October 22, 2020

Ron Rolheiser: A Jewish folk tale


A Jewish folk tale talks of a young man who aspired to great holiness. After some time at working to achieve it, he went to see his rabbi. “Rabbi,” he announced, “I think I have achieved sanctity.” “Why do you think that?” asked the rabbi. “Well,” responded the young man, “I’ve been practicing virtue and discipline for some time now, and I have grown quite proficient at them. From the time the sun rises until it sets, I practice a rigorous asceticism: I take no food or water. All day long, I do all kinds of hard work for others and I never expect to be thanked. If I have temptations of the flesh, I roll in the snow or in thorn bushes until they go away, and then at night, before bed, I practice the ancient monastic discipline and administer lashes to my bare back. I have strongly disciplined myself so as to become holy.”

The rabbi was silent for a time. Then he took the young man by the arm and led him to a window and pointed to an old horse that was just being led away by its master. “I have been observing that horse for some time,” the rabbi said, “and I’ve noticed that it doesn’t get fed or watered from morning to night. All day long it has to do work for people, and it never gets thanked. I often see it rolling around in snow or in bushes, as horses are prone to do, and frequently I see it get whipped, but that, young man, is a horse, not a saint!”

• from Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist


  1. I don’t know, that horse sounds like a saint to me.

  2. Interesting, though it seems to me that it is a conflation of Jewish and xtian (monasticism, severe asceticism and penance) elements.

    • it seems to me that it is a conflation of Jewish and xtian (monasticism, severe asceticism and penance) elements.

      The two have been intertwined from the beginning – after all, the latter arose from the former.

      • I think self-flagellation is an almost entirely Christian phenomenon; thankfully, it has fallen into disuse in recent times, particularly since Vatican II. Thomas Merton himself, in the early part of his monastic career, undertook this discipline.

        • flatrocker says

          This is too much of a leap to go from asceticism directly to self-flagellation. It could be that one of our modern issues is we have lost the willingness to pursue a higher level of asceticism in most aspects of our lives. I am willing to consider it might be THE issue. How about an asceticism that removes something (hell – just pick anything) that takes us from Christ. Not to the mis-guided level of self-flagellation, but just simply something.

          But in the name of our precious freedoms, we will not be yoked to anything, including a focused life in Christ (re: Spencer’s writings from the past few weeks). The world cries out for a John the Baptist to show up and show us the way. But few of us are willing to listen. Or more radically, maybe to be that herald for each other. Going into the desert is not on most of our preferred travel itineraries.

          • Do you know, flatrocker, that it was not unusual in monasteries and convents before Vatican II for personal friendships between residents in the houses to be discouraged, and that those who, being human, nevertheless established such friendships were frequently strongly censured by the abbot? Monastic houses were often very lonely places where the most rudimentary human relationships were discouraged in the name of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh; Thomas Merton, gregarious and social as he was, suffered terribly from the often dehumanizing attitude of the Trappist leadership toward him and other the inhabitants of their order, as did many other monks and nuns. Fortunately, much of this has changed, but that has only been since Vatican II.

        • The Shia Muslims have the the day of Ashura which commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in 680 CE.

          They practice bloody self mutilation on that day.

      • But the kind of asceticism referred to in this story is xtian. As is monasticism.

    • The young man specifically says, “I practice the ancient monastic discipline and administer lashes to my bare back. “. He doesn’t say rabbinical, so it is the young man who is confused, and not the story teller.

      • I am unaware of whether Judaism had a monastic tradition. I don’t recall meeting prior mentions of it – but the Essenes and John the Baptist in the intertestamental period practiced some aspects of what became the Christian monastic tradition, so there must be more roots than I know of. Readin the Jewish Encyclopedia article on the Essense suggests that they survived to Talmudic times, and that the Hasidim of the sixteenth century (which the folk tale sounds to me like it might be set among) and thereafter may have viewed themselves as their spiritual heirs. Does anyone else know more?

        • The Hasidim marry, so i do not think that’s where the comparison is to be found – more than likely, the Jewish Encyclopedia is referring to other salient characteristics of Hasidism.

          There is no monastic tradition in Judaism. The Essenes did not have a continuing legacy, in that respect, at least. Judaism also views this world as good, and while there is certainly belief that sin is a reality, xtianity is the only one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths to postulate anything like Original Sin.

          But this is all very far afield from the point of the story, and of the post.

        • “Monasticism” implies a Christian practice. I took this as a Jew adopting a Christian practice as some sort of attempt at becoming more holy. I am surprised that no one is even considering this rather than trying to find some Jewish “monasticism”. Complicated minds always look for complications. Guess I’m just too simple minded 🙂

      • Oscar, you’re right. I miseed the forest for the trees.

  3. The very reason Christ came. The Rabbi did not lead the man to God only condemning him to useless horse manure. A horse never whips himself. In a folk tale where the opportunity to talk about love and mercy and forgiveness and goodness all the attributes of a God who would care about the self effort and know that it only leads to emptiness without Him.
    It would seem that pointing out error and arguing and debating where of great importance not just to Greeks in Athens but to Jews too. Somewhere behind the smokescreens of such college maneuvers there is a being trying to move in the center of who we are. Apparently the Rabbi in the tale chose not to reveal it but instead kept it veiled.

