Sermon: On the Nazirite and Religious Power

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 31 May 2014

Like you, Jack, I am troubled by the Nazirite.
The self-control they showed – we could all learn a thing or two from that.  But the self-denial – the idea of abstention as a religious value – this is not particularly, well, Jewish.

When I say Jewish, of course, what I really mean is it was not part of Rabbinic Judaism – the distinctive Jewish life that developed in the first centuries CE. Abstention was not part of the approach to text and ritual that came to define the Judaism that we now live.  There were other Jews for whom this was the model – self-denying groups in Israel in antiquity – most famously the Essenes, a sect who lived in the time of the second temple, who practised voluntary poverty and had pretty extreme practices of ritual purity.

But in rabbinic Judaism – which became Judaism – we do not have a self denying tradition.  Judaism says live in the world – eat, drink, celebrate, marry.
Not in an uncontrolled way, not without rules and structures and limits.  But self denial? No.  There is no tradition of celibacy, voluntary poverty, voluntary fasting.

So, for example, the Third Century Sage Shmuel is quoted in the Talmud as saying, on the basis of our text this morning: “Anyone who keeps himself from the enjoyment of one of God’s blessings should be considered a sinner who must thereby seek atonement.”

Even more powerfully, his friend and compatriot Rav taught: “In the world to come, people will have to account for all that they saw and did not eat.”  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

So the Nazirite is not a model of Jewish life that we should aspire towards.
It’s not part of our religious culture to express holiness through denial.

And yet, something in the laws of the Nazirite is pretty special.
It is something I am especially aware of as we prepare to welcome one of the most important scholars of our age, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, to Alyth – Rachel Adler, who is credited with the first scholarly work of Jewish feminist theology – achel Adler who genuinely transformed the way we read text, making us alive to issues of power, status, gender.

Aware of her visit, I was struck by something very important in the laws of the Nazirite.  It is mentioned so quickly that we might almost miss it: Ish o-ishah, ki yafli lindor neder nazir
A man, or a woman, if they do something extraordinary in declaring a Nazirite vow.

Ish o-ishah – man or woman
Unlike so much else in our tradition, the option of becoming a Nazirite is open to the whole adult community irrespective of gender.  You can be a Nazir or a N’zirah
ki yafli – and to be so is the extraordinary decision of the individual.
The text around the Nazirite gives a glimpse of a different model of religious life to that which we find elsewhere in the Torah.

Israelite religion was a very structured, hierarchical phenomenon; and in most places it was one from which women were excluded, as it would remain until modernity.  Here is a different possibility – one in which what matters is our choice, our engagement, our will, not the power structures of the community, not our gender.  We can all choose to be holy.

Now I need to be very careful not to overstate this.
This is a glimpse of a different possibility, not a shining beacon of equality in the text.  The Torah itself, and rabbinic literature thereafter, does much to limit the apparent religious autonomy that is hinted at here, especially for the Ishah, who remains peripheral and powerless.  Were we to turn to Numbers 30, we would discover that according to that section of Torah, the positive vow of a woman is dependent on the permission of her father or husband, while if a man makes a vow to God, he must carry it out in full.

And, of course, while hinting at the possibility of a religious life of choice, the rules of the Nazirite actually establish a great deal of power and control for the very priesthood with whom the text seems to be in tension.  The portion we read this morning essentially says: You as an individual may choose to be holy, but don’t get carried away – we are still in charge.  You still need us – a separate, select group you cannot ever join – to facilitate and validate your choice.

While the Nazirite laws hint at a different model of religious life, it is quickly minimised by the text itself, which does not like the freedom it suggests.

Now, as Rachel Adler will tell us, to really understand it is also important to look at the stories we have, as well as the laws.  And, alas, we also do not have good role models of female Nazirites.  The two biblical women who take on Nazirite-esque vows in the Bible – Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and the unnamed mother of Samson do so in order that they have sons, who themselves will take on the vows.  As in many other cases of women in our text, their religious lives are ultimately concerned with supporting the religious lives of men – in this case, unborn men, who themselves, also don’t get the choice!

Similarly disappointing is the story of the most famous post-biblical N’zirah, Helena of Adiabene, the first century queen of a small kingdom in ancient Assyria.  When her son went off to war, she made a vow to become a n’zirah for seven years on his safe return, which she did.  Again, it is for the man.  And, as if to emphasise the challenging power dynamics of the vow, the Talmud tells us that the sages insisted she serve an additional 14 years on the basis of a small matter of purity law.

And yet, despite all of this, I still want to hold onto that one half-verse in this week’s portion and say it matters.
Ish o- ishah, ki yafli – A man, or a woman, if they choose to do something extraordinary.

I want to hold onto it because it is a moment in our text which suggests the possibility of autonomy – the possibility that all of us, and especially significantly, all of us, might be able to determine the course of our own religious lives.

I want to hold on to it because it is a direct answer to a voice in modern Orthodoxy which critiques women in the community doing ‘too much’.  One of the arguments made against women wearing tallit, Kippah, tefillin, is that a woman who chooses to do these things in which she is not obligated, draws undue attention to her “excessive piety” in an inappropriately ostentatious manner.
There is a halachic prohibition on ostentatious piety, but it is rarely cited except in this context – as a means of control.  Here we have an example of the biblical right of women to choose to do more.

Despite the reservations that I share with you Jack, I want to hold onto it because underneath it all the Nazirite –is a challenge to a model of religion which is about control.
It presents a model of holiness which is centred on our ability to act.
Unlike the priesthood, unlike the classical rabbinate – it is not about control, but about autonomy.
It is not about lineage but about will
It is not about titles, but about expression.

So, despite all the reservations – something in there is worth holding on to – it is the possibility of a religious life we can shape for ourselves, a religious life as open to the choices of Camilla who we will joyfully welcome into our community in a moment, as it is to Jack.
About the ability of each of us to make the extraordinary decision to be holy.