Rabbi Freedman’s Shabbat Message

NASO 2024|5784
ASCETICISM
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK – RABBI DAVID FREEDMAN

An Irish comedian once described himself as a religious Catholic – he said it was inevitable that he would go to church every Sunday – “After all,” he said, “my mother was a nun and my father was a monk!” From the largely Protestant audience, he got a cheap laugh at the expense of the ascetic wing of Christianity. But in fact, the joke wasn’t so funny at all – as can be seen from this admission by someone in England in May 2012, as reported in the London Times:

To say that my parents’ life is my finest dinner party anecdote sounds somewhat callous. Still, I am ashamed to admit, it probably is. Because before they met, my mother was a nun, and my father was a monk. And not for a short time, either. My mother, Anne, was a Servite nun for almost thirteen years and my father, Jeremy, a Benedictine monk for almost fourteen.
This is certainly not the only case I found. On the BBC website, dated January 2, 2023 there was an article with this rather unusual headline: The nun and the monk who fell in love and married.

Twenty-four years after becoming a nun, it was a brief touch of the sleeve of a monk in the parlour of the convent that changed everything for Sister Mary Elizabeth. The prioress of the order had taken her to meet the friar Robert, who was visiting from a priory in Oxford, to see if he wanted anything to eat. But Sister Mary Elizabeth’s superior was called away to take a phone call, so the two were left alone. “It was our first time in a room together. We sat at a table as he ate, and the prioress didn’t come back so I had to let him out.” Sister Mary Elizabeth had lived a devout, austere and mostly silent life as a nun, spending most of her days in her “cell”. Robert had been a Carmelite friar for 13 years by this point. He was a thinker, academic and theologian who came to monastic life in a search for meaning during what he describes as a crisis of faith and identity.

As she let Robert out of the door, she brushed his sleeve and says she felt something of a jolt. “I just felt a chemistry there, something, and I was a bit embarrassed. And I thought, gosh, did he feel that too. And as I let him out the door it was quite awkward.” She recalls that it was about a week later that she received Robert’s message asking if she would leave to marry him. They eventually married, and now share a home in the north of England. They are still on a journey to adjust to life outside the monastery and the convent.

Christianity is well-known for its asceticism, as is Islam; Lent and Ramadan being the two prime examples– but Judaism (other than on the one holy day of Yom Kippur) is less inclined to denial and self-affliction.

Yet in this week’s sidra of Naso, we find the ultimate example of Biblical asceticism in the form of the Nazir. The sidra introduces the Nazirite, an individual who undertook – by oath and for a limited period – a special set of self-imposed restrictions. He vowed i) to refrain from wine and other intoxicants, including anything made from grapes; ii) not to have his hair cut; and iii) not to allow himself to be defiled by contact with the dead.

The period of abstinence varied from person to person, but it seems that the standard length of nezirut was thirty days. Naturally there were exceptions, most famously the judge Samson and the prophet Samuel who, in both cases, because of the miraculous nature of their births were consecrated as Nazirites for life.

A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name. But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant and have a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’” (Judges 13: 2-7)

In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (I Samuel 1: 2-3)

To be sure, almost every religion includes some austere elements in pursuit of spiritual purity, who try to find spirituality by retreating from society and withdrawing from the pleasures and temptations of life. Over the last two millennia we have found such individuals or groups in caves, retreats and monasteries. The Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been such a movement. In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted similar kinds of self-denial – among them the Chasidei Ashkenaz, the Pietists of Northern Europe, as well as many Jews in Islamic lands.

In retrospect, said Rabbi Sacks, it is hard not to see in these patterns of behaviour at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Chasidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts may have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam.

The reality is that in every age there are those who question more than others; perhaps their intellect is sharper, perhaps their suffering is greater, perhaps their joy is deeper – but their need is to seek the meaning of life away from the norm – far from the natural longings and cravings of human life. So where others seek truth, passion, feeling, fulfilment and self-assurance through love, sex, wealth, hedonism and self-indulgence others take the route of the Nazir or the ascetic, and withdraw from society rejecting any form of decadence and pleasure so that they may find peace, tranquillity and meaning through abstinence, denial and withdrawal.

The adjective ascetic derives from the ancient Greek term áskēsis, which means “training” or “exercise”. The original usage did not refer to self-denial, but to the physical training required for athletic events. Its usage later extended to rigorous practices used in many major religious traditions, in varying degrees, to attain redemption and higher spirituality.

