5/27/2007

Nazirism and Pluralism

Since discovering this phenomenon about 4 years ago, I’ve been fascinated by it. The Gemara in Taanit 11a records a machloket between Shmuel and R’ Elazar about whether one who fasts is a sinner (‘chotei’) or a saint (‘kadosh’):

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף יא עמוד א

אמר שמואל: כל היושב בתענית נקרא חוטא. סבר כי האי תנא, דתניא: רבי אלעזר הקפר ברבי אומר: מה תלמוד לומר +במדבר ו'+ וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש, וכי באיזה נפש חטא זה? אלא שציער עצמו מן היין, והלא דברים קל וחומר: ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין נקרא חוטא, המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר - על אחת כמה וכמה. רבי אלעזר אומר: נקרא קדוש, שנאמר +במדבר ו'+ קדוש יהיה גדל פרע שער ראשו. ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מדבר אחד נקרא קדוש, המצער עצמו מכל דבר - על אחת כמה וכמה.

Shmuel said: One who sits in fast is called a sinner. He agrees with the tanna who taught: Why does the Torah say “And it will atone for his sin on the life” (Bamidbar 6, regarding the Nazir)? Against whose life did he sin? Rather, he tormented himself by refraining from wine. And this is a fortiori reasoning; if this person, who only tormented himself by refraining from wine, is called a sinner, how much more so one who refrains from everything.

Rabbi Elazar says: He is called a saint, as it says, “He will be holy, as the locks of his hair grow.” If one who only mortified himself through wine is called a saint, how much more so one who refrains from everything!

Each relies on the Torah’s view of the Nazir to support his position – the Nazir is called a kadosh, but also must bring a sin-offering (‘chatat’) at the end of his period as a Nazir. A somewhat parallel Gemara in Nedarim 10a-b lists a group of pre-Talmudic sages who took a negative view of Nazirism (I blogged about one of them in a discussion of ‘Nazirism and Narcissism’ in an old post). In either case, we have an instance where on the same page of Talmud you have what essentially diametrically opposite views on asceticism in general and Nazirism in particular. Within four lines of each other, the abstinent is called both sinner and saint.

The impact of this dispute can be much further-reaching than other machlokot. Firstly, because it is not merely a dispute about a particular action or object, but about a lifestyle in general. Secondly, because the opinions are in complete opposition. It’s not a machloket about whether something is assur mi-d’orayta or mi-d’rabanan, or whether something is pattur ve-assur or pattur u-muttar

Fast forward to medieval times. The greatest of the Rishonim seem to ‘pasken’ this dispute, as it were. Rambam writes in Hilkhot De’ot 3:1 that:

רמב"ם הלכות דעות פרק ג הלכה א

שמא יאמר אדם הואיל והקנאה והתאוה והכבוד וכיוצא בהם דרך רעה הן ומוציאין את האדם מן העולם, אפרוש מהן ביותר ואתרחק לצד האחרון, עד שלא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין ולא ישא אשה ולא ישב בדירה נאה ולא ילבש מלבוש נאה אלא השק והצמר הקשה וכיוצא בהן כגון כהני העובדי כוכבים, גם זה דרך רעה היא ואסור לילך בה, המהלך בדרך זו נקרא חוטא, שהרי הוא אומר בנזיר וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש, אמרו חכמים ומה אם נזיר שלא פירש אלא מן היין צריך כפרה המונע עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה, לפיכך צוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעתו התורה בלבד, ולא יהא אוסר עצמו בנדרים ובשבועות על דברים המותרים, כך אמרו חכמים לא דייך מה שאסרה תורה אלא שאתה אוסר עליך דברים אחרים, ובכלל הזה אלו שמתענין תמיד אינן בדרך טובה, ואסרו חכמים שיהא אדם מסגף עצמו בתענית, ועל כל הדברים האלו וכיוצא בהן צוה שלמה ואמר אל תהי צדיק הרבה ואל תתחכם יותר למה תשומם.

“Lest a person say, ‘since jealousy, lust, glory, and the like are an evil path which destroy a person, I will excessively withdraw from them and distance myself by going to the opposite extreme’ – to the point that he does not eat meat, drink wine, get married, live in a nice home, or wear decent clothing other than sackcloth, burlap, and the like, in the manner of pagan priests; this is also an evil path which it is forbidden to travel. One who follows this path is called a sinner, since it says about a Nazir “And it will atone for his sin on the life”. Oir Sages said, “if a Nazir, who only refrained from wine, requires atonement, how much more so one who holds back from everything. Therefore, Our Sages instructed that one should not hold back from things unless the Torah forbade them… (Rambam, The Book of Love, Laws of Character, 3:1)

Rambam goes on to describe the evils of asceticism and to famously idealize the ‘middle path’ which leads man to God. Note, however, that Rambam completely ignores the position of R’ Elazar.

Ramban ignores the position of Shmuel. In Bamidbar 6:14 (and more briefly in Vayikra 19:1) he emphasizes the sainthood of the Nazir and explain that he must atone for descending from his lofty perch. Similarly, Ramcha”l in the beginning of Chapter 13 of Mesillat Yesharim, where he explains the trait of ‘Prishut’ (asceticism), he ‘rules’ like R’ Elazar in favor of Nazirism and asceticism.

The interesting thing for me is how this issue engenders such strong feelings. When talking about a lifestyle, it is very hartd not to adopt one position or the other. I think it’s clear that nearly everyone has an opinion about whether asceticism is a good thing or a bad thing. It was simply striking to notice that the Gemara is perfectly capable of recording both opinions on the same page, but the Rishonim in general did not. Granted, the Rishonim were generally writing monographs, not compilations, and were therefore less disposed to recond disputes. Nevertheless, each of these records the position as though it is THE Torah position, and with regard to a matter which need not be ‘paskened’.

In today’s world, I think that this machloket is both important and a good example of pluralism within Judaism. Each side, as we’ve seen, feels very strongly that the position they adopt corresponds with the lifestyle that the Torah envisions. We, too, can adopt one side or the other and feel just as strongly that this is what the Torah wants from us. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the alternative position nor can one say that the other position is ‘not Jewish’. Asceticism has Jewish manifestations, as much as we’d like to believe that mortification of the fless is a Christian concept rooted in original sin and ‘pie-in-the-sky’. As much as some would like to believe that there is something wrong with enjoying this world too much, or that one must feel like the angels are forcing him when experiencing pleasure (ve-hamaven yavin), there are other voices in our religious tradition. I can pick a side, even adopt it strongly, without delegitimizing the alternative. I prefer to stick with Talmudic Judaism – Judaism with dialogue, associative thinking, and ‘comments enabled’ as it were, than to the monographic and monologic renditions of our Rishonim. Not to minimize their contribution in any way – Rambam and Ramban can now appear alongside Shmuel and R’ Elazar, in opposition to each other, but on the same page nonetheless.

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