“Traditional Judaism: Fundamentalist or Ascetic”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter the curious law of the Nazir, the Nazarite. In Numbers 6:2 G-d tells Moses to speak unto the Children of Israel and say unto them: “Ish o isha kee yaflee lin’dor neder nazir, l’hazeer la’Hashem,” Any man or woman who shall separate him or herself by taking a Nazarite vow for the sake of G-d.

What is a Nazarite vow? Subsequent verses inform us that the Nazarite is a person who takes a vow of three restrictions:
1) not eat anything that is a derivative of grapes: no wine, grape juice or raisins
2) not to cut their hair
3) not to defile themselves by coming in contact with a dead body

As long as the Nazarite is under the authority of the vows, the Nazarite may not even attend the funeral of his or her own parents. According to tradition, the minimum length of the vow period is thirty days.

The Bible tells of two Nazarites, Samson and Samuel, both of whom were designated Nazarites before they were born. It is interesting to note that the example of Samson is not very favorable, whereas the example of Samuel is extremely positive. That in itself should serve as a hint to us about the Torah’s ambivalence towards the Nazarite. Is the Nazarite a sinner or Tzadik, evil or extraordinarily righteous?

The laws of the Nazarite appear in Parashat Naso on the heels of the Sotah episode, that is the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. The commentators explain that upon learning of the Sotah, the Nazarite is so taken aback by the looseness that led to the suspicion, that he decides to separate himself from the temptations of life. He will not cut his hair, in order to appear unattractive to women, he will not drink wine, to avoid being caught in compromising positions, and he sanctifies himself, like a priest, to keep holy and not defile himself by coming in contact with the dead.

It is such oft misunderstood rituals, like the Nazarite, that make the Torah challenging for contemporary Jews who are not well versed in Jewish learning. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of Orthodoxy or traditional Judaism as “fundamentalist” or “separatist,” sometimes “primitive and medieval.” The surprising truth is that traditional Judaism is neither fundamentalist nor separatist. In fact, to the contrary, traditional Orthodox Jews really do not take the Bible literally, because they believe in an Oral Code. While, of course, every verse has a literal meaning, according to tradition, the conventional meaning is the interpretation obtained through the exegesis of the Oral Code. Furthermore, as we see in the case of the Nazir, traditional Judaism, while it occasionally embraces separatism, certainly does not see separatism as the preferred way of life.

This ambivalence with respect to the Nazir’s behavior is reflected in the actual laws governing the Nazarite. When the Nazir completes his designated time that he vowed to be a Nazir, he brings a sin offering as part of the ceremony. This is indeed perplexing. After all, why should a Nazarite, who seeks to elevate himself, be required to bring a sin offering? Some say that the Nazir brings the offering because he may have unwittingly come in contact with impurity during the period that he was a Nazir. Others, like the Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spanish commentator, 1194-1270), say that the sin offering is due to the fact that now that his vow period has concluded, the Nazir is giving up the exalted lifestyle of the Nazarite. Consequently, at least according to Nachmanides, being a Nazarite is viewed as an exalted state, and the Nazir has done quite a positive thing.

Some commentators, like the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839), consider the Nazarite sinful because by depriving himself, he actually is tempting himself continually and provoking himself to sin. On the other hand, the Meshech Chochma (Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926), thinks that the Nazarite is sinful, and brings a sin offering because he deprives himself of many positive things. Because of his vows, the Nazarite is unable to make kiddush or drink havdallah wine, and fails to defile himself even in times when it would have been proper, like for the sake of deaths of close relatives or funerals of those without family. The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz of Lemberg and Prague, c.1550-1619) says that while it is true that by accepting the Nazarite vow upon oneself, the Nazarite is rising above others, it also reflects a sense of hubris. After all, aren’t there enough restrictions in the Torah?

The Maggid of Dubno (Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, 1741-1804) offers a parable of the poor man who married off his daughter and gives her a sizable gift for her marriage. A thief approached the poor man and asked how such a poor person could afford such a grand dowery. The poor man said: “I have a locked box that I have kept for many many years, where I put in small amounts of money from time to time.” The thief said to him: “What’s the point of the locked box? Is there any box that cannot eventually be opened?” Says the Dubno Maggid, the same is true of lust in this world. One who wishes to guard himself from lust, doesn’t really need supernatural means to protect oneself. On the other hand, one who does not wish to guard himself from lust, no amount of rituals and practices will protect him from succumbing.

Once again, we see that the Torah really promotes and mandates a sense of balance. Judaism certainly does not advocate asceticism, but does promote control. In one of the most revealing statements cited in the Talmud, toward the conclusion of Tractate Kiddushin of the Jerusalem Talmud, our Sages teach: “On the day of judgment, every human being will be held accountable for everything that he or she beheld and did not partake of.” In effect, the Talmud is telling us that G-d gave us this world, and instructed us to enjoy what He has given. If we fail to enjoy G-d’s world, then we are, in effect, sinners, denying G-d’s benevolence.

That surely does not sound like an ascetic, medieval or primitive religion to me. It’s a balanced religion, a balance based on Divine structure and Divine wisdom.

May you be blessed.