Nasso – ‘Everything (within reason) in moderation’

Texts and beliefs By Jonny Kay 31st May 2016

As you settle into your seats for the longest parashah in the Torah (top tip: to keep the person next to you quiet, ask them to count all 176 verses), please allow me to distract you for just a few precious minutes. This Shabbat we read Nasso, which begins with God informing Moses of the Tabernacle duties of the Levite families, followed by the counting of the various Levite families which leads seamlessly into ritual purity, including the laws of the Sotah (by modern standards, a bizarre and deeply sexist adultery test, something that would not have seemed out of place in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’) and the vow of the Nazir (a vow to enhance purity), ending with a description of 12 identical offerings from the 12 tribes of Israel for the Inauguration of the altar.

Whilst an in-depth statistical analysis of the Levite tribe may be appealing to the accountants amongst us and the practise of the Sotah may grab the headlines for being one of the most archaic and illogical practices in the Torah, I am instead going to comment on the vow of the Nazir. In summary, a Nazir vows not to cut their hair, eat or drink the fruits of the vine or have any contact with dead bodies. On the face of it, this also appears to be an outdated and extreme practice, especially as it is entirely inconceivable to imagine a Jewish life without wine. Wine represents so many things for us throughout the Jewish calendar: on Purim we rejoice over it; on Seder night we use it as a reminder of our freedom and to remember the awesome power of God; and under the Chuppah we incorporate it into one of the happiest days of our lives. Accordingly, how can the Rabbis expect us (or Mr Palwin) to survive without wine? Fortunately, they don’t. In order to fully understand the vow, the Rabbis insist that we scratch below the surface of this practice to discover an unerringly sensible mantra by which to live our lives.

Instead of an absolute restriction on wine or the cutting of hair, commentators such as the late great Rambam (Moses Maimonides to his friends) discuss the vow of the Nazir holistically. In a triumph of interpretation over dogma, they understand the vow not as a prescriptive doctrine but more as a helpful reminder of the value of self-discipline and the avoidance of self-indulgence. Whilst in Temple times the Rabbis might have suggested that their congregants take the vow for a minimum of 30 days, we are instead advised that “everything in moderation” is the best approach. This approach, however, is not without its own complications. For the liberal amongst us, your devotion to individual free choice means that you can interpret “everything” to mean pretty much everything (the dictionary definition of the word) within your vow of moderation, because, as a liberal you (the individual) know best. Whereas, for the conservative (little “c”) amongst us, “everything” in your vow of moderation , probably means “certain things” from a list of society’s approved things, because we (the institution of society) know best, not you (the individual). Ironically, I think that the more moderate (albeit paradoxical) view we should strive for is, “moderation in all things, including moderation”.

Jonny Kay, along with his wife, Sam Kay, is a member of New North London Synagogue. Jonny is a solicitor at global insurer AXA UK plc.

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