24 May 2018
One of my missions in life is to dispel misconceptions about Judaism- it more or less comes with the territory. Whether it’s assuring people that the ‘sheet with a hole in it’ thing is just an urban legend or trying to demonstrate that not all Jews are white, I enjoy the effort to try and show people a side of our amazing faith they may not have seen before.
Perhaps the most common misconception I encounter is the idea that Judaism doesn’t have any tradition of asceticism. Ascetic practices are all those things that involve avoiding, abstaining, and permanently swearing off the pleasures of the world. Many faiths are defined be these aspects of their practice: Saddhu monks who meditate for weeks
without food or water, Sufis who fast far beyond the normal expectations of Shari’a, or the familiar image of Christian monks self-flagellating, wearing hair shirts, or sleeping on wooden pallets.
Certainly Judaism doesn’t have much of a tradition of self-harm, and I’m glad for it! There were the occasional group or solitary rabbi who encouraged extraordinary fasting, or in one case, rolling naked in the snow as penance. (Ouch!) Yet, to say there’s no spirit of self-restriction or ascetic piety also isn’t true. Our parashah in fact, Naso, devotes a considerable amount of time introducing us to the best example of a Jewish ascetic practice in the Bible: the Nazir.
The Nazir is described as a model of piety: a man or woman who swears a solemn vow to observe three primary restrictions for a set period of time. The Nazir had to abstain from all grape products (chief among them wine), could not cut their hair, and could never come in contact with death, via a corpse or a cemetery. Our parashah records the method which one would use to undertake such a vow, and in the rest of the Tanakh we hear stories of famous Nazirim, such as the tragic hero Samson.
So what happened to this biblical category? How come we don’t still have a special religious order of people who accept the vows and restrictions of the Nazir? Ultimately, it fell out of favour. Partially this was because if the Nazir accidently broke one of the vows they had to bring a sacrifice, shave their head, and start again. In the absence of the Temple, a Nazir whose vows needed to be renewed wouldn’t have a way to do so.
Despite the apparent impossibility of being a modern Nazir, there has been a huge renewal of interest in the practice. Many rabbis have encouraged abstinence from alcohol and a vegetarian diet as a modern way of observing the vow. Rav Kook’s primary student, Rabbi David Cohen
, was known as ‘the Nazir,’ and encouraged the revitalisation of the practice for modern Jews.
Why be a 21st century Nazir? Although Judaism generally encourages us to take advantage of the world’s pleasures, our own era may be the time in history in which we need that exhortation the least. For our ancestors, living in a (especially Christian) society which encouraged asceticism in every aspect of life, Judaism’s affirmation of the world and its pleasures was a welcome antidote. However, it may be that in our day the pendulum has swung to the other side completely. Our world is one which indulges and encourages every pleasure imaginable. Perhaps the mild asceticism and ethical piety of the Nazir should be a part of modern religious practice and maybe it can yet be a happy reminder that Judaism is rarely as simple as it seems.