Almost every major religion has some tradition of asceticism—some practice in which a person can strive for higher levels of piety by renouncing pleasures. Christian monks and nuns give up marriage and sexuality. Some Buddhist monks sleep outdoors or wear only rags. Hinduism has Sadhus who may fast for days on end or remain silent for years. Judaism, in contrast, rejects the ascetic lifestyle.
The nazir is described as a person, man or woman, who makes a vow for a specific period of time to abstain from wine or other alcohol, and also from eating anything at all made from grapes. In addition, the nazir is forbidden to have any contact with the dead, a prohibition that prevents attending funerals even for close relatives. The nazir also is forbidden to cut his or her hair for the entire period of the vow. The hair upon the nazir's head is regarded as sacred.
The Hebrew Bible's most famous nazir is Samson, the hero from the book of Judges whose sacred hair gave him superhuman strength—but not, apparently, much judgment about girlfriends. Samson's story is this week's haftarah portion. More on him later.
At the end of the nazir's term of service, the Torah instructs that he or she must come to the Tent of Meeting with a sacrificial offering: "A yearling ram without blemish as a burnt offering and a yearling ewe without blemish as a sin offering" (Numbers 6:13-14). If the nazir is a person who achieves piety through ascetic practice, why is it, the rabbis ask, that the nazir must atone for a sin upon completing his or her vow? What sin?
The Talmud responds to this question by saying, "What could it be other than that the nazir has sinned by afflicting his or her own soul by abstaining from wine?… If a person is called a sinner just because he or she afflicts his or herself by abstaining from wine, how much more so does such a person sin by afflicting his or herself by abstaining from all food!’” (B. Ta'anit 11a). The rabbis disdain the ascetic choices of the nazir, and all but eliminate the practice.
In criticizing the choice to serve God through self-denial, the rabbis also wonder whether we have a positive obligation to enjoy the gifts of material world, such as wine and food. Is it permitted to abstain from what God has given us for pleasure?
A statement in the Jerusalem Talmud addresses this directly: "Rabbi Hezekiah the Priest said in the name of Rav, 'In the future, a person will be required to give testimony and accounting for all the good things he saw with his eye but did not eat'" (Y. Kidushin 4:12, daf 48b). God gave us the world so that we would enjoy it, not to withdraw ourselves from it.
The rabbis also seem to wonder about the motivations of would-be ascetics. Do they act to aggrandize God or to aggrandize themselves? Is theirs an expression of piety or of ego?
By calling the nazir a sinner, the rabbis make us wonder if many nazirim are like Samson in more ways than one. After all, they recognize that Samson was not just a zealous fighter for Israel, he also was egotistical and self-obsessed. Samson defied his parents when they warned him against marrying a Philistine woman (Judges 14:3). He became a self-righteous vigilante when the wife he spurned married another (15:4-5). He succumbed to his sexual cravings to betray the sacred hair on his head (16:16–17). Is the Bible telling us something about a "nazir personality"—a person whose determination to serve God is motivated by self-seeking arrogance?
The rabbis seek a balance between joyfully accepting the pleasures of the world, and doing so with humility. It is an act of true piety to take part in the good foods that are permitted to us and to find joy in drinking alcohol in moderation. It is a spiritual act to enjoy the beauty of the world and its resources, if we use them with respect and appreciation for the earth and its Creator. It is an act of religious devotion to enjoy sensuality and sexual fulfillment when it occurs between sanctified loving partners and within ethical boundaries. There is piety in pleasure.
There is also a warning here. People who take religion seriously are challenged to ask themselves difficult questions about their own motivations. What are your deeper motivations when you believe that you are acting for the sake of God? Is it really to serve God or your own ego? What can you do to make sure that the practices you take upon yourself remain for the sake of something beyond yourself, and not just to feed your sense of self-importance?
Judaism asks us to walk a thin line. We are to enjoy the world with exhuberant joy and ecstasy. We also are to acknowledge with gratitude and humility the One who gave us the world. Walking the path described by that thin line leads us toward a life of fulfillment and appreciation.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Naso: Two Ways of Seeking God's Face
Kedoshim: Being Holy