People seek pleasure and avoid pain. That statement seems so obvious that it might even serve as a principle, enabling psychologists to explain much of human behavior.
And yet sometimes people purposefully limit their pleasures, or even inflict pain on themselves. If we want to understand human behavior, we need to understand the impulse that occasionally moves people away from pleasure and toward pain.
Ascetics can give a reason for choosing pain or deprivation over pleasure. Those who do not reject happiness entirely often explain that current pain enables them to reach a higher, deeper, more lasting happiness.
"The religious personality sometimes imagines that afflictions, suffering, fasts and solitude constitute the media bringing immortal happiness," writes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in The Halakhic Personality.
A more radical ascetic may deny the value of even immortal happiness, as pleasure-seeking deferred to the future. For that radical ascetic, current suffering brings about something more valued than future happiness, perhaps salvation or enlightenment.
In secular terms, pleasure needs no justification. "The pursuit of happiness" somehow appears on our country's list of fundamental rights. However, in religious terms, pleasure does not seem a high enough purpose. Were we created to feel pleasure? Does that fulfill our mission in life? Imagine a patient with electrodes planted in some pleasure center of his brain, passively receiving megadoses of enjoyment. Would he be living a fulfilled, meaningful life? Perhaps we can make some religious meaning of pleasure by displaying appropriate gratitude for the delightful, unearned gifts that come to us, as we go about some other business.
Religious gratitude seems an enlightened, beautiful perspective, while the ascetic's glorification of deprivation or pain seems incredibly backward and ignorant. Long ago, in the Middle Ages, people thought highly of those who hurt themselves in their quest for holiness. We know better, don't we?
Modern thinkers tend not to respect asceticism. Of course, Judaism, like other systems, requires some sacrifice of pleasure. Judaism demands that we fast on Yom Kippur, or give to the needy, or visit the sick even when other activities seem more pleasurable. These inconveniences are sacrifices for some higher good. In general, however, asceticism does not seem to be part of any modern defense of Judaism.
It seems unsurprising that Jews of a secular or liberal religious persuasion do not appreciate asceticism; surprisingly, even the most ardently traditional elements of the current Orthodox Jewish world hardly ever write a word in favor of asceticism, according to Rabbi and history Professor Haym Soloveitchik, son of the late Joseph Soloveitchik. This appears true even of current devotees of the mussar movement and of certain Chassidic groups, traditionally ascetic Jewish movements.
You might suspect that the ascetic ideal has reached this low ebb because of creeping secularization. Perhaps in modern times, the touch of secularism makes us all unwilling to forgo pleasure, but in the old days, you might guess, asceticism reigned supreme. You could even find some evidence for that idea. After all, the Bible devotes a lengthy paragraph to the nazirite, someone who has sworn not to get a haircut, not to drink wine, not to eat grape products for a specified time (Numbers 6:1-21). That such a category exists gives the impression that the Bible honors ascetics, assigning value to swearing off otherwise permitted activities.
But it is not so simple. At the conclusion of the period, the nazirite performs a ceremony that includes bringing a sin-offering (Numbers 6: 14). Rabbi Elazar HaKappar wondered in what way the nazirite has sinned, and answered, "by paining himself through denying himself wine. If someone who denies himself nothing but wine is called a sinner, is it not obvious that someone who denies himself all other pleasures is a sinner! Certainly anyone who fasts is a sinner." Eighteen hundred years ago, Elazar understood the Bible as opposing asceticism.
But the Talmud records a contradictory opinion. Another early rabbi named Elazar argues, "If the nazirite, who has denied himself nothing but wine, is called `holy,' how much more so someone who denies himself other pleasures" (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a).
So there have been ascetics and anti-ascetics in Judaism since the most ancient times. I do not know why the anti-ascetics dominate now, but neither party has a monopoly on Judaism. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has noted, a tradition that does not have room for both ascetics and their opponents would be impoverished.
While asceticism in religious thought seems undetectable today, perhaps other forms of asceticism do live on. Haym Soloveitchik finds something resembling medieval asceticism in "our ceaseless exercise and unremitting self-starvation undertaken for the sake of Beauty or in the name of something called Fitness."
Adds the rabbi: "They mortified the flesh to enable the soul to escape the confines of the body, we to enable the body to escape the ravages of Time. Each of the two equally impossible, by all the rules of common sense."