“Traditional Judaism: Fundamentalist or Ascetic”
(Revised and updated from Naso 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter the curious law of the Nazir, the Nazirite. In Numbers 6:2: G-d tells Moses to speak unto the Children of Israel and say unto them: אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה, כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר לְהַזִּיר לַהשׁם , Any man or woman who shall separate him or herself by taking a Nazirite vow for the sake of G-d.

What is a Nazirite vow? Subsequent verses explain that the Nazirite is a person who takes upon him or herself a vow requiring three personal restrictions:
1) not to eat anything that is a derivative of grapes: no wine, grape juice or even raisins, 2) not to cut one’s hair, 3) not to defile oneself by coming in contact with a dead body. As long as the Nazirite is under the authority of the vow, the Nazirite 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, in the books of Judges and Samuel, actually relates the personal history of two well-known Nazirites, Samson and Samuel, both of whom were designated as Nazirites before birth. 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 an indication of the Torah’s ambivalence to the Nazirite.

Is the Nazirite a sinner or saint, evil or extraordinarily righteous?

The laws of the Nazirite 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 the Nazirite is so taken aback by the loose behavior that led to the suspicion of the Sotah, that he decides to separate himself from the temptations of life. Presumably, in order to appear unattractive to women, he does not cut his hair, he does not drink wine to avoid any compromising positions, and like a priest, he sanctifies himself to keep holy and not defile himself by coming in contact with the dead.

It is the oft-misunderstood rituals such as the Nazirite, that make the Torah challenging for contemporary Jews who are not well-versed in rabbinic literature. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of traditional Judaism as “fundamentalist” or “separatist,” sometimes “primitive and medieval.”

The surprising truth is that Jewish tradition is neither fundamentalist nor separatist. In fact, to the contrary, traditional Jews rarely take the Bible literally, because they believe in the Oral Code. While, of course, every verse has a literal meaning, according to tradition, the accepted meaning is the interpretation obtained by the exegesis of the Oral Code. Furthermore, as is clearly demonstrated in the case of the Nazir, while occasionally embracing of separatism, traditional Judaism certainly does not view separatism as a preferred way of life.

This ambivalence with respect to the Nazir’s behavior is reflected in the actual laws governing the Nazirite. When the Nazir completes the designated time of his vows to be a Nazir, he brings a sin offering as part of the ceremony. This is indeed perplexing. After all, why should a Nazirite, who seeks to elevate himself by being extra holy, be required to bring a sin offering?

Some suggest that the Nazir brings the sin offering because he may have unwittingly come in contact with impurity during the period that he was a Nazir. Others, like the Ramban, suggest that the sin offering is due to the fact that now that the Nazir’s vow period has concluded, the Nazir is giving up the exalted lifestyle required of the Nazirite. Consequently, at least according to Nachmanides, being a Nazirite is viewed as an exalted state, and living as a Nazir is indeed commendable.

Some commentators, such as Chatam Sofer, consider the Nazirite sinful, because, by depriving himself, he actually subjects himself continually to temptation, possibly provoking himself to sin.

The Meshech Chochmah, on the other hand, regards the Nazirite as a sinner, who must bring a sin offering because he unnecessarily deprives himself of many of the positive things of life. Because of his vows, the Nazirite is unable to make Kiddush or drink Havdallah wine, and fails to defile himself even in times when it would have been proper, like to honor the deaths of close family relatives or by attending the funerals of those without family.

The Kli Yakar maintains that while it is true that by accepting the Nazirite vow upon oneself, the Nazirite is rising above others, it also reflects a sense of hubris. After all, aren’t there enough restrictions in the Torah?

The Dubno Maggid presents a parable of a poor man who married off his daughter and gives her a sizable gift for her marriage. A thief approached the poor man to ask how such a poor person could afford such a grand dowry. The poor man explained: “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 is totally secure, that cannot eventually be opened?” The Dubno Maggid explains that the same is true of the Nazirite who must face lust in this world. One who wishes to guard oneself from lust, doesn’t really need super human means such as Nazirite vows 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 such a person from succumbing.

Once again, Judaism certainly does not advocate asceticism; it promotes moderation and self-control. We see that the objective of a Torah way of life is a lifestyle that promotes and mandates a sense of balance.

In one of the most revealing statements cited in the Talmud, found 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 declares that G-d gave this world to His creations, and instructed them to enjoy what He has given. Those who fail to derive full pleasure from G-d’s world, are, in effect, sinners, denying G-d’s benevolence.

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

May you be blessed.