"Samson Puts Down the Pillars" by James Tissot, ca. 1900. The biblical character of Samson is the best known Nazirite.
"Samson Puts Down the Pillars" by James Tissot, ca. 1900. The biblical character of Samson is the best known Nazirite.

The spiritually solitary have a place in the Jewish world

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 4:21-7:89

Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is an ancient pilgrimage festival that celebrates perhaps the most foundational moment in the collective life of the Jewish people: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is a holy time that highlights the bond between God and a community of believers.

The Torah portion Naso is ordinarily read after Shavuot, yet the link between the two is not obvious. That is because in Naso, we read about a radically different kind of sacred experience, one that is not collective in nature, but instead profoundly individualistic.

In chapter six of the Book of Numbers, we find a description of the Nazir, or Nazirite, a man or woman who distinguishes and separates him/herself from the mainstream Jewish community through a range of special practices meant to devote the Nazirite exclusively to God.

The Nazirite, a sort of spiritual lone wolf, is an outlier in the history of the Jewish people. For centuries, Judaism has focused far more on the importance of community, often minimizing or even ignoring the value of the solitary individual and his or her unique needs.

In Pirkei Avot (2:4), we find the following well-known teaching: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” There are countless others.

Jews throughout the ages have placed the primacy of the collective, the group, above virtually all else. Whether it was a ghetto, a shtetl or a neighborhood, communal interests and needs have usually trumped personal agendas, aspirations and dreams.

But what about the needs and desires of the individual? Is there a place within the Jewish community, and within the Jewish religion, for the person who wants to focus on internal spirituality rather than communal projects, on personal work rather than collective practice?

Spiritual seekers have known for millennia about the powerful role that solitude can play in our inner development.

Individuals of diverse faith traditions have gone on solitary retreats and pilgrimages; some, like the early Christian desert monks, lived alone in caves or cells; others, like the Hasidic mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, developed their own ritualized practices of self-seclusion (hitbodedut).

Many of the great and revolutionary spiritual leaders, such as the Buddha and the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), first removed themselves from the world before returning to it to share the knowledge and wisdom that had been revealed to them.

What links all these figures is not theology or worldview but a common understanding that solitude can promote insight as well as healing and personal transformation.

Our capacity to be alone is connected to becoming aware of our deepest feelings, needs and impulses, to self-discovery and self-realization. It can disclose to us just how narcissistic we are, or it can show us how little we are concerned with our own well-being.

Solitude is a teacher. But it is also a healer.

One of the most ancient and vital Jewish mourning rituals is that of sitting shiva, of partially separating the mourner (who is prohibited from working during the observance) from the rest of the community for a period of seven days following the burial of a loved one.

This practice acknowledges that coping with loss — bereavement — is a challenging, painful, largely solitary process that may be hindered rather than helped by distractions.

As time passes, the mourner, still hurting, often comes to see that the meaning of life is not exclusively linked to personal relationships, that the life of the person bereft of those relationships has meaning as well.

Although love, friendship and community are an important part of what makes life worthwhile, they are not the only source of fulfillment and growth. What occurs in human beings when we are by ourselves is as valuable as what happens in our interactions with others.

We in the Jewish world have to create a safe space for the spiritual lone wolves among us, for those solitary seekers who strive for God and who work to become their best selves. At times, that striving and that work will best be served by separating from the established community.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."