The Mishna at Sotah 20a writes of a "plague" of perushim who bring destruction to Israel. Likewise the Gemara at Sotah 22b describes seven categories of perushim -- a word some translate as "ascetics" but which Soncino (unfortunately) translates as "Pharisees" -- very negatively. It is hard to believe that the sages are describing their own colleagues. Who are they describing? Could it be the Essenes?
The sages are bemoaning ostentatious charlatans. Bear in mind the term Pharisee did not necessarily refer to a fellow sage. It was a whole movement. The hebrew word for it does translate to ascetic.
King Yannai said it best to his wife after the gloss on 22b:
Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas.
Rashi explains each type of charlatan:
- Someone who does the commandments so as to be honored, not for the sake of heaven.
- someone who walks in an impractical way to accent his 'humility'.
- One who goes to, (or pretends to go to), such absurd lengths not to look at women that he walks into walls and bleeds on them.
- One who walks with an very bent posture.
- One who believes they have done all there is to do and asks "what else?"
- One who does commandments out of love for their reward.
- One who does commandments because he fears punishment.
Note that Abaye and Rava told the lecturer of this passage to omit the final two types of Pharisees, because Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav encouraged observance even with ulterior motive, because genuine commitment would eventually follow.
As an aside, the Jerusalemite Talmud brings the same passage in Berachot 9:5, in a different context. It is cited in the Babylonian by Tosafot in s.v. Parush. The Talmud seems to just be discussing the different types of approaches toward observance.
Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov explains each type:
- Performing commandments ostentatiously for all to see.
- Using 'preoccupation with some other commandment' as an excuse to get out of doing a good deed.
- 'Keeping score', doing a sin, following it up with a good deed, and thinking one has made up for the wrongdoing and then some
- avoiding good deeds, claiming that one can't afford to do them.
- Not doing good or bad deeds, and stagnating.
- Serving God out of fear, like Job.
- Serving God out of love, like Abraham
The Talmud actually encourages the final two types of Pharisees, and says that Abraham was the most beloved of them all.