Is asceticism proper path to holiness in Judaism


Numbers 4:21-7:89

Judges 13:2-25

Before telling us the consequences of becoming a Nazirite, the Torah tells us that a person acquires that status by taking an oath. Only then does the Torah tell us what the word means: A Nazirite drinks no wine or alcoholic beverages, eats no grapes, does not get a haircut and avoids contact with the dead (Numbers 6:1-21). Perhaps the people who first heard the Torah already had a concept of the Nazirite oath and needed these verses only for specific details.

If so, those people who first heard these words perhaps already knew the reason why a person might want to become a Nazirite. The Torah does not seem to focus on that question. What seems obvious in one generation, might become a puzzle to a later one. I wonder why anyone would want to become a Nazirite.

One might understand that the life of holiness demands refraining from doing even permitted acts. After all, every one of us, even the most ordinary person, ought to refrain from anything that the Torah prohibits, but it takes a real knight of faith to avoid permitted pleasures. The Nazirite offers a sacrifice, in a manner of speaking, by abstaining from these various activities. Thus, he achieves the unusual state of holiness implied in the verse, "all the days of his Naziriteship, he shall be holy to God" (Numbers 6:8).

This line of reasoning explains why the Nazirite abstains from some activities, but not why the Nazirite refrains from this particular set of activities, rather than some other set. Ascetics in all periods of history have understood the Nazirite as a religiously inspired seeker who uses abstinence as an aid to the search for holiness. The Babylonian Talmud records that Rabbi Eliezer praises the holy abstemious Nazirite (Taanit 11a).

More temperate scholars all along have rejected the asceticism of the Nazirite. The Babylonian Talmud records another Rabbi Eliezer, known as HaKappar (also cited in Taanit 11a), who castigates the Nazirite for refusing pleasures that the Torah permits, virtually rejecting gifts from God. However ineffective the path of the ascetic seems to those more tolerant of pleasure, even they may agree that positive aspirations for holiness motivate the Nazirite.

Or perhaps one can become a Nazirite as a negative response to disturbing sights. Rashi asks "Why does the passage about the Nazirite appear next to the passage about the suspected adulterous woman? To tell you that whoever sees the suspected adulterous woman in her ruin will swear off wine, which brings one to adultery."

The Nazirite in this story has not felt inspired by an impulse for holiness, but rather threatened by a troubling encounter. Rashi imagines that alcoholic drinks, enjoyed at the wrong time with the wrong person, may lead to suspect behavior, perhaps adultery. Someone may experience revulsion at seeing a fellow human being brought down by drink, and so not want to drink thereafter; or may experience fear, and not want to risk drinking even in moderation.

Samson, about whom we read in the haftarah, does not choose to become a Nazirite. The angel reveals that he has this status before his birth; even his mother must not drink wine (Judges 13:5). This seems different from a self-imposed status as a Nazirite, but some similarities may remain. While he does not choose to become a Nazirite, Samson may have the status thrust upon him to endow holiness to the man destined to begin to rescue Israel from the Philistines.

Consider this, though: Samson has powerful impulses, which match his great physical strength. He repeatedly takes up with Philistine women (Judges 14:1-4,16:1-4). Betrayed by his Philistine in-laws, he responds by destroying fields all around. All this fulfills God's plan to weaken the Philistines and begin to free Israel from them. Even so, such a man needs to keep from strong drink. It could be that some people need the additional restraint.