Saturday, May 31, 2014

Piety in Post Hurban Times




Below is a slightly edited version of a dvar Torah I gave at my synagogue earlier today.

I want to thank my fellow congregant Mark Matchen for some of the ideas regarding the discussion of Mishna  Nazir 5:5 below; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Neil Litt for some the ideas regarding the discussion of Nazir 5:4.


Dvar Torah, Parshat Naso,
31 May 2014, 2 Sivan 5774
Sydney Nestel
Shabbat Shalom,
Today’s parsha is Naso, the second parsha in the book of Numbers. The parsha deals with a number of seemingly disconnected topics. It begins with a continuation of the census that Moses was commanded to perform in last week’s parsha. It then goes on to tell us the laws regarding anyone who has become ritually impure, either by cause of a skin disease, or contact with the dead. The parsha then instructs us in a principle of Biblical law: anyone who causes financial harm to another must make full restitution, plus pay an extra fifth as atonement.
Next the parsha discussed the law regarding the suspected adulteress: the famous case of the Sotah, whose guilt or innocence is to be determined by a ritualized trial by ordeal. The parsha, then goes on to tell us about the laws of the Nazirite – or temporary monk – someone who voluntarily takes upon themselves extra responsibilities of holiness. Next the parsha commands Aaron and his sons to recite the Priestly Blessing: the same blessing that we at Darchei Noam say to each other, every Shabbat, as we embrace each other in our tallitot.
Then the parsha tells us – in excruciating detail, 88 verses in all – about the offerings that the chiefs of Israeli brought to the consecration of the Miskkan. And finally the parsha ends by telling us that Moses enters the Tent of Meeting to talk to God, who speaks to him from between the Cherubim.
* * *
It was hard to find an overarching theme in this parsha on which to base this dvar Torah
The theme of a census, in the opening of the parsha, tempted me to focus my remarks around the Canadian governments’ dismantling of Statistics Canada – but I rejected this idea as being perhaps too current and too controversial for a dvar Torah.
The theme of the Sotah – or suspected adulteress – also was tempting. There is certainly a lot of material to be mined there. But frankly this topic has been addressed so many times at our shul that I thought there was nothing new I could say on the subject.
So I decided to base this dvar around the perhaps arcane topic of the Nazirite – or for lack of a better term, the monk – the person how takes upon themselves an elevated commitment to holiness. Or is it holiness? And that is one of the questions we will address.
The parsha tells us, in Numbers chapter 6:
1 And the YHWH spoke unto Moses, saying:
2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the YHWH,
3 they shall abstain from wine and strong drink: they shall drink no fermentation of wine, or fermentation of other strong drink, neither shall they drink any grape juice, nor eat the fresh grapes or dried grapes.
4 …
5 All the days of the vow of Nazirite-hood no razor come upon his head; until the days which he has consecrated himself to YHWH be fulfilled, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.
6 While he is consecrated to YHWH he shall not come near a dead body.


We see several things here. First, both men and women can become Nazerites.
Second, in order to become a Nazerite one must make a clear – and presumably voluntary – vow.
Third, that the Nazerite gets to declare, as part of their vow, the length of their Nazerite-ship. It could be for a month, for a year, or for life if they choose.
Forth, there are three specific obligations that a Nazerite takes on:
  1. not to drink wine or any fermented product or eat or drink any grape product;
  2. not to cut their hair; and
  3. not to have any contact with , or even be physically close to, the dead.
As we shall see this last prohibition is particularly strict.
The parsha text goes on.
7 Because his consecration unto God is upon his head, he shall not make himself unclean when they die for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister.
8 All the days of his Nazirite-hood he is holy to the YHWH.


