Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Naso - Shabbat Kallah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 5 2006, May 2007, June 2008 (scroll down), June 2009, and May 2010.

On Nazirites and Wanton Women

This week’s parashah is one of the longest, richest, and most varied in the Torah. I will touch here briefly upon two or three of the subjects which are most fully presented there. First, the law of the Nazirite (Numbers 6:1-21): on the face of it, this law is highly enigmatic. The Torah does not explain why a person might wish to become a Nazirite, or what purpose might be served by these particular rules, but simply jumps right into the laws governing this state—he is to refrain from drinking wine, or anything that comes from the grape; he is to avoid ritual contamination through contact with the dead; and, most strikingly, the visible symbol of his vow, he is to grow his hair long—and the procedure to be followed when it ends. But upon examining the etymology of the term nazir, or the Hebrew root nz”r from which it is derived, we find that it means to dedicate or consecrate oneself. Thus, the opening verse: איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה', means, quite simply, “When a person makes an extraordinary vow as a Nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord.” This same root appears, for example, in the word naizer, used to refer to the holy oil with which the High Priest is anointed in Lev 21:12 (the word also has the connotation of a crown, the symbol of a person beginning dedicated to a particular state). Thus, the Nazirite is an individual who seeks a more intense kind of religious life: who wishes to dedicate himself wholly to God. He is moved by an inner impulse towards a life of purity and holiness, over and above the norms required of everyone in the covenantal community. The restrictions he takes upon himself render him distinct from others, from the mainstream of society. In terms of our theme: the nazir as an individual does not live outside of the community, but is in some ways differentiated from it while living within it (albeit during the First Temple period there was a sect of Nazirites, known as the Rekhabites, who seem to have established their own separatist communities).

Although we do not have Nazirites today—the specific rules governing them seem so distant from our cultural milieu as to be virtually incomprehensible—the psychological-spiritual phenomenon as such is not unfamiliar. We live in an age of religious revival, and it is not uncommon to encounter individuals—most often younger people—who strive for a more intense religious life, to make the meticulous fulfillment of halakhah and the service of God the center of their lives. In Roman Catholicism, in Buddhism and in Hinduism, this impulse has traditionally been channeled into monasticism. In Judaism, these clear-cut rubrics do not exist—among other reasons, because we frown on celibacy and the abandoning of family life. What I have in mind is at times related to what has become known as the “ba’al teshuvah: movement, in the sense that it involves adopting greater religious observance than one’s environment, but it goes beyond that. It is marked by a singular intensity and enthusiasm, at times in ways that may seem strange and bizarre; a times it may involve joining pietist communities of various sorts—Hasidic circles, yeshivot, etc,—while for others it may involve an idiosyncratic, personal pietism within their regular life situation.

The feeling given by this parashah, and by the aggadot about the Nazir, is that they are viewed with a certain ambivalence: on the one hand, their single-minded devotion is praiseworthy; on the other hand, there is the counsel of Kohelet, “Do not be overly righteous… why should you be desolate?” (Eccles 7:16). The norm, one might even say the ideal, is found in life within community, not in either individual withdrawal from society, nor in ascetic communities. Interestingly, Israel Knohl and other scholars have argued that the earliest known monastic community, at least in the Western monotheistic tradition, from which early Christianity took a certain inspiration, was that of the Qumran Judaean Desert sect, which split away from Second Temple Judaism. Thus, Biblical Nazirites and medieval Christian monks may ultimately share more than just the Hebrew term nezirim.

The opposite extreme from this is found in the passage that immediately precedes the law of the Nazirite (Num 5:11-31): namely, licentious indulgence in carnal pleasure, the abandonment of all normative constraints on sexual behavior, and betrayal of the sanctity of the marriage bed for the embrace of an Other. This chapter describes the case of a woman suspected of adultery, the Sotah, and the “trial by ordeal “ she must undergo. I will “bracket” the very real issues presented by this chapter: namely, (1) the “double standard” implied in the woman’s adultery being considered far more grave than that of the man; and (2) that the practice of such an ordeal implies total faith, nay, certainty of Divine intervention (for which reason the Rabbis of the tannaitic age abolished this practice). For us, I would read this chapter, first and foremost, as reflecting the enormous importance attached to the marital bond, and the horror and abhorrence the Torah expresses towards the violation of its sanctity. We live in an age in which casual sex is widely accepted in many circles, and even acts of marital infidelity are regarded more as “misdemeanors” than as “crimes” or “sins”—and certainly are not regarded with the horror implied by this chapter.

These two lengthy and detailed legal passages each form the Scriptural basis for an entire tractate of the Mishnah/Talmud. They are followed by a short but very sweet passage, the Priestly Blessing: three short, poetic verses with which the priests are to bless the people daily, blessing them with assurances of Divine abundance, protection, grace, favor, and peace. Interestingly, small amulets containing this text have been found by archaeologists, confirming its great antiquity.

Further Thoughts on the Sotah

I wrote earlier that our sexual mores are not so strict as they were in ancient times. But I must correct myself: male jealousy is just as virulent, just as violent a factor in human life, as of old. Every year, some thirty to forty women are killed in the State of Israel by their husbands, ex-husbands or lovers—and the numbers are no doubt (proportionately) analogous in the United States and in other places. In many cases, the man has no “justification” for such jealousy, as he had no formal “claim” on her fidelity—but somehow, the idea of another man enjoying intimacies with one whom they continue to think of as “their” woman can drive a certain kind of man crazy and push him over the threshold to murderous violence.

What does the law of Sotah do? Quite simply: rather reaching for his knife or dagger or, in modern times, his gun, the jealous husband must bring her to the Temple and the kohen. The elaborate ceremony, with its numerous stages, may serve to “cool him off.” In any event, the ordeal itself is intended, hopefully, to vindicate her innocence, and reestablish domestic harmony. As our Sages put it: “ Great is peace, for the Holy Name of God is erased in the water for the sake of peace!”

Shabbat Kallah

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Kallah, “The Sabbath of the Bride,” alluding to the numerous midrashim, including interpretations of Song of Songs, in which the People of Israel is seen as the bride of the Almighty, whom He wed, so to speak, at Mount Sinai. In some communities it is customary for the rabbi to deliver a major discourse on this Shabbat relating to the themes of the festival of Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah, etc. This year I will depart from my usual practice, and present a study of some of these ideas in our Shavuot issue, and not this Shabbat.


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