Friday, May 21, 2010

Parsha Naso: Dealing with Aestheticism in Judaism

In this week’s Torah portion, we deal with the institution of the vow of the Nazarite. Essentially, the vow of the Nazarite takes on three specific abstentions: wine (which, in essence, is a de facto abstention on alcohol), cutting one’s hair, and coming in contact of a dead body, even to bury your immediate relatives. As the passage describes, those who do so separate themselves for G-d (Numbers 6:2), and as such, are considered holy during all the days of their abstinence (ibid 8).

With this example in mind, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether Judaism places aestheticism as the ideal. As with just about any other Jewish question, the answer invariably is “depends who you ask.” From a historic perspective, I can definitely see how self-denial of material pleasure could have seeped into Judaism. After all, the Gnostics, Manicheans, Christians, and Muslims all have interacted with Jews, and it should not be a surprise if such a common denominator amongst other religious practices could have influenced Jewish thought. As such, many Jews, including many Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews influenced by Sufi thought, and the Essenes, all brought heavy doses of aestheticism in their daily lives. Maimonides, for instance, writes in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Nezirut 10:14) writes that “whoever vows to G-d [to become a Nazarite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy…” It seems Judaism has followed other religions by embracing aestheticism as the spiritual ideal.

The advantage of things merely seeming to be one way is that a perfectly sound counter-argument can be given, which is what I will do right about now.

The first place I will go to is what caused a man to become a nazir in the first place. In order to do so, one has to refer back to scenario in the previous chapter with the sotah (woman suspected of adultery). The reason why the nazir became a nazir in the first place is because he was so traumatized by the sheer embarrassment of the adulteress that he sought a spiritual remedy. As Rashi comments on Numbers 6:2, the reason why one became a nazir was because “whoever sees an adulteress in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery.” From a contextual perspective, the nazir temporarily goes to one extreme in order to avoid the other extreme, the latter of which Judaism deems as worse.

The next place to head is after the nazir’s vow. The conclusion of the vow is most interesting because the nazir has to make a sin-offering (Numbers 6:13-14). Nachmanides is of the opinion that the sin-offering was made because the nazir ceased his vow. Let’s start with the fact that other rabbis disagree….big surprise there! Rabbi Elizer Hakappar, a Mishnaic teacher, taught that the nazir made the sin-offering for the exact opposite reasoning. As he stated, “[Because G-d declared the world good in Genesis 1], we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life (Taanit 11a, Nedarim 10a).”

What is more shocking is what Maimonides has to say in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Deot 3:1), which is that a nazarite is called a sinner because one should only withdraw from that which Torah explicitly forbids. For those of you who caught it, I pointed out earlier that in the very same book, Maimonides called the nazir a holy man. So is a nazir holy or a sinner? Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opines that this “contradiction” is two well-accepted ways of being Jewish, i.e., the path of the pious chasid and the “golden mean.” Although this is a cute way of trying to reconcile the two, I will have to respectfully disagree with the rabbi, not something I do with R. Sacks, just because like Maimonides, he usually hits the nail on the head.

I have two responses to this contradiction. The first is to recognize the style of Maimonides. Maimonides was writing to two audiences: the “uneducated masses” and the elite who understood such things philosophy and science. Many have opined that the latter is what Maimonides really wanted to say because he was an intellectual elitist, which is one of the main reasons why I admire him so. The fact that most people cannot understand what Maimonides put forth as “the true meaning of Torah” is the reason for the two audiences. Hence, I would argue that the “nazir being holy” is for the masses, whereas “the nazir being a sinner” is an explanation for the more educated, which leads to my second response. The nazir is simultaneously being holy and sinful, which seems peculiar. However, I can clarify my statement. The nazarite is holy in the sense that he took such conviction, even to that extreme, to avoid adultery. On the other hand, Maimonides called him a sinner because the nazir could not be adult enough to truly understand the purpose of physical pleasure within the greater picture.  The Maimonidean concept of the "golden mean," it seems, is not being upheld by the nazir.

When you look at the context of the entire system of mitzvahs, what you see is a balance between two extremes. On the one hand, you have the hedonism that was so prevalent amongst pagans. On the other hand, you have the aestheticism of the Christians that talks about the “sins of flesh.” As if it were a surprise, Judaism takes the middle ground. On the one hand, there are certain things that a Jew is prohibited from doing, such as eating pork, putting a stumbling block before the blind, and murder. Even with a certain degree of self-denial in Judaism, you have many positive commandments, i.e., what action(s) should you take.

Upon analyzing Leviticus 19:2, which states that “Be holy, for I, Hashem am holy,” Rabbi Mordechai Gifter realized that just as G-d is intimately involved in every aspect of the physical world, so too must we be involved in that respect. Although many in the traditional Jewish circles translate kadosh as “holy [in the sense of separateness],” one can also translate kadosh as distinct. In short, as a Jew, one is supposed to be able to distinguish between the mundane and the holy. With R. Gifter’s insight in mind, the way to bring spirituality into one’s live is to elevate the physical from the mundane to the spiritual.

Let us take the wine as an example, since it is so pertinent to the Torah portion. Upon drinking wine, you can take three paths. One can be to just fulfill a physical desire, which is mundane. The second is to abuse the wine and have your belligerently intoxicated self do crazy things like commit adultery, which goes back to Rashi’s interpretation. We do, however, have a third option. We can take something as seemingly mundane as an alcohol-based grape juice, say a blessing over it with kavannah (e.g., intent, spiritual direction) and elevate it to something higher. Ideally, this is what the Jew seeks to do in his daily life, whether that be with what he eats, wears, how he gives money to charitable causes, talks to people, or even how he “loves his neighbor.” Rather than life being some mundane boredom to drudge through, Judaism makes us ask “how can I elevate this to holiness?” “How can I interact with the physical world to fuse it together with G-dliness?”

Therefore, rather than seeing the nazir as some Jewish spiritual ideal, the nazir is a temporary, concessionary vow that keeps one from going off the deep end. However, the sin-offering was instituted to remind the nazir that his immaturity of not being able to distinguish between hedonism and serving the higher, ideal purpose of bringing G-dliness to this world by interacting with the physical.

Shabbat Shalom!

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