Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Philosopher, a Hermit, and a Rabbi

Kirschner, Robert. "The Vocation of Holiness in Late Antiquity." Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 105-124.

At the time this article was published, Robert Kirschner taught in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. More recently, he has become the Director of the Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles.


Kirschner begins his article by asserting that the transition from the world of classical antiquity to that of late antiquity marks a shift from the individual as a cell in the body politic to a more autonomous individual. This change created an atmosphere in which the distinctly holy man, the personification of a connection between heaven and earth, became more common. With that in place, Kirschner states his purpose: "The present paper discusses the vocation of holiness in late antiquity with reference to the pagan philosopher, the Christian ascetic, and the rabbinic sage. It seeks to describe the basic dimensions of each model of holiness" (105).


The "pagan vocation of holiness" was founded upon paideia, a good classical education (106). Pagan holy men tended to come from the circles of independently wealthy people who had plenty of time for study and contemplation. Yet, they were also ascetics who embraced things like celibacy and vegetarianism (106). Such discipline brought to them extraordinary powers, and, in fact, the consummate philosopher might be regarded as the son of a deity (107). Typically, the status of the philosopher showed up in his physical appearance. There was something about his face, eyes, manner, etc. that was different.


By contrast to the philosopher, who lived in the society of the governing class, Christian holy men lived in the place of anti-culture, the desert (109). This can be seen as the philosopher's renunciation taken to an extreme. While the pagan philosopher did not indulge, the Christian ascetic completely cut himself off. While the philosopher might identify demons, the Christian ascetic engaged them in battle (109). The hermit rejected society, which led to apatheia, the absence of feeling, so that one could adequately deal with the demons. The ascetic's power became equal and even superior to that of demons. The physical accomplishments of the hermits were astonishing (111). One way in which the monk was like the philosopher is that both were familiar with the illustration of the athlete in training (111-12). Also, as with the philosophers, "the Christian holy man's personal conduct and demeanor were carefully observed by his disciples" (112). In fact, for the disciple to see the holy man was, in itself, a significant part of the training he sought (113-14). "Having passed beyond human society and the human condition, the Christian holy man spoke powerfully to both. By departing from the flawed orbit of ordinary men, but waging heroic battle against the demons, he recovered the primeval perfection of Adam that existed before the fall from grace. His arduous and unearthly vocation made him visibly holy" (114).


Unlike the pagan philosophers and Christian holy men, rabbis of late antiquity did not have biographers. Thus, in order to make any comparisons the historian is forced to sleuth other kinds of sources, like the Mishnah, Tosefta, the two Talmuds, and the Midrashim. Because these texts are typically juristic, they are unlikely sources of biographical information. Nevertheless, they do relate that the rabbis became much more significant after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It was then that the rabbis concluded that the authority of Judaism's priesthood, which could no longer function, had been handed over to them (115). Study of the Torah and Mishnah became paramount and made the sages invincible. Attachment to the rabbinic sage, in the minds of some, superseded the disciple's first loyalty to his own father. The student's father brought him into this world, but his rabbi ushered him into the world to come (116). One difference between the Jewish holy man and the other two types is that, in this case, asceticism was rare and mild. Rabbis married, fathered children, lived in houses, and enjoyed good food and drink, albeit kosher. One pattern of continuity is that, with the rabbis as with the other two types, the holiness of the person was visible and important (117). In Judaism, the desire to witness the rabbi in every phase of life was sometimes taken to odd extremes. A student might follow the rabbi into "the bathroom" to see how he took care of his business there. Another would hide under the rabbi's marital bed to learn about his teacher's love-making. (One can only imagine how the rabbi's wife felt about that). The point is that even the rabbi's private actions and gestures were considered instructive and normative. He was in all phases of life the conduit of the divine revelation.


In the classical era, someone becoming holy, or a divine being, was truly exceptional. "[B]ut in Hellenistic and Roman society it was the aspiration of every poet, thinker, and artist to be divinized, to become a 'man of the Muses' " (119). The rabbinic sage, although he represents a separate tradition, "crystallizes a crucial attribute of the holy man: the paradigmatic impact of his person. Down to every detail of his being, the holy man is a divine revelation" (120).

This article is a succinct, concise survey of its topic. It is well written and contains a large number of interesting quotations from primary sources.

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