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

Hardcover | November 5, 2003

byEliezer Diamond

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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 servesthe 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 infavor 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 greaterreward 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 destructionof 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), andnaziritism. 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 theBabylonian. 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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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 servesthe theological agendas of both Jewish and ...

Eliezer Diamond is at Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

other books by Eliezer Diamond

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Kobo ebook|Aug 1 2011

$28.29 online$36.68list price(save 22%)
Format:HardcoverDimensions:240 pages, 6.3 × 9.29 × 1.1 inPublished:November 5, 2003Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195137507

ISBN - 13:9780195137507

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"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 ofrabbinic Judaismm and more than that, in rabbinic Judaism as a totality."--American Historical Review