Practices depend on individual temperament and social conditions of the time.
If, in spite of what has been said above, one can speak of the 'normative' Jewish attitude in this matter, an approximation of this was best expressed by the 18th-century mystic and moralist Moses Hayyim Luzzatto in his The Path of the Upright, a manual for progress in the spiritual life. In this work Luzzatto devotes a whole section to the theme of abstinence and writes (ch. 9):
"You may accept as a true principle that a man should abstain from worldly things which are not absolutely necessary. But if, for whatever reason, something is physically indispensable, he who abstains from it is a sinner. To this there is no exception but how each particular thing is to be regarded must be left to each person's discretion. 'A man shall be praised according to his understanding' [Proverbs 12: 18]. It is impossible to set down a rule for all the possible instances, because these are innumerable, and the human mind, not being able to grasp all of them at the same time, must deal with each case as it presents itself."
Hasidic and Modern Principles
Because Hasidism believes that to engage in worldly matters in a spirit of sanctity is an act of worship in which the holy sparks inherent in the material universe are reclaimed for the sacred, the Hasidic masters are, on the whole, opposed to asceticism. A grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, is reported to have said that the Baal Shem Tov introduced a new mystical way, in which mortification of the flesh is negated and in which the three essentials are: the love of God, the love of the Jewish people, and the love of the Torah.
Yet, ascetic practices are certainly not unknown even in Hasidism. R. Arele Roth used to wear sackcloth under his shirt and whip himself regularly with a small strap, though never to the extent of endangering his health. One of the Hasidic masters of Belz defended his extremely ascetic life by declaring that one who serves God while eating only does so during the act of eating, but one who serves God by fasting does so all the time.
In modern versions of Judaism, whether Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative, there has developed a tendency to view any but the mildest forms of asceticism as bordering on the morbid and masochistic and to see as "healthier" the more balanced life of religion.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.