Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture

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Overview

The existence of ascetic elements within rabbinic Judaism has generally been either overlooked or actually denied. This is in part because asceticism is commonly identified with celibacy, whereas the rabbis emphasized sexuality as a positive good. In addition, argues Eliezer Diamond, it serves the theological agendas of both Jewish and Christian scholars to characterize Judaism as non- or anti-ascetic.
In fact, however, Diamond shows that rabbinic asceticism does indeed exist. This asceticism is mainly secondary, rather than primary, in that the rabbis place no value on self-denial in and of itself, but rather require of themselves the virtual abandonment of familial, social, and economic life in favor of an absolute commitment to the study of the Torah. It is an asceticism of neglect, rather than negation. He also notes that this asceticism of neglect dovetails with the rabbinic theology of sin and punishment, which encourages delaying gratification in this world in the hopes of a greater reward in the next. The rabbis believed, moreover, that every pleasure taken in this world detracts from what awaits one in the future.
The rabbis valued and occasionally engaged in primary asceticism as well. In fact, as Diamond shows, the vocabulary of holiness was often used by the rabbis in connection with voluntary self-denial. One form of primary asceticism—fasting—became increasingly popular in the wake of the destruction of the second temple. He traces this development to the need to mourn the temple's devastation but also to the cessation of three forms of temple-related rituals: the sacrificial cult, the Ma'amadot (groups that would fast, pray, and read from the Torah while daily sacrifices were offered), and naziritism. Fasting is linked by the rabbis to each of these practices and Diamond shows that fasting was seen as a substitute for them after the temple was destroyed. In a final chapter, Diamond shows that there is a greater tendency toward asceticism among the Palestinian rabbis than among the Babylonian. He contends that the divergent political histories of these communities as well as differing external cultural influences account for this disparity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With the scope and depth of its research, masterly panoramic presentations, invaluable insights, splendid notes, and judiciously selected bibliography, his book sets a standard that transcends the label of an excellent introduction. It is a comprehensive education in a specific dmiension of rabbinic Judaismm and more than that, in rabbinic Judaism as a totality."—American Historical Review

"...a rewarding and enlightening study. Its fresh approaches to the understanding of familiar rabbinic texts penetrate beneath the technical surfaces of talmudic law and rhetoric to confront important issues of Jewish spirituality and lifestyles."—Journal of the American Academy of Religion

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195137507
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Pages: 240
  • Lexile: 1500L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jewish Theological Seminary of America
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1 "What Will Become of Torah?": The Ascetic Discipline of Torah Study 21
2 "The Principal Remains for the Next World": Delayed Gratification and Avoidance of Pleasure in Rabbinic Thought 59
3 Qedusa and Prisut: The Language of Rabbinic Asceticism 75
4 The Asceticism of Fasting 93
5 Saint or Sinner? Rabbinic Attitudes toward Fasting and Asceticism in Palestine and Babylonia in Late Antiquity 121
Conclusion - Rabbinic Asceticism: Alternative, Not Aberration 133
Abbreviations 137
Editions of Rabbinic Works Cited 141
Notes 143
Bibliography 209
Index of Primary Sources 223
General Index 225
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