These two verses, echo the obligations of the High Priest. And they emphasis the obligation to be holy to God – which is presumably the point of the whole exercise.
But being a Nazerite has some additional costs, and it is not always easy to end the period of Nazrite-ship on schedule as planned The Torah goes on:
9 And if any man die very suddenly beside ... [the Nazerite], and he defile his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head ….
10 And on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting.
11 And the priest shall prepare one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering, and make atonement for him, for he has sinned …
12 And he shall re-consecrate to YHWH the all the days of his Nazirite-ship, ...; and the former days [of his Nazerite-ship] shall be void, because his holiness was defiled.


Thus if you accidentally violate one of your Nazerite restrictions – you have to bring several sacrifices. But perhaps more importantly, you have to start the entire period of your Nazerite-ship all over again. So being a becoming a Nazerite, involves a serious commitment to following the rules. Or at least it was supposed to.
Finally, ending one's Nazerite-ship involves several more sacrifices, and therefore more commitment of time and money.
13 And this is the law of the Nazirite, when the days of his consecration are over: he shall come to the door of the tent of meeting;
14 and present his offering to YHWH, one young male lamb without blemish for a burnt-offering, and one young female lamb without blemish for a sin-offering, and one ram without blemish for peace-offerings ...


The text goes on for several verses with the details of the sacrifices and then concludes.


20 And the priest shall wave them for a wave-offering before YHWH; … and only after that the Nazirite may drink wine.


So, to end the period of his Nazerite-ship the Nazerite has to bring 3 animals as well as bread, oil, and wine and and his shaven hair. Only after the priest has made sacrifices of these, is the Nazerite free to resume his former life.
The rules seem pretty clear. And the purpose too, is pretty clear – to give pious people a chance to publicly express their piety – to do more then what is normally expected – but in a time limited way. Today, I would compare Nazir-hood to the practice of temporary monk-hood that is common in some Buddhist societies.
Or perhaps, if we remove the temporary aspect, Nazir-hood is akin to the Haredim – who take on obligations of dress, hairstyle, and behaviour, which they admit are not strictly speaking halachik , but which publicly express what they see as their extra level of piety. And, who like the Nazir, who avoided the temptation of wine, avoid all manner of temptations in the secular world.
Of course, given that Nazir-hood is linked to the Temple system, there have been no formal Nazerites since the destruction of the Second Temple. But what do we know of Nazerite-hood in the days when the Temple still stood. The answer is “not much. “ And what we do know is more from what is recorded in the Talmud about Nazerites in the late Second Temple period, than from what is recorded in the Hebrew Bible regarding Nazirites in the First Temple or early Second Temple periods.
In fact, outside of this week’s parsha, the word “Nazir” is only mentioned in two other instances in the entire Tanach. Once it is mentioned in a speech by the prophet Amos, without reference to any particular person. And, the word comes up a few times in the story of Samson – the only person in the entire Tanach, clearly identified as an actual Nazir.
But Samson – though he is clearly labelled a Nazir by the text – follows nearly none of the rules of Nazir-hood as laid out in this week's Parsha. Firstly, as you will notice if you follow today’s haftarah – he never takes a vow – let alone a voluntary vow – to become a Nazir. Rather an angel appears to his mother before she conceives and tell her that she will have a son and that he will be a Nazir. Furthermore, It is his mother who is enjoined not to drink wine, and additionally and somewhat surprisingly, not to eat anything unclean. (Aren’t all Jews forbidden to eat “unclean” foods.)
Samson is explicitly forbidden to cut is hair. But as for the rest of the Nazirite prohibitions – it seems unlikely that he kept them. It is told that he killed 30 Philistines and took their clothing; later he killed several more Philistines in revenge for them having killed his wife and father-in-law (which, by the way, the Philistines did in revenge of Samson having burned their crops, which Samson did because he was angry at his wife’s adultery with a Philistine.) Still later we are told that Samson clubbed 1000 Philistines to death with the jaw bone of an ass. With all this killing, it is unlikely that he avoided touching the dead. We are also told that he liked the ladies, and frequented Philistine prostitutes. It seems unlikely, in such circumstances, that he avoided strong drink.
And as for Samson’s piety – his entire life seems one of impulse and swagger and violence, from his marriage to a Philistine woman, to his dangerous betting, to his impulsive acts of revenge, to his affair with Delilah, to his foolish revelation of the secret of his strength, to his suicide murder (dare I say “suicide bombing”) at a Philistine feast, killing 3000 Philistines, in revenge for their tormenting him. This is hardly piety, or holiness, as most of us would understand it. And indeed it is not clear, whether the Tanach wants us to see Samson as a hero, or as a fool – an example of the weak and immoral leadership of the Israelites during the period of the Judges: a leadership crisis that, in the eyes of the Biblical author, justified the establishment of a monarchy to suppress the religious anarchist currents deep within Judaism, and which too often, perhaps, bubble to the surface.
We see, therefore, that the sole example of a Nazir in the entire Tanach, hardly comports to the model laid out in the Torah. Is there then any evidence that Nazir-hood was ever carried out as envisioned in our parsha? Yes there is: - sort of.
This evidence comes to us from the from the Talmud, and recalls the late Second Temple period. The Talmud devotes an entire tractate to the topic of the Nazir. This alone should tell us that Nazir-hood was a real phenomenon in the early Mishna period.
But Rabbinic attitudes to the Nazerite are complex. Some of the Rabbis argue that Nazir-hood is primarily sinful. That is why the Nazir has to bring a sin offering at the end of his period of Nazir-ship. But what is the nature of this sin?
According to these Rabbis, the sin of the Nazir is that he forbids himself what the Torah has permitted. Because of his own fears that he cannot control himself, he needlessly denies himself both pleasures and grief. The Nazir sees a world of temptation and corruption, a scary world he does not want to be sucked into. So, he says "I will have no part of this - I will not corrupt myself in that way!" And he puts in place mechanisms to maintain his own purity and correct behaviour. However, what has he actually accomplished? Has he changed any of the things that bothered him about society? Has he helped others to overcome temptation? No. And therein lies his sin.
But other Rabbis see Nazir-hood as a genuine and positive way to express piety and the love of God. In support of this they bring theoretical arguments, but also a postive example: Queen Heleni – or in Hebrew, Heleni Hamalkah.
Mishna Nazir 3:6 reads:
One who [made a] Nazirite [vow] for a long time period and he finished his period of being a Nazirite, and then he came to Israel, Beis Shammei say, "He must become a Nazir for thirty [additional] days" and Beis Hillel say, "He must become a Nazir from the beginning." It is told of Heleni the Queen, that her son went to war and she said, "If my son comes [back] from war in peace, I will be a Nazir for seven years." And her son came [back] from war and she was a Nazir for seven years. And at the end of seven years she moved to Israel and Beis Hillel ruled that she should be a Nazir again for seven more years. And at the end [of these] seven years, she became Tamei / ritually impure by contact with the dead [making her repeat her Nazirut again]. And it ended up being that she was a Nazirah twenty one years. But Rabbi Yehuda said, "She was only a Nazirah for fourteen years".
Heleni Hamalkah is a real historical figure. She was the Queen of Adiabene, in what is now Kurdistan. In the first century she converted to Judaism along with a large number of her people – perhaps the source of Kurdish Jewry. And she really did move to Jerusalem. And she contributed from her great wealth to the Temple, donating among other things a famous golden candlestick and a large golden plate. She also sent to Alexandria for grain and to Cyprus for dried figs for distribution during a famine. In another Talmudic passage we are told she built a Sukkah 20 cubits high, which, though it was higher than Rabbinic law allowed, no Rabbi would condemn, and many attended the dinners she hosted in it. Her tomb, and that of her sons, can still be found in what is mistakenly called “the Tomb of the Kings”. You can visit it at the corner of Salach-a-Din Street and Nablus Road in East Jerusalem. There is also a street named after her. Rehov Heleni Hamalkah, is a narrow cobblestoned street that runs from Rehov Haniviim to Jaffa Rd. just behind Migrash HaRussim in West Jerusalem. As all this attests, she was well-loved, and truly pious. Perhaps a bit showy – but nevertheless someone to be admired. A good example of a Nazir – or in her case a Nazirah.
Of course the rabbis who saw Nazir-hood as problematic or sinful have counter-examples. The Talmud, tractate Nazir 4b, tell us that Simon the Just – a priest and a Rabbi – declared that only once in his life had he accepted the sin offering of a Nazir who had broken his vows. In all other cases he felt that they were insincere, and were just using the sacrifice to get out of the strictures they had so publicly placed on themselves. He also felt that most of these Nazirim would, in fact, not re-start the period of their Nazirite-ship as prescribed in the Torah. He thus refused to accept their sin offering and be part of the charade.
In another incident, Mishna Nazir 5:5 tells us
Six people were travelling on the way and someone was approaching them [in the distance]. The first says, "I am Nazir if that is so and so." The second says, "I am a Nazir if that is not so and so." The third says, "I am a Nazir if any one of you is a Nazir." And the forth says, "[I am a Nazir] if none of you are a Nazir." The fifth says "[I am a Nazir] if any two of you are a Nazir." And the sixth says, "[I am a Nazir] if all of you are a Nazir".

