Wednesday, November 23, 2011

R Judah Halevi and Asceticism

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (turn of 11th century in Spain) wrote the Kuzari, a work of original and traditional Jewish philosophy. Rabbi David Cohen (הרב הנזיר), in the middle of the 20th century, gave a series of lectures upon this book in the Merkaz Harav yeshivah. His notes were edited and have been printed as a three volume commentary on the Kuzari. In this edition of the Kuzari, Rabbi Cohen points out that in his earlier years, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi tended towards asceticism. It is clear from the Kuzari (2:56), however, that the author changed his mind.

The Kuzari makes a passionate case against asceticism or פרישות, when he states: "It is not proof of the Godly [within a person] when he is overly careful about pronunciation, or lifts his eyebrows and squeezes his eyes shut, or engages in profligate pleadings, prayers, gesticulations and pronouncements which have no action backing them up. Rather the pure conscience is proven by actions whose commitment is hard for a person to accomplish, but he nevertheless acts upon them with motivation and love, with a goal of closeness to God..."

He goes on to describe the details and minutia of practical commandments not only which lead a person to ethical life and performance of loving-kindness towards others, but also allow a person the ability to become intimate with the Creator through עבודה, service as commanded by God. The choosing of one's own path towards closeness to God is the foundation of idolatry, for Rabbi Yehuda. It is only through meticulous performance of commandments from God, active physical expressions of closeness to God on his terms, that we are able to serve Him.

Centuries after Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Rabbi Dr Eliezer Berkovits would write in God, Man and History, that, "the task of relating the physical component of the human being to God can be accomplished only by a divine law...the body is not accessible to logical reasoning. One can only teach it by making it do things. One does not learn to swim by reading books on swimming technique, nor does one become a painter by merely contemplating the styles of different schools. One learns to swim by swimming, to paint by painting, to act by acting. One learns how to do anything by doing it. This applies nowhere more strictly than in the realm of ethical action. The only way of educating the biophysical instrument of action is by making it perform."

The ascetic drive in Man can only bring him so far upon the path of service of the Divine. It is only physical, God-commanded, theonomic practice which allows the whole being of a human to serve God. The pre-occupation with asceticism is to engage in a never-ending enterprise which, if allowed, will easily prevent the whole human from accomplishing his religious and God-ordained goals.