Asceticism – the idea that physical pleasure stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment – has a long and storied history in the annals of religious thought. All the great religious traditions have some expression of it, including such practices as: fasting, celibacy, sleep-deprivation, wearing simple clothing, poverty, and even – in the most extreme cases – the active pursuit of pain.
But Judaism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the uncomfortable life. While it is always impossible to define a single, official Jewish theology, it seems fair to say that most modern Jews have inherited a basic assumption that Jewish tradition – from the Garden of Eden on – regards the physical world as a fundamentally good place, full of things that are meant to be enjoyed by human beings.
In rabbinic literature, perhaps the most explicit celebration of physical pleasure is this statement from the Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12:
Rabbi Hizkiah the Cohen, in the name of Rav, said, “A person will have to give a justification and accounting for any delight he saw but did not consume.”
רבי חזקיה ר‘ כהן בשם רב עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל שראת עינו ולא אכל
But then, on the other end of the spectrum, we can find more ascetic rabbinic voices, like this one from Pirkei Avot 6:4:
This is the Way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink small amounts of water, and sleep on the ground; live a life of deprivation and toil in the Torah.
כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל
So which is it? What is the Jewish ideal – pain or pleasure? Well, these rabbis can debate it all they want, but what does it say in the Torah itself?
Many have claimed that the ascetic tradition in Judaism finds its roots in this week’s parsha, with the laws of the “Nazir.” We have already come across the institution of vows (nedarim – נדרים), whereby someone can verbally pledge something she owns to God. But the Nazirite vow is a particularly intense version of this practice, in that the Nazir essentially pledges herself to God for a temporary period.
There are three prominent manifestations of this commitment:
1. No wine or any other grape product.
2. No cutting of hair.
2. No contact with the dead (even one’s own parents).
The prohibition on hair-cutting may remind us of the most famous Nazir in the Bible – Samson – though he was a bit of an unusual case, because he had been pledged from birth). But it is the first rule – abstinence from wine – that most strongly suggests asceticism. Sobriety as a religious commitment is one of the classic forms of self-denial, and we find a prohibition on intoxicants in many spiritual traditions, from Islam to Buddhism.
Judaism does not ban wine, as a general rule. Quite the opposite – wine is used prominently for sacred purposes. So if this Nazirite practice is an authentic expression of Jewish asceticism, it seems to distinctly frame this kind of religious expression as the exception, rather than the rule. You can take on these extreme practices, but it is not expected, or even encouraged.
However, even this small a nod to the value of asceticism gets vehement pushback from a parade of Jewish thinkers throughout history:
First, in the Talmud (Taanit 11a), Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar, understands the Nazir not merely as an extremist, but in fact, a sinner:
His sin refers to his denying himself the enjoyment of wine. If then, the one who merely denied himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, how much more so does that apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life!
וכי באיזה נפש חטא זה אלא שציער עצמו מן היין והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין נקרא חוטא המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה
Then, in the medieval period, Maimonides, who famously revived Aristotle’s concept of “the golden mean,” or “middle path,” wrote the following about the Nazirite vow:
If a person should say… He will not eat meat or drink wine, or get married, or live in a nice house, or wear fine clothes, but only wool and sackcloth, like the heathen priests – this is an evil path, and it is forbidden to walk down it.
Therefore the sages commanded that a person should not deny himself anything beyond what the Torah itself prohibits, and should not take on vows of abstinence on things permitted to him. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 3:1,3)
שמא יאמר אדם… שלא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין ולא יישא אישה ולא יישב בדירה נאה ולא ילבוש מלבוש נאה אלא השק והצמר הקשה וכיוצא בהן, כגון כומרי אדום—גם זו דרך רעה היא, ואסור לילך בה.
לפיכך ציוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעה התורה בלבד, ולא יהיה אוסר עצמו בנדרים ובשבועות על דברים המותרים.
And finally, when we come to the modern Hassidic movement, we find that one of the key features of their theology was a strong affirmation of engagement with the physical world, not just as a form of pleasure, but as a means of unlocking spiritual potencies. So Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, in Netivot Shalom, writes this about the Nazirite vow:
The purpose of Creation and the purpose of divine service is for the Jew to immerse in all the physical things, and then to elevate them all in the name of God, for then he joins the lower with the upper. The path of separating from the things of this world is an easier path. But the higher level is to raise all the things of this world to the Holy One, Blessed be He. And that is the desired purpose.
תכלית הבריאה ותכלית עבודת ה׳ היא שיהודי יעסוק בכל הענינים הגשמיים וירים את הכל לשם ה׳, שאז הריהו מחבר תחתונים בעליונים. אמנם הדרך לפרוש להתנער מעניני עוה׳׳ז היא דרך יותר קלה, אבל המדרגה היותר גבוהה היא להעלות את כל עניני עוה׳׳ז להשי׳׳ת שזוהי התכלית הנרצית.
