Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah yields 613 commandments, which are incumbent on the Jewish people. One would think that this daunting total would be sufficient for most Jews, yet this week’s Torah portion, Naso, teaches of additional regulations which one could assume under the status of being a “Nazirite”, one consecrated to the service of God. The haftara (additional) reading for this Shabbat narrates the story of Sampson, who according to the Bible was himself a Nazirite.
The biblical information about Nazirites is inconsistent, and the Torah and haftara portions for this week indicate the instability. In the sixth chapter of Numbers, the Torah teaches that one who wishes to become a Nazirite does so through the following rituals: the taking of a vow, the avoidance of grape products (especially wine), abstaining from cutting of the hair, and keeping adequate distance from a corpse (a prohibition normally only incumbent on Kohanim, descendents of the line of Aaron.)
One who becomes a Nazirite enters into a temporary, voluntary status. When the time of the vow is fulfilled, the Nazirite is released from the restrictions through a series of sacrificial rituals.
In the story of Sampson, a related but distinct tradition of the Nazirite is recounted. In the 13th chapter of the Book of Judges, Sampson’s mother is visited by an angelic apparition, who declares ” Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything unclean, for you are going to conceive and bear a son. Let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a Nazirite to God from the womb on.” (Judges 13:4-5)
As most casual readers of the Bible know, Sampson eventually meets his downfall when he is maneuvered into having his hair shorn, thereby depriving him of his special status as a Nazirite, and by extension depleting the supernatural strength he possesses.
The Sampson narrative, in contrast to the account in Numbers, suggests that Nazirite status could be conferred in utero, and rather than being of a temporary nature, could be lifelong. Further, the Sampson story indicates that this status could be selected for one without one’s consent, whereas in Numbers it is an individual decision assumed by an adult.
One wonders why an ancient Israelite, already subject to the requirements of the Torah, would voluntarily assume additional obligations. Perhaps the obvious answer is that every religious tradition shows evidence of a tendency towards pietistic performance, the submission to stringencies which mark one as exceptionally dedicated to the Divine.
While the inclination towards religious devotion is admirable, it also carries with it the risk of creating a hierarchy of devotees, whose scrupulousness suggests that lesser observance is inadequate. Within the observant Jewish community today there exists a fringe element devoted to discovering ever more rigorous levels of observance, and having found them, this element seeks to discover even more ways in which they can refine their religious performance.
Such an attitude is reflected in novelist Chaim Grade’s collection of stories “Rabbis and Wives”, in which one character informs another that a certain restriction is in fact permitted according to the great medieval rabbi Maimonides. The offended man replies: ” I do not study Maimonides to find out what is permitted; I study Maimonides to find out what is forbidden!”
Regrettably, what often starts out as a quest to strengthen one’s own religious identity can result in the adoption of a severe lifestyle which in fact separates one from one’s community or family. The ceaseless quest in some quarters of our community to discover ever more restrictive decisors with regard to kashrut, for example, suggests not merely a devotion to the dietary regulations, but a desire to “rise above” those who would settle for “merely acceptable” levels of supervision.
Perhaps it is because of the tendency towards pietistic partition that mainstream Jewish tradition followed the Torah version of the Nazirite laws, rather than the version suggested in the Sampson story. What little we can deduce about the Nazirite tradition suggests that Judaism went with the temporary and voluntary definition, rather than the “from the womb” version.
For better or worse, the tradition seems to have sanctioned the desire on the part of some to achieve a special status, but this desire was circumscribed in ways that minimized the possibility of creating a caste of “Superjews” whose devotion might have suggested their superiority.
The restrictions on the Nazirite may in fact have been designed to make people think twice before assuming the obligation. The requirement of the vow, which carried considerably more weight in biblical times than in our own day, may have been designed to deflect the temporarily inspired from assuming an obligation they would then come to see as a burden. The temporary duration of Nazirite status suggests that even where one wanted and achieved the elevated status, one could not maintain it indefinitely.
Judaism, for the most part, avoided the creation of an elevated group subject to extraordinary restrictions. Kohanim (the priests) had certain prerogatives with regard to the cult, and had certain restrictions imposed upon them from birth (avoidance of corpses, forbidden to wed those previously married or those converted). But they did not have a special “status” which elevated them. What they did have, as did the “Levites” (assistant priests), was the opportunity of obligation with regard to the Temple service.
The rabbi in Jewish tradition did not have to assume the type of familial restrictions placed upon, for example, priests in the Catholic tradition. Rabbis were allowed to marry, have children, and function in the same ways as the rest of the community. Their distinction was purely with regard to their knowledge of the tradition and their ability to interpret Jewish law. With the obvious disclaimer that traditional Judaism excluded women from the rabbinate, the concept of the rabbi was essentially democratic: regardless of birth, one could attain the title through study.
The Nazirite tradition, ancient and unusual at best, eventually faded from Judaism when it was no longer possible to observe the cultic dimensions of the rites. The tendency towards assuming ever-more stringent observance seems to undulate throughout Jewish history, with the current period being one of ascendancy in which “modern Orthodoxy” finds itself under siege from its right flank for “only” being Orthodox.
The urge towards exemplary religious devotion is noble, and healthy. There is nothing wrong with trying to observe more, and assuming on oneself certain restrictions. But such personal decisions should be seen as acts of involvement and not of isolation, and those whose levels of observance differ need not be disparaged. As the Bible itself indicates, there are many paths to the One God.