    One thing that sticks out to me is I have been observing for a long time. Isn’t it nice to have such a luxury. The other man spent his time working yet considered his need to go to what he thought was someone that could help him. After all being sanctified does not need the approval of others. Yet it is a cry for help only that well seems to be dry. I guess the difference in the blood is knowing not thinking. Then again folk tales are just that, folk tales.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Relax, w. It’s a folk tale. Many folk tales I have read within Jewish traditions tend to veil the core meaning of their stories, an intentional move, as it requires the listener to do some leg work. Many of Jesus’ parables were told with the “smokescreens of such college maneuvers.” Many of the stories of Jesus’ life, too, would come across as a brutal encounter (who would tell someone to leave his dead father by saying, “let the dead bury their dead?”).Get too wound up in the meanness of the rabbi and you miss the point of the story.

      • Just calm down Marcus and take it easy. I can’t stand that manner of teaching and I always see things differently. Jesus spoke plain enough to a certain point and then from then on spoke in parables. I’m not Jewish. That college thing still goes on for way too long for a lot of people and I’m getting way past it having learned too many things the hard way. I see all the basic stuff but I see a whole lot more too. Ooops drop my microphone I’m out of here

  4. Hmm what happened to the young man.

  5. In this, Judaism and Zen Buddhism agree: rigorous self-denial and mortification of the flesh do not make a saint; in fact, they can produce the most subtle form of pride and self-aggrandizement, and even cruelty. The words the rabbi spoke to the young man could as easily have been spoken by a roshi to an overzealous Zen student.

  6. Isn’t the tale an obvious Jewish snark at Christian asceticism? (And a well-earned one, IMNSHO.)

    • I think you’ve hit on the interpretative key. Good eye.

    • I doubt this Jewish folk tale was aimed at Christians. It has a natural aim inside Judaism, their debate between law (the rabbi) and pietism (the young man). Quoting here the Jewish encyclopedia entry for the Hasidim of the 16th century in Poland:

      “There has been apparent from time immemorial a struggle for supremacy between two principles in Judaism: the formalism of dogmatic ritual and the direct religious sentiment. The discipline of the Law was in continual conflict with mystical meditation, which gave considerable latitude to individual inclinations in the domain of religion. Such was the nature of the struggle between Pharisaism and Essenism in ancient times, between Talmudism and the Cabala in the Middle Ages, and between rabbinism and the mystic-Messianic movements from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

      …Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of book-lore and dry religious formalism, satisfied neither the unlearned common people nor the learned men who sought in religion an agreeable source of consolation and of forgetfulness of worldly cares. Although rabbinism itself had adopted some features of the Cabala, it had adapted them to fit into its own religious system: it added to the stern discipline of ritualism the gloomy asceticism of the “practical cabalists” of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, in self-torture, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, was not suitable to the bulk of the Jews. …”

      • Very informative thanks

      • You say the young man represents pietism, yet his style of gloomy asceticism is more like that adapted by rabbinism from the “practical cabalists” you mention, typified as it is by “fasting, penance and self-torture.” Why wouldn’t the rabbi have approved of this if the young man is practicing the kind of mournful asceticism adopted by rabbinism?

        Perhaps the rabbi is Hasidic, which would mean that he would follow a form of pietism that was ecstatic and life-affirming, and would reject the formalism and gloominess of traditional rabbinism, and any asceticism embodying those traditional rabbinic qualities.

        • If this is correct, the rabbi would represent pietism, and the young man would represent a law based asceticism, and all the pieces would fall into place.

        • Except that thebHasidim study the Torah and Talmud with every bit as much fervor and attention as the people they were, apparently, reacting against, so…

          • Also, Kabbalah is very important to Hasidic belief and practice, though *not* so-called “practical” Kabbalah.

          • The Hasidim did and do study the Torah and Talmud with fervor, as you say, but they originally rejected the academic formalism of traditional Rabbinic Judaism in favor of a passionate, ecstatic and personal piety; what was most important to Hasidic spirituality was the attitude of the heart, not meticulously correct interpretation of sacred texts. Cabala is important to Hasidic belief and practice, but it, like study of Torah and Talmud, is a means to and end, which is achieving the right state of heart. The Hasidic embrace of Cabala never included practices of self-mortification and rigorous asceticism, like the ones included in this tale.

          • Robert, i do not think it is as simple as you say, but i am no scholar of Judaica, let alone Hasidism, so i will let it rest. There is lots and lots to read, for anyone choosing to pursue this, but i think it requires reading books, not just what’s avaiable on the web.

      • “Practical Kabbalah” is not the same thing as gloomy pietism, though i do think pietistic practices show up in all religions, at various places and at various times.

        Still think it’s partly aimed at excesses of xtian asceticism and the like.

    • Yep.