Before examining the Nazir’s choice to turn away from the community, which incidentally appears to be in direct opposition to the statement of Hillel in Pirke Avoth 2:4 – הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר Do not separate yourself from the community, one should first describe what a life of asceticism in Judaism looks like. In the Middle Ages, it was the great philosopher Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda (1050–1120 CE) who presented us with some details in his monumental work, Chovot Halevavot (The Duties of the Heart). According to Rabbenu Bachya abstinence is the renunciation of everything that disturbs one from the service of God: it means holding this world in abhorrence and curtailing desires; quietude of the soul and curbing its musings; it means limiting oneself to the minimum of clothing required for decency; taking of food only as much as is needed to still hunger; denying oneself of all relaxation and physical pleasure; limiting oneself to mere satisfaction of natural needs without which one could not exist; and excluding everything else from the mind.

Bachya held that as the world grew in complexity, wealth and power, the need for asceticism increased. For the ancients – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. – lived on such a high spiritual level that they did not need asceticism. However, as the generations developed, and the world sank deeper into the fragmentation and depravity that we often see in the modern world, people became more focused on the secular and profane, losing their interest in the holy. A period of perishut or separation became therefore, a useful vehicle through which one might regain perspective and re-establish one’s innate values. In this spiritual domain, we may compare such a period of separation or isolation, to someone recovering from illness. Following a stay in hospital, who doesn’t require some solitude, peace and rest in order to fully recover? Convalescence for one who is physically sick is mirrored therefore by a period of abstinence for one who is spiritually unwell.

Rav Saadiah Gaon agrees, viewing perishut as a necessary attitude and method when confronted by a world defined by excess and sin. He suggests, “Use it when necessary.”
Whether we should praise or criticise the Nazir is a moot point – but I could not write about the Nazir without mentioning David Cohen (1887–1972) also known as “Rav Ha-Nazir,” the Nazirite Rabbi.

Cohen was a rabbi, Talmudist, philosopher, kabbalist, and a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. A noted Jewish ascetic, he took a Nazirite vow at the outbreak of World War I.
Cohen was born near Vilna (in modern Lithuania), the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family. In his youth he studied at the Raduń Yeshiva under Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the famed Chofetz Chaim). Even at that time, his restless and inquiring mind led him to extend his studies beyond the traditional subjects taught in the yeshivot. Thus he turned to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the early writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905 he was twice arrested but not detained. His spiritual unrest and the desire to widen his intellectual horizon led him to enrol in the Academy for Jewish Studies established by Baron David Guenzburg, where one of his close fellow students was Zalman Shazar, later 3rd president of the State of Israel. From there he proceeded to Germany to study at the University of Freiburg. At the outbreak of WW1 he was interned as an enemy alien, but was released and made his way to Basel, Switzerland, where he became involved in the Jewish Community while studying not only Torah, but also philosophy, classical literature, and Roman law at the University of Basel.

It was at this stage of his life that he took upon himself a lifelong Nazirite vow, which involved complete abstention from cutting his hair, as well as partaking of any products of the vine.
However, his personal asceticism went further: he became a vegetarian, eschewing not only meat but also any garment made of leather, and practised self-imposed silence vows (referred to as “Speech Fasts”) on a regular basis. A weekly silence every Shabbat; a monthly silence every Rosh Chodesh Eve, and an annual silence of 41 days from Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul to the end of Yom Kippur.

In addition, despite being proficient in nine languages, he refused to speak anything but Lashon Ha-Kodesh – Hebrew. Additionally, following the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem by the Jordanians during the War of Independence, he vowed not to leave his home. In fact from 1948 onwards, he only left Jerusalem three times up until the day he died in 1972. On each occasion, a specially convened Rabbinical Court met and granted him permission. However, he was not a recluse and was extremely warm, welcoming and respectful towards others.
The turning point in his life came when he met Rav Kook. At that time he decided to abandon his secular studies and devote himself entirely to Jewish thought. In 1922 he received an invitation from Rav Kook, who had returned to the Land of Israel, to become a tutor in his yeshiva. He helped draw up the curriculum, which was to include history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew grammar and Bible. He was appointed lecturer in Talmud, ethics and philosophy. Cohen was married to his cousin, Sarah Cohen (née Etkin) and had a daughter and a son: Zfia, who married Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former chief rabbi of Israel, and She’ar Yashuv, who became the Chief Rabbi of Haifa. He was our true modern-day nazir.

