The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Torah portion Naso is typically read after the holiday of Shavuot, an ancient pilgrimage festival that highlights one of the most sacred collective moments in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the people of Israel.
In Naso, we find a description of a very different kind of sacred event, one that is not collective but highly individualistic in nature.
In chapter 6 in the book of Numbers, we learn about the Nazir, or Nazirite, a man or woman who sets him/herself apart from the normative community through a variety of ascetic practices in order to devote, or consecrate, themselves exclusively to God.
Asceticism is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. It has played a constant role in the history of world religions. The ascetic impulse can be found, in varying degrees and through diverse forms, in most spiritual traditions.
Some of its common manifestations include isolation, fasting, flight to the wilderness, sexual abstinence, denial of certain foods and even bodily mortification (I’ve seen Yom Kippur self-flagellation whips at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem).
Asceticism is our response to a tension that inheres in all religious systems: the drive of human beings — either as individuals or as groups — to achieve an ideal of spiritual perfection while simultaneously confronting a self and a world that perpetually undermine that quest.
An ascetic tries to overcome those barriers. One such model is the Nazir, a member of an entire class of ascetics who lived in biblical and Second Temple times.
What separated the Nazirites from other Israelites was their devotion, for a given period, to specific disciplines (delineated in Naso) intended to promote ritual and spiritual purity: abstention from wine and other grape products; avoidance of contact with the dead; refusal to cut their hair; and vowing to set their lives apart from the mainstream community.
Since these behaviors are all visible, public ones, many rabbis came to view the Nazir with a degree of suspicion, concerned that the motivation of some of them had more to do with vanity and false piety than with the sincere desire to control or channel their impulse toward sin.
The Bible itself suggests just how complicated, and potentially injurious, asceticism can be.
One of the most famous (and tragic) examples of the Nazir is Samson, the warrior-hero from the Book of Judges. His Nazirite/ascetic practices result in an infusion of the “spirit of God” into his soul, an infusion that leads to extraordinary prowess in his battles with the Philistines and other enemies of the people of Israel.
Yet the metaphysical power unleashed by Samson’s asceticism ultimately consumes him. Later, betrayed by the woman he loves and captured by his tormentors, Samson utters a death wish: “Let me die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30).
The blind and bound Samson then pulls down the pillars of their temple and crushes everyone inside it, including himself. It is an act of vengeance and rage, and it shows how the same rituals of abstinence and abnegation can give us inner strength and direct us toward self-improvement can, depending on our psychological dispositions, also drive us to self-destruction.
While certain ascetic practices are clearly part of the Jewish tradition, moderation still seems to win out as the guiding religious principle.
The idea of lifelong celibacy, for instance, is rejected in favor of either temporary abstinence (as on Yom Kippur) or what might be called “ordered” sexuality, whereby sex is permitted, but only in specific situations and for specific reasons (e.g., the laws of niddah, or family purity).
Judaism recognizes the ascetic impulse, but accepts it as religiously valid only within the context of communal, institutionalized discipline.
Asceticism is a powerful tool, but it must be kept in check. Depending on our personalities and proclivities, its rites, rituals and practices can be used in the service of self-abuse. Social isolation can lead to misanthropy. Extreme, excessive preoccupation with God can mutate into disregard for the world.
Still, when kept in the proper perspective and utilized appropriately, ascetic acts can serve as effective tools for spiritual insight and growth.
Our challenge today is to have minds that are open enough to appreciate the many, varied and sometimes bizarre paths to God that we have inherited over the ages and that we continually create.