The Holy Life

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The Rambam is famous for adopting the negative Talmudic view of the nazir, who voluntarily abstains from some worldly pleasures. However, on closer look, the Rambam actually views such asceticism positively, neatly fitting into his understanding of holiness.

I. Enjoy Life

The nazir is called kadosh, holy (Num. 6:8). But on the other hand, he must bring a sin-offering at the end of his nazir period. In the Talmud (Nedarim 9b-10a), Shimon Ha-Tzadik believes that a nazir who becomes impure and has to extend his period of abstention is consider a sinner, because he surely regrets the length of time. R. Elazar Ha-Kapar argues that even a regular nazir is a sinner for abstaining from the pleasure of wine (and even more so someone who fasts). But others see the nazir as an ascetic hero.

The traditional understanding, for example seen readily in Prof. Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar (pp. 55-56), is that Rambam adopts the view that the nazir‘s sin is his abstention from worldly pleasures. Rambam (Introduction to Avos, ch. 4; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos De’os 3:1) famously advocates a middle path. We should not veer to any extreme but should instead adopt a moderate approach. The nazir must temporarily take extreme measures to rid himself of negative traits but he must return to the middle path after his cleansing routine. The sin-offering is for his extremism, for his abstinence.

II. Don’t Enjoy Life

Ramban (Commentary to Num. 6:14) embraces the nazir‘s asceticism. Why must he bring a sin-offering? For leaving the nazir regimen, for abandoning a holy, ascetic life and returning to worldly pleasures. The nazir is currently in an ideal state and must bring a sin-offering for his return to normal, less-than-ideal life.

It appears that the Rambam advocates a life of moderate partaking in worldly pleasures while Ramban sees asceticism as an ideal. However, this is only partly true. In fact, the Rambam plainly contradicts this thesis (at least) three times in his Moreh Nevukhim (3:8, 38, 54). To grow intellectually and spiritually, Rambam requires a scholar to distance himself from worldly pleasures. Food, drink and other physical delights should be partaken in the bare minimum, to maintain focus on what is truly important. Rather than advocate a middle path, in Moreh Nevukhim Rambam advocates the extreme path of asceticism.

III. The Holy Life

R. Yonasan Blass, in his Mi-Nofes Tzuf (vol. 2, p. 836-837), explains that Rambam’s middle path, which he advocates in his Commentary to the Mishnah and his Mishneh Torah, is the proper approach for the layman. The average, and even above-average, Jew should live a balanced life. However, he recommended a different life for the exceptional scholar, the intellectual and spiritual leaders. To reach greatness, according to the Rambam, the middle path will not do. You need to adopt an ascetic regimen and focus on the esoteric but all-important issues. Dr. David Shatz (“Maimonides’ Moral Theory” in The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, pp. 180-181) quotes academic sources that explain the Rambam similarly:

Clearly the middle way has been rejected except for the ordinary run of individuals… We can surmise that the problem of asceticism arises when it is pursued by those who are unprepared for it and still have sensual urges. People who have overcome these urges are at a higher level, and for them asceticism is the proper course.

It seems Rambam and Ramban do not disagree as much about this as had been previously thought. Their approaches fit in well with their understandings of a different subject. We have suggested elsewhere that according to the Rambam, holiness comes from refraining from what is bad (link). While according to Ramban, holiness comes from going beyond the required.

In the case of the nazir, these different views coincide. According to these two scholars, enjoying worldly pleasures is permissible but ultimately bad for you. Therefore, according to Rambam, refraining from worldly pleasures is avoiding something bad, which yields holiness. According to Ramban, it is taking on extra measures, refraining from that which is technically permissible. Therefore, he also agrees that it yields holiness. The bad but permissible is the meeting place between these two visions of holiness.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. I think the Rambam’s ethical position is more complex than the Nicomachean Ethic’s “Middle Path”. (Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”.) Yes, in Hil’ Dei’os 1:4 he speaks of the Middah Beinonis (Middle Measure”. But 2:3 talks about there being middos that require going to the extreme. And lest you think that there is a general rule in ch. 1 and exceptions in ch. 2, he actually has common examples (anger, temperance) in both! I think the key is 1:5, when he spells out the notion that there are two ideals, or two paths to the ideal.

    מִי שֶׁיִּתְרַחַק מִגֹּבַהּ הַלֵּב עַד הַקָּצֶה הָאַחֲרוֹן, וְיִהְיֶה שְׁפַל רוּחַ בְּיוֹתֵר–נִקְרָא חָסִיד; וְזוֹ הִיא מִדַּת חֲסִידוּת. וְאִם נִתְרַחַק עַד הָאֶמְצָע בִּלְבָד, וְיִהְיֶה עָנָו–נִקְרָא חָכָם; וְזוֹ הִיא מִדַּת חָכְמָה. וְעַל דֶּרֶךְ זוֹ, שְׁאָר כָּל הַדֵּעוֹת…

    Someone who avoids haughtiness until the far extereme, and is of very humble spirit is called a “chasid”, and that is the middah of chassidus. And if he distances only to the middle, and is an anav (modest, knows his proper place), he is called a “chakham”, and this is the middah of chokhmah. And in this way, all the other dei’os….

    The nazir would fit in the Rambam’s model of chassidus.

    Since nezirus is temporary, he would also fit in the Rambam’s notion of curing an excess of some middah. (Which the Rambam would phrase, “fix the middah of some dai’ah”, which does better fit the words literally.) 2:1:
    וְכֵיצַד הִיא רְפוּאָתָם: מִי שְׁהוּא בַּעַל חֵמָה–אוֹמְרִים לוֹ לְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ שְׁאִם הֻכָּה וְקֻלַּל, לֹא יַרְגִּישׁ כְּלָל, וְיֵלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ זוֹ זְמָן מְרֻבֶּה, עַד שֶׁתֵּעָקֵר הַחֵמָה מִלִּבּוֹ. וְאִם הָיָה גְּבַהּ לֵב–יַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בְּבִזָּיוֹן הַרְבֵּה, וְיֵשֵׁב לְמַטָּה מִן הַכֹּל, וְיִלְבֹּשׁ בְּלוֹיֵי סְחָבוֹת הַמְּבַזִּין אֶת לוֹבְשֵׁיהֶן, וְכַיּוֹצֶא בִּדְבָרִים אֵלּוּ: עַד שֶׁיֵּעָקֵר גֹּבַהּ הַלֵּב מִמֶּנּוּ, וְיַחְזֹר לַדֶּרֶךְ הָאֶמְצָעִית, שְׁהִיא דֶּרֶךְ הַטּוֹבָה; וְלִכְשֶׁיַּחְזֹר לַדֶּרֶךְ הָאֶמְצָעִית, יֵלֵךְ בָּהּ כָּל יָמָיו. וְעַל קַו זֶה יַעֲשֶׂה בִּשְׁאָר כָּל הַדֵּעוֹת: אִם הָיָה רָחוֹק לַקָּצֶה הָאֶחָד, יַרְחִיק עַצְמוֹ לַקָּצֶה הַשֵּׁנִי, וְיִנְהֹג בּוֹ זְמָן מְרֻבֶּה עַד שֶׁיַּחְזֹר לַדֶּרֶךְ הַטּוֹבָה, וְהִיא מִדָּה בֵּינוֹנִית שֶׁבְּכָל דֵּעָה וְדֵעָה.

    Even someone pursuing the path of a chokham, the middle path, would still pursue the other extreme for a short time in order to train himself, so that when he lets go he returns to the middle, rather than veering to the side he was on in the past.

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