Here the Nazirite path is not a problematic form of extremism. Just the opposite – it’s total a cop-out! The real work of the world is to be immersed in its physicality, and then to lift it up, merging the material with the spiritual. The Nazir takes the “easier path,” just letting go of the world entirely. Sure, he has found a more direct way to a spiritual experience. But he has also forsaken his true divine purpose.
But wait a minute. Before we allow these voices to write the Nazir out of the Torah altogether, we ought to wonder what he’s doing there in the first place. Is it really plausible that the Torah would go out of its way to create this elaborate ritual if it were totally undesirable – even sinful – to carry it out?!
And after all, the Torah itself describes the Nazir with what seems to be quite lofty language:
All the days of his being a Nazir, he is holy unto the Lord. (Numbers 6:8)
כֹּל, יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ, קָדֹשׁ הוּא, לַה
Holy unto the Lord sounds pretty good. Surely there is something deeply valuable in this practice!
In that spirit, one of the most celebratory approaches to the Nazir comes from the commentary of the Ibn Ezra, who – in his typical fashion – first focuses on linguistic nuances:
Some say that Nazir comes from the term nezer, meaning crown. Which is why it refers to the Nazirite hair “for God, upon his head.” And this seems likely.
And know that all people are slaves to their worldly desires, and the true king, the one with the Nazirite crown upon his head, is the one who is free from these desires.
ויש אומרים כי מלת נזיר מנזרת נזר והעד כי נזר אלהיו על ראשו ואיננו רחוק ודע כי כל בני אדם עבדי תאות העולם והמלך באמת שיש לו נזר ועטרת מלכות בראשו כל מי שהוא חפשי מן התאות
So back and forth, back and forth – the rabbis keep debating. Is it good to become a Nazir or not? Is it good to cut oneself off from the pleasures of the world, or is it contrary to the very purpose of creation?
But there is something that we have been ignoring all along, the great 19th-century German commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out. And that is – these Nazirite practices do not really constitute such a rigorous program of asceticism.
No wine, no haircuts, and no dead bodies? That’s it?! What about fasting and sleeping on the ground? What about wearing sackcloth or going celibate?
In fact, the Nazir can still enjoy all kinds of physical pleasure. If the point of the Nazirite vow was to free the vower from all worldly desire, it really didn’t take us too far down the list of desires.
Instead, Rabbi Hirsch understands the function of the Nazirite vow quite differently:
The basic meaning of nezer is quite definitely: to keep aloof, to keep separate…. So that just as nezer means a royal diadem which marks the person whose head it surrounds as being set apart and inaccessible, so here nezer designates a regime of living and striving that raises the person who vows of his own free will to undertake it, out of and about the midst of people amongst whom he lives and sets him the task to be completely “holy to God,” to belong with the whole of his being and will exclusively to his God. He wishes to draw a circle round about himself in which only God is to be present.
The obstacle to spiritual enlightenment, according to this model, is not physical pleasure, but social pleasure. It is not temptations of the flesh that that will keep me away from God, but the bonds of friendly and familial obligation. How can I cultivate a deep relationship to the Divine, if I am balancing it with all my other relationships? I need space to myself. I need time alone with my God.
And yet, Jewish life does not offer too much alone time. The laws that make up Jewish practice presume a community of practitioners. This is not a religion for individuals; it is the religion of a people. These people need me, and I need them. We cannot escape from one another.
But then, how does one ever find God, in the midst of all these people? How does one hear the still, small voice of God calling, above the buzzing noise of human society? Religion takes place in the congregation, but sometimes God can only be found alone.
Rabbi Hirsch acknowledges this tension as he finishes his comments, and offers us a strange solution:
One who does so isolate himself [with and for God] is called a Nazir. But this is no hermit-like isolation, no shutting oneself up in the wilderness. It is an isolation of one’s mind and spirit with God in the midst of the most active ordinary life.
I will not run away – the Nazir is saying – far from the madding crowd. I will find a way to be alone with God right here, amongst you all. I will live in society, and I will give to it – but I will have a place of retreat, in my mind.
How will I do this? I will not drink wine, for then I will lose myself in the joy of celebrating, and drift away into the crowd of revelers. I will not cut my hair, so that I begin to appear strange, and others keep their distance from me. And for a time, I will not go to funerals, for in sorrow I am always bonded to my people.
For now I must be alone. I am searching for something, and I have to find it by myself.
But this period of isolation will come to an end. And then I will return to you. For I belong here, in this world, with all its wonders and pleasures. And of all those earthly delights, you are chief among them.
“And from the ground the Lord God caused every tree to grow that was pleasurable to the sight and good for consumption…
… and the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for a person to be alone.”
Genesis 2:9, 18