The question remains – is asceticism approved of in rabbinic thought? Many Jewish sources describe the physical world as essentially good; the human body as a servant of the spirit, and therefore not corrupt; the human being as possessing dignity as one made in the image of God; and physical pleasures as God-given and therefore to be enjoyed with gratitude toward the Divine. The Psalmist best summed up our traditional approach, עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְשִמְחָה בֹאוּ לְפָנָיו בִרְנָנָה Serve the Lord with joy, come before Him in song. (Psalm 100:2)

One who refuses to partake of the material world was even described as a sinner by Samuel of Nehardea (Taanit 11a) and this seems to be in line with the Torah’s insistence that at the end of one’s period of abstinence, the Nazir must bring a Sin Offering. Those who disapprove of asceticism view the Nazir as one who unnecessarily denies himself the pleasures of this world; rejecting, or at least, not celebrating the world that God created and described at the dawn of Creation as good. (See Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 25, 31) There is no doubt that these sages considered asceticism and privation as a sin against the will of God, for people should enjoy the gift of life. Hillel considered, for example, caring and bathing the body as a religious duty (Levitcus Rabbah 34:3).

In practice, however, there were many ascetics among Jews during the period of the Second Temple. Y.F. Baer maintains (Yisrael ba-Ammim, 1955) that during this period Judaism possessed a definite ascetic character and furthermore, the teachings of the early sages also leaned toward asceticism. This doctrine, according to him, left its permanent traces in all spheres of Jewish life, and in it he sees the origin of the ascetic and monastic elements so prevalent in Christianity.

At the same time, however, other sources note that the Nazir is called holy: כֹּל יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ קָדֹשׁ הוּא לַה’ All the days of his nezirut, he is holy unto the Lord (Numbers 6:8) and further, that Judaism recommends that Jews avoid intemperate and extravagant behaviour, which is seen as leading to bad character traits and sometimes to outright sin.

Thus Jews were commanded to moderate their eating and drinking and sexual behaviour; to sanctify their lives to the service of God, and to avoid at all costs selfish behaviour and/or a life of excess.

Overall, Judaism recommends moderation rather than total abstinence, a balance perhaps best represented by Maimonides’ golden mean. As for why a sin-offering is required, Nachmanides offers his own response:

Until now he was separated in sanctity and the service of God, and he should therefore have remained separated for ever, continuing all his life to be consecrated and sanctified to God, as it is said, I raised up some of your sons for prophets, and your young men for Nazirites (Amos 2: 11). Thus Scripture compares the Nazirite to a prophet. Accordingly, when he completes the period of his vow and returns to ordinary life he requires atonement, since he goes back to being defiled by the material desires of the world.

According to Rabbi Sacks, one should appreciate that there are two personalities at play in Jewish tradition – the sage and the saint. The sage, he suggests, follows the “golden mean,” the “middle way.” The moral life is a matter of moderation and balance, charting a course between too much and too little. Courage, for example, lies midway between cowardice and recklessness. Generosity lies between profligacy and miserliness. This is very similar to the vision of the moral life as set out by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics.

The saint, by contrast, writes Sacks, does not follow the middle way. He or she tends to extremes: fasting rather than simply eating in moderation, embracing poverty rather than acquiring modest wealth, and so on. At various points in his writings, Maimonides explains why people might embrace extremes. One reason he offers is repentance and character transformation. So it is that a person might cure himself of pride by practising, for a while, extreme self-abasement.

It seems rather like the Shakespearian question – To be or not to be? Should we live our life to the full enjoying all of God’s blessings, or should we, just occasionally, take a step back, deny ourselves – so that when we return to our normal life, we will appreciate all these blessings all the more and most definitely not take anything for granted. This is perhaps the real challenge of the Nazir – to return a better person, steeped in holiness and goodness and sharing these revised, upgraded characteristics with everyone else.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Freedman

For a fascinating look at a modern day Nazir, R’ Ohad Turgeman, take a look at https://pressvision.wordpress.com/2023/02/24/r-ohad-turgeman-the-real-life-nazir/