Photo Credit: Courtesy Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

I’ve noted in the past the well-known difference of opinion among the Sages about the nazirite – the individual who undertook to observe special rules of holiness and abstinence: not to drink wine or other intoxicants (including anything made from grapes), not to have his hair cut, and not to defile himself by contact with the dead.

In relation to the biblical text, the argument turned on the fact that when the nazirite’s period of self-imposed restraint came to an end, he was commanded to bring a sin offering (Numbers 6:13-14). According to Nachmanides this was because he was returning to ordinary life after a time spent in special sanctity. He brought an offering for the sin of ceasing to be a nazirite.

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According to the Mishnaic teacher Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar, it was for the opposite reason: he brought an offering for the sin of becoming a nazirite in the first place. He denied himself the pleasures of this world – the world G-d created and declared good. Rabbi Eliezer added: “From this we may infer that 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” (Ta’anit 11a; Nedarim 10a).

Clearly the argument is not merely textual. It is substantive. Specifically it is about asceticism, the life of self-denial. Almost every religion knows the phenomenon of people who, in pursuit of spiritual purity, withdraw from the world, its pleasures and temptations. They live in caves, retreats, or monasteries. The Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been such a movement.

In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted similar self-denial – among them the chassidei Ashkenaz and the Pietists of Northern Europe, as well as many Jews in Islamic lands. In retrospect it is hard not to see in these patterns of behavior at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The chassidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among deeply pious, self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts would have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam.

The ambivalence of Jews toward the life of self-denial may therefore lie in the suspicion that it entered Judaism from the outside. There were movements in the first centuries of the Common Era in both the West (Greece) and the East (Iran) that saw the physical world as a place of corruption and strife. They were, in fact, dualisms. They held that the true G-d was not the creator of the universe and could not be reached within the universe. The physical world was the work of a lesser, and evil, deity. The two best-known movements to hold this view were Gnosticism in the West and Manichaeism in the East. So at least some of the negative evaluation of the nazirite may have been driven by a desire to discourage Jews from imitating non-Jewish tendencies in Christianity and Islam.

Yet none of this explains the view of Maimonides, who holds both views – positive and negative. In Hilchot De’ot (the Laws of Ethical Character) Maimonides adopts the negative position of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar. To be a nazirite is bad. “A person may say: ‘Desire, honor, and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world; therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme.’ As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing… This too is bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way” (Hilchot De’ot 3:1). Yet in the same book, Mishneh Torah, he writes, “Whoever vows to G-d [to become a nazirite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy… Indeed Scripture considers him the equal of a prophet” (Hilchot Nezirut 10:14). How does any writer in a single book adopt such contradictory positions – let alone one as resolutely logical as Maimonides?

The answer is profound, so profound that it is hard to assimilate and digest. Yet it remains one of the most insightful ideas ever formulated in ethics.

According to Maimonides there is not one model of the virtuous life, but two. He calls them, respectively, the way of the saint (chassid) and the sage (chacham).

The saint is a person of extremes. Maimonides defines chesed as extreme behavior – good behavior, to be sure, but conduct in excess of what strict justice requires (Guide for the Perplexed III, 52). So, for example, “If one avoids haughtiness to the utmost extent and becomes exceedingly humble, he is termed a saint [chassid]” (Hilchot De’ot 1:5).

The sage is a different kind of person altogether. He follows the “golden mean,” the “middle way,” the way of moderation and balance. He or she avoids the extremes of cowardice on the one hand, recklessness on the other. The sage thus acquires the virtue of courage. He or she avoids miserliness on the one hand, giving away all one has on the other, and thus becomes generous. The sage knows the twin dangers of too much and too little – excess and deficiency. He or she weighs the conflicting pressures and avoids the extremes.

These are not just two types of person, but two ways of understanding the moral life itself. Is the aim of the moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just, compassionate society? The intuitive answer of most people would be to say: both. That is what makes Maimonides so acute a thinker on this subject. He realizes that you can’t have both – that they are in fact different enterprises.

A saint may give all his money away to the poor. But what about the members of the saint’s own family? A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s own country? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him. But what about the rules of law and justice? Saints are supremely virtuous people, considered as individuals. Yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints are not really interested in society. They have chosen a different, lonely, self-segregating path. I know no one who makes this point as clearly as Maimonides – not Plato, not Aristotle, not Descartes, not Kant.

It is this deep insight that led Maimonides to his seemingly contradictory evaluations of the nazirite. The nazirite has chosen, at least for a period, to adopt a life of extreme self-denial. He is a saint, a chassid. He has adopted the path of personal perfection. That is noble and commendable.

But it is not the way of the sage – and you need sages if you seek to perfect society. The sage is not an extremist – because he or she realizes that there are other people at stake. There are the members of one’s own family; the others within one’s own community; there are colleagues at work; there is a country to defend and a nation to help build. The sage knows he or she cannot leave all these commitments behind to pursue a life of solitary virtue. For we are called on by G-d to live in the world, not in escape from it; in society, not seclusion; to strive to create a balance among the conflicting pressures on us, not to focus on some while neglecting the others.

Hence, while from a personal perspective the nazirite is a saint, from a societal perspective he is, at least figuratively, a “sinner” who has to bring an atonement offering.

Maimonides lived the life he preached. We know from his writings that he longed for seclusion. There were years when he worked day and night to write his Commentary to the Mishnah, and later the Mishneh Torah. Yet he also recognized his responsibilities to his family and to the community. In his famous letter to his would-be translator Ibn Tibbon, he gives him an account of his typical day and week – in which he had to carry a double burden as a world-renowned physician and an internationally sought halachist and sage. He worked to exhaustion; there were times when he was almost too busy to study from one week to the next. Maimonides was a sage who longed to be a saint – but knew he could not be, if he was to honor his responsibilities to his people. That seems to me a profound and moving judgment – and one that speaks to us today.

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