Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Natasha Mann 24th May 2018

The Holy Sinner

Does the Torah recommend asceticism, or does it advise that we take pleasure in our bodily lives? This question has been debated amongst our rabbis for millennia, and there is perhaps no figure who represents that tension better than the Nazirite.

A Nazirite was any individual who made a particular vow to refrain from wine and grape products, and from cutting his or her hair; the Nazirite was also obligated to stay an appropriate distance from a dead body, a rule that is otherwise applied to the kohanim (the priestly caste). This vow would remain in force for the period of time designated by the individual, though our Haftarah will describe the birth of one of the few lifelong Nazirites in our textual tradition. Throughout the duration of the vow, the Nazirite is described as being ‘holy to God’ (Numbers 6:8).

One might think upon reading this week’s parashah that the Torah is recommending an ascetic lifestyle to us, as beyond the 613 biblical commandments, there is an option to deprive ourselves of other bodily experiences in order to increase our holiness. However, the description of the Nazirite ends with the obligation to bring a sin offering when the term of service has been completed. The sin in question is not stated within the Torah, which has led our sages to question whether the taking of the Nazirite vow was in itself a sinful act. How is it, then, that taking the Nazirite vow can be both a holy act and a sin?

The opinions offered by our sages tend to fall into one of two categories: either the Nazirite is holy (in which case the sin offering must be ascribed to something specific), or the Nazirite is a sinner (in which case the holiness must be explained away). This argument is replayed multiple times in the Talmud – e.g., in tractate Taanit 11a, in which one rabbi claims that the sin of the Nazirite is denying him or herself something that was previously permitted, and another claims that it is precisely the denial of a permitted enjoyment that makes the Nazirite holy. It is a discussion that remains unresolved. Is the Nazirite a sinner or a saint?

The specificity of the vow to refrain from wine and grape products may point to an answer that encompasses both aspects of the Nazirite. Based on this prohibition, one might be inclined to think that wine is symbolic of abusive intoxication. However, wine is a symbol of joy within our tradition, and is used within religious rituals. It is therefore not the case that wine is best avoided, nor is it implied that any other permitted physical pleasure be avoided by virtue of the pleasure. Nevertheless, there is a danger in wine, and the recognition of one’s individual needs and weaknesses is holy.

Spiritual healing may include abstaining from regular activities. Yet even the most necessary Nazirite vow must come with a reminder that an ascetic existence is not ideal. It is precisely our use of wine in religious rituals which teaches us that our goal should not be to transcend the physical world, but rather to elevate it.

Natasha Mann is a member of New London Synagogue and a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in LA, California.

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