The Lightning Rod

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There is a fascinating debate among the Tannaim in Tractate ta’anit regarding an issue that at first glance seems purely academic, since it is about an institution we no longer practice today. However, upon taking a closer look, we find that the debate, which is so extreme in its positions, is actually extraordinarily relevant to how we, as committed halachic Jews, relate to the world.

The topic that is so hotly debated is the Nazir, found in Sefer Bamidbar, chapter six. Any man or woman who wishes to become a Nazir would make a vow and abstain from consuming wine and grape products, from any form of shaving, trimming or cutting hair and from any association with death. All of these deprivations are targeted at removing the Nazir from the realms of the instinctual, aesthetic and emotional. Refraining from grape products, wine and alcohol precludes the Nazir from intoxication and loss of control.

Hair is an external manifestation of a person’s inner state, and by neglecting it, one minimizes the attention to one’s appearance. And by distancing himself from death, the Nazir disassociates with the most acute and poignant emotions that accompany that experience.

To conclude the period of nezirut, a man or woman would bring a series of sacrifices, including a chatat—a sin offering. This sin offering is the lightning rod that sparks passionate and opposing interpretations of how the Nazir should be viewed, and whether he is to be admired or pitied.

The debate is centered around the obvious question: why would the Nazir be required to bring a sin offering? What sin has he committed by engaging in this period of nezirut?

The Ramban views the Nazir as an individual who is “kadosh,” someone holy who heeds an inner calling to exist on a higher spiritual plane. He is similar to a kohen, who also abstains from associating with death in order to be able to maintain a state of objectivity and rationality, unaffected by acute and intense emotions. The Nazir has no need for, even feels encumbered by, the instinctual and the aesthetic components that are intrinsic to man and vows to disassociate in order to climb the ladder of sacred elevation. The Nazir can only be looked up to, as he towers above us, almost at the level of the angels. The only sin of the Nazir, says the Ramban, is when the term of nezirut is completed and the Nazir descends and leaves behind this transcendent state of purity. That is why he offers a korban chatat.

The Rambam’s understanding of the Nazir is diametrically opposite. The Nazir is a chotei—a sinner. Mankind is blessed and charged with the opportunity and mission to experience and transform the physical and material world. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch used to say that one of the questions a Jew will be asked by the Almighty at the end of his life is: “Have you seen My beautiful Alps?” Meaning, did you take advantage of and appreciate the beautiful world God created? Did you experience and engage with the world in all of its splendor? The Nazir, says the Rambam, would answer no. He not only can’t engage with and appreciate the world, he can’t function in it either. The Nazir is an unhealthy personality who needs to enter a state of spiritual detox, where the only way to maintain a healthy grasp on the instinctual, aesthetic and emotional realms is to abstain from them completely. The Nazir’s sin is needing to cloister himself from the legitimate pleasures Hakadosh Baruch Hu created; therefore, he is required to bring a sin offering when the term of nezirut ends.

This debate, in which the opinions are so passionate and so radically different, is not just about the Nazir. In truth, it is a debate about how we, as committed, thoughtful and spiritual Jews, relate to the physical world and the pursuit of holiness. How do we balance the yearning of our souls with the cloak of the physical world that envelops us? Some of us are followers of the Ramban, idealizing a life where we can shed the instinctual, aesthetic and emotional bonds and exist as exclusively as possible in the spiritual realm. Others are followers of the Rambam, feeling a keen sense of responsibility to engage with the world in which we live and to experience what it has to offer. This is not a conflict but a complement to kedushah.

This is a choice that is made with fervor and zeal. Rare is the voice that is neutral on this issue. Tragically, the passion regarding this issue is often so intense that we tend to delegitimize the opposing view. “The Jews in that community live like monks, closed off and isolated from the real world.” Or, “the Jews in that community are such gluttons, so lustful, ba’alei ta’avah.” These types of criticisms are not constructive or healthy, especially since both approaches are rooted in our mesorah. Rather than denigrate others or get defensive over an issue that has always been so fiercely debated, we would be wise to continue the dispute with respect and intellectual honesty. If the debate over the Nazir is the lightning rod, then we should let it spark a healthy and thoughtful debate over how we should view and relate to the physical world.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2014.

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