flock and the first fruits of their land. Iin return, they receive his protection and blessing. Sometimes, a reverse process takes place: Human beings who do not obey God's commandments must therefore pay him a "fine" (which can range in form from a sin offering to eternal suffering in hell ).

But what happens when people give "too much"? When people who do not owe any compensation to God for their sins, torture their souls for the sake of God, when they relinquish what most people desperately yearn for, a debt is created in the cosmos' bookkeeping system (which is built on the principle of double-entry accounting ). Society and God must balance the books. To ascetics who torment themselves for the sake of Heaven (and their brethren ), payback is due. Society believes that God grants them supernatural powers as a form of balancing the books.

Spiritual blackmail

Flamboyant asceticism is, in effect, a kind of spiritual blackmail. Theologians insist that God never owes humans anything. That no matter how virtuous they are, they are always in his debt (in fact it is his grace that makes virtue possible in the first place ). But religious communities rarely act in accordance with theological sensibilities. For the community, God grants the ascetics powers that are both beneficial and dangerous. The Christian community then is forced to cope with the constant tension between the desire to allow asceticism as a legitimate, effective expression of the Christian ideal and as a way of extracting much-needed powers from God and the desire to domesticate it, in order to prevent the ascetics from accumulating too much power and from therefore disrupting the social order.

In Judaism, this threat to social order in the community has been solved by the imposition of severe restrictions on individual asceticism, just as the threat to the community's interpretive authority has been solved by the silencing of the voice of prophecy ("After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the power of prophecy was taken from the prophets and was transferred to the sages"; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, p. 12a ). The Jewish community, then, did not have to cope with the threatening forces of asceticism, just as it did not have to cope with the threatening forces of divine inspiration. There were advantages to this solution, but it comes with a price tag. What did each community have to pay for its chosen solution? Tthat is the subject for another article, which I might write "after the holidays."