By Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"And let him be atoned for sinning in his soul' [Bamidbar 6:11]. What sin did this man do in his soul? The answer is that he refrained from drinking wine." [Taanit 11a].
What is the attitude of Judaism on hedonism and on abstaining from worldly pleasures? At first glance, from the laws of the "nazir," who refrains from all contact with wine and grapes, it would seem that the Torah views self-mortification in a negative light. Many articles have been written about the negative attitude towards abstaining from pleasure. One example is the continuation of the passage from the Talmud quoted above: "Whoever fasts is called a sinner, and this is a "kal vachomer" - a logical inference - from the laws of nazir."
On the other hand, there are many declarations which praise a man who refrains from indulging in the physical pleasures of the world. However, the sages have also made declarations which show an opposite viewpoint: "Whoever fasts is called holy, and this is a logical inference from the laws of nazir" [Taanit, ibid].
In his book Messilat Yesharim, the Ramchal discusses the paradox in the words of the sages at length and comes to the conclusion that there are types of abstention that we have been commanded to observe and other types which we have been commanded to avoid. In general abstention is a good thing, since it can be dangerous to seek the physical pleasures of this world, and it is therefore good in general for a person to avoid luxuries. However, one is not allowed to refrain from things that are necessary for his wellbeing.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook feared that his disciple, Rav Charlap, might want to mimic the actions of his first mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Mechel Shapiro, who was known as an extreme ascetic. When Rav Charlap wrote a book describing the behavior of Rabbi Shapiro, called "Tzvi Latzadik," Rav Kook wrote the following in the introduction: "Therefore we, who have weak constitutions, and are struck by motion and by futile actions – we must yearn to lift ourselves up somewhat from our depths... to be comparable within the limits of our miniscule abilities to the righteous men of the generation. Our first action must be to light up around us the torch of knowledge, constantly to be present in the holy sanctuary of the study of Torah, fear, and holy service... we must make our weak and depressed bodies healthy." [Igrot volume 1, page 78].
We do not have permission to treat our bodies in an arbitrary way. Our bodies belong to the Holy One, Blessed be He, and therefore not only are we not allowed to cause them harm, our task is to make sure that our bodies will be healthy and strong. We must eat the proper foods, get enough rest, and engage in physical activities in order to maintain our physical fitness. Before eating breakfast, Hillel would say, "A righteous man is good to himself" [Mishlei 11:17]. However, at the same time, we must avoid the trait of admiring the body too much, since the body has no intrinsic value of its own.
Many new types of industry have sprung up in the realm of food. The purpose of them all is to entice people. Let us rather remember the true goal – "a healthy soul in a healthy body."
Here is what the Rambam wrote: "One whose appetite is weak should awaken it with spiced food, and one who becomes depressed should improve his mood by listening to music and by walking in the gardens. The intent all this is to make his body healthy." And he ends with, "The final objective in having a healthy body is to gather wisdom."
And the Ramchal writes, "And there is the main principle: A person should stay away from whatever is not necessary for this world. But whatever is necessary for him, for whatever reason, since it is needed, if he separates himself from it, he is a sinner."