There was an ongoing debate between the Sages as to whether the nazirite – whose laws are outlined in this week’s parshah – was to be praised. Recall that the nazirite was someone who voluntarily, usually for a specified period, undertook a special form of holiness. This meant that he was forbidden to consume wine or any grape products, to have a haircut, and to defile himself by contact with the dead.
Naziriteship was essentially a renunciation of desire. Why someone would choose to do this is not clear. It may be that he wanted to protect himself against drunkenness or to cure himself of alcoholism. It could be that he wanted to experience a higher form of holiness. Forbidden as he was to have contact with the dead, even for a close relative, he was in this respect in the same position as the high priest. Becoming a nazirite was one way in which a non-kohen could adopt kohen-like behavior. Some Sages argued that the juxtaposition of the law of the nazirite with that of the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery, hinted at the fact that there were people who became nazirites to protect themselves from sexual immorality. Alcohol suppresses inhibitions and increases sexual desire.
Be that as it may, there were mixed views on whether it was a good thing or a bad one to become a nazirite. On the one hand, the Torah calls him “holy to God” (Numbers 6:8). On the other, at the completion of his period of abstinence, he is commanded to bring a sin offering (Numbers 6:13-14). From this, Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi drew the following inference:
What is the meaning of the phrase in Numbers 6:11, “and make atonement for him, because he sinned against the soul” (usually translated as “by coming into contact with the dead”)? Against which soul did he sin? We must conclude that it refers to denying himself the enjoyment of wine. From this 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. It follows that one who keeps fasting is called a sinner (Ta’anit 11a; Nedarim 10a).
Clearly Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar is engaging in a polemic against asceticism in Jewish life. We do not know which groups he may have had in mind. Many of the early Christians were ascetics. So in some respects were the members of the Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls. Holy people in many faiths have chosen, in pursuit of spiritual purity, to withdraw from the world’s pleasures and temptations, while fasting, afflicting themselves and living in caves, retreats or monasteries.
In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted self-denying practices – among them the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Pietists of Northern Europe, and many Jews in Islamic lands. It is hard not to see in these patterns of behavior at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Hassidei 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 dualists, holding that the true God 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. Hence holiness means withdrawing from the physical world, its pleasures, appetites and desires. 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.
What is remarkable is the position 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: “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).