The drama of a nazir illustrates our delicate interface with the physical world which surrounds us. God crafted us as spiritual creatures- more angel than animal. Homo sapiens are meaning-seeking animals, something the physical world can never provide. In our pursuit of meaning, we must look beyond.
On the other hand, God fused our spirits to bodily frames and firmly planted us in a material world. The bodies which house our souls have physical needs and respond to physical experiences. These two “selves”- our bodies and our souls- though fundamentally different, feel indistinguishable. They heavy influence one another: spirituality affects physical well-being, while medical health influences our spiritual state. We are crafted as “two” but experience life as “one”.
Throughout our history, our tradition offered differing approaches to help navigate these two spheres. Often, the physical world was dismissed or even vilified. Why indulge excessively in a reality which is merely a “passageway” to a more eternal and grander “palace”? Temporary pleasures of a fading world should be avoided or, at the very least, curtailed. Our eternal spirit will long outlast this transient world and its fleeting pleasantries.
Pleasure is not only transient, it is also dangerous. Uncontrolled, it can lure us to sin or condemn us to a life of moral decay. Facing these perils, our best hope for virtue lies in minimizing our interactions with the material world and significantly curbing physical pleasure. As the famous dictum in Pirkei Avot encourages: “eat [meager] bread with salt, and sleep on the ground, [while] living a life of self-abnegation”. Though this phrase refers specifically to torah scholars, it reflects a more generic and minimalistic approach to physical pleasure.
Other approaches in our tradition were more “holistic”, promoting a healthy interaction with the physical world. Experiences which deepen human character, can also increase religious depth and resonance. The deeper our emotional well-being and the more “well-rounded” we become, the more sweeping our religious experience becomes. Though often they clash, in religion, breadth can often increase depth.
The gemara in Berachot (35) portrays the blessing recited upon food- birchat ha’nehenin- as a form of “hallel”. Hallel isn’t recited over empty experiences and certainly not upon toxic ones. Reciting ‘hallel’ before eating, implies inherent value in the experience of eating. Or, as the Yerushalmi Talmud (Kiddushin) claims: “each of us will be held accountable for the worldly pleasures we didn’t fully appreciate” This warning doesn’t sanction a life of self-gratification or decadence. Rather, it signals the value of aesthetic experiences and ratifies reasonable pleasure taken from God’s world.
We live in perpetual “tension” between these two poles. Too much indulgence and our soul withers. Too little interaction and our religious experience may become listless.
A nazir sits right at the boundary of this quandary. Distancing himself from wine and potential drunkenness, reflects a heightened religious sensitivity. The gemara traces his bold decision to the tragedy of an unfaithful woman or a sotah. Horrified at the prospect of marital infidelity, the nazir forswears wine, preempting a potential slip into the world of desire and sensuality. Recoiling at the horror of moral recklessness, he takes refuge in a life of self- deprivation. Heroically, he draws a line in the sand, which he dares not cross. A nazir chooses the monastery over the party life.
In a similar vein, a gemara in Ta’anit profiles a heroic nazir: an attractive man became enraptured by his own handsome image, reflected in a pool of water. Fearing vanity and obsession with his own physical beauty, he pledged to be a nazir, hoping that his lengthy and unkempt appearance would mask his natural beauty. Worried about narcissistic conceit, he stepped away from the world of beauty. He closed his Instagram account.
Though a nazir is heroic and sacred, he is also referred to as a sinner who must offer chatat sacrifice to atone for his sin. Elaborating upon the sin of this “holy man”, the Rambam criticizes a nazir for upsetting the delicate balance between engagement with our world and withdrawal from it. The Torah carefully monitors our interaction with this world by prohibiting certain experiences and allowing others. By unilaterally banning wine which the Torah allows (and even commands), a nazir overturns the Torah’s “policies of regulation”. By villainizing wine, he frames Judaism as a rejection of this world rather than a calibration.
His sin lies in misrepresenting religion as something it isn’t. Religion does not suffocate, it regulates. It does not stifle, but it ennobles. It does not withdraw, it engages. We can be both angelic and human at the same time. The ambiguity surrounding the nazir underscores just how essential this calibration of the physical world is to religious sensibility.
We currently stand at a very critical crossroad. We live in an era of unprecedented affluence and the convenience of life surpasses anything our ancestors could have imagined. Life offers more comfort and greater luxury than ever before. The “bread and salt” of Pirkei Avot have been replaced by bagels and steak. We do sleep on the ground- but only when we go glamping. I don’t think that was the original intention of Chazal.
Yet, despite this transformation, our religious “language” hasn’t changed. The Ashkenazic world, in particular, has adopted a mussar-influenced “rejectionist” view of the world. That voice, however, was distilled close to two hundred years ago in a more spartan and physically austere world. The economic conditions of 19th and early 20th century Europe, were harsh, and invited a policy of “bread and salt”. If life in Europe was unforgiving, conditions in the newly settled Palestine were simply unbearable. Many returned to Europe. Many who didn’t, perished. It was a challenge just to survive.
In a world of meager resources, a doctrine of religious ascetism braced religious dedication. The world looked was bleak and we had every reason to turn away.
Well, our world has certainly changed! Thankfully we now enjoy abundance and widespread prosperity. This voice of “deprivation” feels outdated and impractical. Continuing to parrot this message will only lead to religious schizophrenia. It is easy to reverentially nod at these messages of deprivation, as we scurry off in our SUVs to shop in Walmart or as we order Amazon on a smartphone. It is easy to sloganize a life of “bread and salt”, as we travel on our way to our Pesach hotels.
This type of disconnect- between what we voice and how we behave- is a recipe for shallowness, artificiality, and emotionless religion. Thinking one way and living another creates a plastic experience.
We desperately need an updated voice. We need to adjust our “frequency” and learn to live in a world of plenty. How can we enjoy this new world, with abstinence, dignity, and discipline? How can we protect our “spirit” when it is overwhelmed by material? How can we parlay this abundance into religious growth? Not every modern change is a demon. Unless we make it so.