This week, in Parashat Naso, we read:
“… [the Nazir] shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.” (Numbers 6.3)
Naso introduces several aspects of Ancient Israelite religion that may seem strange to us– stock characters who have long since exited stage left in our own cultural drama. Chief among them are the Sotah (wife accused of infidelity) and the Nazir (person who takes on an ascetic vow).
There is a lot to say about the Sotah– the way in which the trial described has informed patriarchal understandings of women in Judaism, and the ways in which it undermines them as well. However, what’s perhaps even less understood than the Sotah, is the Nazir.
The character of the Nazir has always captured my attention and interest– for one simple reason: repeatedly and routinely I (and I’m sure many others) have mistakenly been told that Judaism doesn’t practice asceticism. (Asceticism are all those practices of religion and faith which involve denying oneself pleasures and/or purposefully inflicting pain). Not only does the detailed description of the biblical Nazir disprove this notion, but the entire history of Judaism since includes ascetic practices that, while us moderns may not like it, are irrevocably part of our traditions.
One doesn’t have to look too far– the fasting of Yom Kippur, the mourning rituals of the Omer period, and the passion of the Prophets for hair-shirts and sackcloth all testify to a tradition of asceticism. Moreover, since then, schools of Jewish thought have only expanded the range of options for religiously-sanctioned self-harm and self-restriction.
In the medieval period, many would take on voluntary fasts regularly– some once a week, some every other day. Others would practise purposeful sleep deprivation, placing a bowl of ice-water between them and the book they studied so if they drifted off they’d be awoken by a face full of freezing water. Speaking of freezing, there were the mystics who rolled naked in the snow of Central Europe, as well as those who flagellated themselves with whips, many of whom also would reenact the rabbinic death penalties to remind themselves of their mortality. Being woken up, blindfolded, and having someone hold a sword to your throat is certainly a practise that seems far from contemporary Jewish life for most of us (I hope!).
The truth is: after three millennia, there’s not too many things that Judaism doesn’t include. Whenever we are presented with a simple, reductive approach to Judaism, we should immediately be suspicious. Judaism is always more complex, more inclusive, and more diverse than it seems. Our tradition does tend less to the ascetic life than others (particularly in contrast to monastic Christianity). However, that doesn’t erase the long history of asceticism from Judaism– starting from Parashat Naso’s figure of the Nazir, and continuing all the way up until today.
*the comments above were also published in the JC’s Sedra column this week- check it out!*