Two Ideals

(Split off from last week’s post “Shavuos Reading” because I thought of a number of points I wanted to add.)

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the Naso 5770 issue of his weekly Parashah Sheet “Covenant and Conversation” discusses what appears to be a contradiction in the Rambam. In Hilkhos Dei’os 3:1, the Rambam writes:

שֶׁמֶּא יֹאמַר אָדָם, הוֹאִיל וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הֶן וּמוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, אֶפְרֹשׁ מֵהֶן בְּיוֹתֵר וְאֶתְרַחַק לַצַּד הָאַחֲרוֹן, עַד שֶׁלֹּא יֹאכַל בָּשָׂר וְלֹא יִשְׁתֶּה יַיִן וְלֹא יִשָּׂא אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יֵשֵׁב בְּדִירָה נָאָה וְלֹא יִלְבֹּשׁ מַלְבּוּשׁ נָאֶה אֵלָא הַשָּׂק וְהַצֶּמֶר הַקָּשֶׁה וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן, כְּגוֹן כּוּמָרֵי אֱדוֹם–גַּם זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הִיא, וְאָסוּר לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ.

Perhaps someone would say, “Since desire and honor and the like are the evil path, and take a person from the world, I shall separate from them a lot, and distance myself to the far extreme. So that I won’t eat meat, nor drink wine, nor marry, nor live in a nice home, nor wear nice clothing, just sack and rough wool and the like like the ecclesiatstical orders of Edom [ie the Catholics].” This too is an evil path, and one may not travel it.

And yet, in Nezirus 10:14 the Rambam writes:

הָאוֹמֵר הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר אִם אֶעֱשֶׂה כָּךְ וְכָּךְ, אוֹ אִם לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה, וְכַיּוֹצֶא בְּזֶה–הֲרֵי זֶה רָשָׁע, וּנְזִירוּת כְּזוֹ מִנִּדְרֵי רְשָׁעִים הִיא; אֲבָל הַנּוֹדֵר לַה’ דֶּרֶךְ קְדֻשָּׁה–הֲרֵי זֶה נָאֶה וּמְשֻׁבָּח, וַהֲרֵי נֶאֱמָר בּוֹ “נֵזֶר אֱלֹהָיו, עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ . . . קָדֹשׁ הוּא, לַה'” (במדבר ו,ז-ח); וּשְׁקָלוֹ הַכָּתוּב בַּנָּבִיא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וָאָקִים מִבְּנֵיכֶם לִנְבִיאִים, וּמִבַּחוּרֵיכֶם לִנְזִרִים” (עמוס ב,יא).

Someone who says, “Behold I am a nazir if I do such-and-such”, or, “… if I do not do …”, or the like — this person is wicked, and his nezirus is like the oaths of the wicked. However, someone who makes an oath to Hashem in a holy manner, this is pleasant and praiseworthy. And about him it says “…the diadem of G-d is upon him. [All the days of his nezirus he is] holy to G-d.” And the scripture equates him to a prophet as it says, “And I will establish from your descendants prophets, and from your firstborn, nezirim.”

What distinguishes the asceticism of the nazarite that the Rambam praises him so much, in contrast to his general attitude toward asceticism as described in Hilkhos Dei’os? Contrast this to Tosafos (Taanis 11) who say that the nazir‘s sin offering that he brings at the end of his nezirus is for forgoing the pleasures G-d provided in this world. And the Meshekh Chokhmah who says that it’s for the mitzvos he couldn’t do without those pleasures. Chief Rabbi Sacks answers this question in light of another conflict in the Rambam. I also commented on the Rambam’s invoking two different ideals in Hilkhos Dei’os — the chakham, who always seeks the Golden Mean; and the chassid, who goes beyond the mean with respect to certain middos, in particular: avoiding haughtiness or anger. I wrote:

The Rambam appears to be contradicting himself. In [Hilkhos Dei’os] 1:4, he advises “one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry.” But in [2:3] , anger is comparable to idolatry, and to be avoided in all circumstances! … A possible resolution that seemed more straightforward to me [than those I mentioned in that post offered by the Lechem Mishnah and Rav Moshe Feinstein] is suggested by the Rambam’s words (also from 1:4). Obviously, advice about how to be a good Jew carries more weight when informed by the Lechem Mishnah’s knowledge or Rav Moshe’s, but this is how one person naively read the Rambam’s approach(es) to anger:

Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom.

Maimonides is defining two possible paths: the Chakham (Wise), and the Chassid (Pious). Both laudable ideals. In the majority of chapter 1, he addresses the path he himself took, that of the Chakham — finding the middle. In chapter 2, when he discusses modesty he clearly describes the Chassid approach. It would seem the same would be true of his discussion of anger in chapter 2.

R’ Sacks generalizes this idea:

These are not just two types of person but two ways of understanding the moral life itself. Is the aim of the moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just, compassionate society? The intuitive answer of most people would be to say: both. That is what makes Maimonides so acute a thinker on this subject. He realises that you can’t have both – that they are in fact different enterprises. A saint may give all his money away to the poor. But what about the members of the saint’s own family? A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s own country? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him. But what about the rule of law, and justice? Saints are supremely virtuous people, considered as individuals. Yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints are not really interested in society. They have chosen a different, lonely, self-segregating path. I know no one who makes this point as clearly as Maimonides – not Plato, not Aristotle, not Descartes, not Kant.

He notes that the same answer could be invoked to explain his contradictory attitude toward nezirim. Society must be based on wisdom, on chakhamim. A society of nazirim wouldn’t work. However, the nazir pursues the ideal of the chassid, which is a holy choice for those called to it. Since that earlier post, I found what may be Rambam’s source in Chazal that these two conflicting ideals exist:

תני תנא קמיה דרבא בר רב הונא: ההורג נחשים ועקרבים בשבת אין רוח חסידים נוחה הימנו. אמר לו: ואותן חסידים – אין רוח חכמים נוחה מהם.

A beraisa was repeated before Rava bar Rav Huna: Someone who kills snakes or scorpions on Shabbos, the spirit of chassidim are not content with him. He said to him: And those chassidim, the spirit of chakhamim are not content with them.

Shabbos 121b

Thus we see a concept of two different balances between conflicting priorities (here, between risk and shemiras Shabbos) — the chassid and the chakham. The Chassid hyperprotects Shabbos in ways the Chakham finds incorrect. You might recall that last Chanukah I was fascinated by the Chassidim haRishonim. The usage of chassidim in the gemara might be related to the Chassidim haRishonim and their initial refusal to fight with the Makabiim on Shabbos (Makkabiim I 2:39), although they did later join (v. 43). These chassidim too, placed Shabbos ahead of risk to life. I suggested then that perhaps at least on of the zugos, Yosi b Yoezer ish Tzereidah was a member, as he is called “chassid shebikehunah” (Chagiga 2:7) and is crucified about the same time as the slaughter of the Chassidim haRishonim discussed in the Seifer haMakkabiim. In other words, I’m suggesting that these Chassidim were not only applauded by Chazal for how they prayed, but even were considered chaveirim, members of the same community as the tannaim. The fact that the same term, chassid, is used for those who prayed 9 hours a day is consistent with assuming that many years later the Rambam identifies the asceticism of the nazir with Chassidus.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *