The Golden mean, which is the middle way in between extremes, the medium between the different contradictions, is the basis of Maimonides’ ethical theory. Maimonides speaks of avoiding extremism and choosing the moderate way in between extremes as the apex of Jewish and human elevation. According to him, any tendency towards the extreme, even if that extreme is usually considered good, is tantamount to casting off the yoke and is a saddening deviation, whereas the medium way is the good and true way.
On the other hand, and in striking contradiction to this, stands Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk’s approach to almost the same issue. When this Rabbi was once asked why he is so extreme in his views and conduct, he took the person who asked that to his window which opened to the street, and explained: “You see, the two sides of the road are for human beings; only horses walk in the middle.” The Kotzker Rebbe thus defined the middle way, the average between the extremes, as the “horses’ path,” the way animals walk. Men must choose one extreme or the other, or else they are but horses.
These two approaches seem in utter contradiction to each other, unbridgeably so. Yet a bridge between them must be created. Surely we can assume that there have been in Judaism differences of opinion in regard to very many problems, and especially regarding this particular issue, in which differences of temperament and character traits detemine one’s approach towards it. There is, no doubt, a fundamental difference between Maimonides, whose person is the symbol of very stable solidity, and the Kotzker Rebbe, who was so very stormy. But this bridging work that must be done is not in order to complement artificially between different people and different approaches: The fact is that both views are correct, each one from its own distinct vantage point, and it is incumbent upon is to find a connection and a relationship between them, so that we, too, can determine our own stand in this issue.
Objectively and theoretically speaking, the golden mean is surely the true way, the most choice path. In the Bible and in the writings of the Sages, this idea is stated often, both explicitly and implicitly. In the Kabbalah and Hassidic literature, too, the constant opinion is that the middle way is the true way. In fact, a large part of the basic assumptions of Hasidism is based on the recognition that the difference between good and evil in general is but the difference betweenTikkun and Tohu, which is the difference between the average, sedate order and the unrestrained wildness of any kind of extremism.
But just as theoretically speaking, it is true that the middle way is the objective line of truth, psychologically speaking the Kotzker Rebbe is correct; for what human being, who is really full of good will and yearning for truth and holiness, can help going to extremes?
True, this extremism may not be exactly according to the pure truth; but can an enthusiastic man, yearning for God, stand in between extremes, and measure and weigh things, so as not to leave, Heaven forbid, the golden mean? Who can, in the midst of ecstasy, check whether or not he has deviated from the middle way – if he is not a horse?
But if we re-examine more deeply these two seemingly contradictory approaches, we shall see that the contradiction between them is, in fact, imaginary, for they do not deal with one and the same issue. There are, in fact, two paths, both of which go in the middle, between extremities. But the golden mean and the horses’ path, are not at all identical. The horses’ path is the horse-like average between extremes, and is the necessary result of lack of power and courage to take one of the extreme ways. People who cannot muster energies and devote themselves totally to something, anything, always walk in the middle: Wanting to please everyone, and pleasing no one. Being always haunted by various motivations in every way, they make silly compromises between things. They measure the middle path with the standards of their smallness, and try to walk there; but in truth, it is the path of horses.
The golden mean, on the other hand, is not just the average between extremes. In fact, the golden mean is the merging of extremes. It is made for people who are full of true passion and great enthusiasm, people who can take both extremes together, and who therefore constitute, in their soul, the inner merging of both extremes – the golden mean.
Just as the horses’ path is, in fact, the evasion of both extremes, so the golden mean is their acceptance within a oneness which unites and merges them. Those who take the golden mean do not measure the middle, because the golden mean can also be in any extreme side, since its inception is precisely in the adherence to extremism. The golden mean and the horses’ path may run on the very same middle line; but the horses’ path is beneath contradictions, while the golden mean is above them.
This essay appears in A Dear Son to Me, by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.