Beis Shammei say, "They are all a Nazirim". Beis Hillel say, "No one is a Nazir unless their words come true". Rabbi Tarfon says, "None of them is a Nazir".
Aside from sounding like an SAT word logic puzzle, what is going on here? Ostensibly, this is a legal debate about the validity of conditional vows of Nazerit-hood and perhaps conditional vows in general. Bet Hillel allows them, and Bet Shammai, and Rabbi Tarfon do not.
But look a bit deeper. Two of these travellers – numbers 4 and 6 can never have their words come true, so while they are seemingly making a big show of piety, they know – or should know – that they risk nothing by their declaration. Two of these – numbers 3 and 5 – will always have their words some true, so their conditions are meaningless or stupid, and two of these are simply betting on becoming Nazir – a sort of holier than though game of chicken. Bet Hillel, are the liberals here, letting adults do as they wish so long as no one else is harmed. But Bet Shammai, feels that this type of gamesmanship is against the spirit of piety required by the Nazir and ruins the institution of Nazirit-hood. They aim to stop it, by making anyone who plays such games become a Nazir regardless of their silly conditions. Rabbi Tarfon, agrees with Bet Shamai that this kind of conditional vow is against the proper spirit of Nazirit-hood. But instead of punishing, he says such vows simply don’t count. If you want to become a Nazir do it right – unconditionally and with a full heart.
But aside from these conflicting positions on the validity of conditional vows – we learn something else from this Mishna – namely, that conditional vows for short periods of Nazir-hood were fairly common in the late Second Temple times: A common public display of piety. But, was it real piety or was it just for show – at least some Rabbis thought it was mostly for show.
I want to end with one final Talmudic discussion Nazir-hood which I thought was appropriate given that earlier this week we marked Yom Yerushalayim. Mishna Nazir 5:4 tells us:
This is the mistake that Nachum the Mede made when the Nazirim came up [to Jerusalem] from exile [to make there sacrifices to end the period of Nazirite-ship] and found the Temple destroyed. Nachum said to them, "If you had known that the Temple was destroyed, would you have [sworn to be] Nazirim?" and they said to him, "No!" and he permitted them [to annul their vows]. But when the matter came to the Sages, they said to him. "[The law is that] anyone who [swore to be] a Nazir before the Temple was destroyed is [still] a Nazir and [anyone who swore] after the Temple was destroyed is not a Nazir.
In the ensuing Talmudic discussion, the disagreement comes down to the question: can one annul a vow which was made based on false information. The accepted principle, is that if there is information that is generally knowable, and you did not know it when you made your vow, you can annul the vow – presumably because one should not be penalized for having less information than was available, or knowing less than one’s neighbour. But if the fact that makes you want to annul your vow - was completely unknowable at the time of the vow, or if the event was completely unpredictable at that time, than you cannot claim an exemption, and your vow stands.
But, it turns out, the Rabbis are divided on whether the destruction of the Temple was predictable. The Sages say that it was not, so the Diaspora Nazitites in our Mishna cannot annul their vows, and since they also cannot now bring the sacrifices required to end their period of Nazarite-ship, (the Temple being destroyed) they must remain Nazirites for life. (Considering that the Sages lived through the long war and the corruption and infighting leading up to the destruction, this is a somewhat surprising position.)
Rav Yosef, arguing in support of Rabbi Nachum position, believes that the destruction was predictable. He bases himself on a verse in Jeremiah chapter 7
Trust ye not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,”
which he understands to predict the destruction of the first , the second, and it would seem even the Third Temple. The context of the verse in Jeremiah is clear but stark:
[If Israel] executes justice between a man and his neighbour; [if Israel] oppresses not the stranger, the fatherless, the widow, and sheds not innocent blood”
Than, God – and Israel – will dwell in the land forever. But since Israel has trusted in “lying word” - that is, the mere existence of the Temple, to protect them, and since they in fact
[they] steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, … [and allow] Jerusalem to become a den of robbers”
then Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed.
Rav Yosef, argues that, that based on Jeremiah, the destruction of the second Temple was predictable to anyone with enough insight to see. And therefore, the vows of the Mishna’s Nazerites may be annulled. They are off the hook: they do not need to be Nazerites for life.
Is there a deeper meaning to this Talmudic passage, beyond the technical issue of annulling vows?
Maybe the real tragedy for our Mishna's Diaspora Nazerites is not that they cannot get out their Nazerite vows, but that they cannot intellectually or emotionally get over the fact that the holy Temple no longer exists. These are pious people after all. People who publicly took on extra trapping of piety – in service of a religion that in their mind was based around Jerusalem and around the Temple. They probably looked forward, their whole lives to making pilgrimage to Jerusalem and experiencing its spiritual high and ethical excellence. But when they got there, it was all gone. “How could this be?” they must have asked themselves. What shall we do? Oy vavoy vavoy!
If the destruction was, as the Sages say, completely unpredictable: the product of some fluke, some petty jealousies among the Jews, or some misguided nationalism on the part of the Zealots, or poor tactics by Jerusalem’s defenders, or a random assassination of a good leader by the Sikarrii, then indeed the destruction of their dream of the spiritual Jerusalem, the source of Jewish hopes and identity, the light unto the nations – is truly un- understandable. Our Nazities are stuck carrying out a dead piety based on outmoded concepts – one that can never end for them, but also one that will give them little meaning and no sense of salvation.
But, if as Rav Yosef argues, the loss of Jerusalem as a spiritual centre was entirely predictable, and indeed was predicted by people with clear vision – prophetic vision to be sure: if all this happened, as the prophets had predicted, for a reason, because of the meanness of the society to the stranger and to the weak, because robbery and murder were condoned, because instead of trying to walk in Gods ways Jerusalem put its faith in empty symbols - ancient stones: if that is the case, if this was all predictable, than the maybe, just maybe, the Mishna’s Nazerites can make sense of the spiritual vacuum they have found where the Temple once stood. Maybe they can get out from under their Nazerite world view, and their outdated understanding of Jewish piety, and maybe they can begin creating a new Jewish understanding and a new Jewish practice for new Jewish times: One that is based on the vision of our prophets: working for truth, justice and peace; feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
Perhaps this, rather than being bitter over the exile and pining for lost glory and an imagined holy past, is what is really required as the new Jewish piety for this post destruction – post Hurban – era.


Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom.





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