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Humanity needs balance to keep from being foolish

Setting oneself apart from the community to be literally 'holier than thou' carries a number of risks, not just to the individual, but to the community itself

Rambam was not shy about calling people fools. In the fourth chapter of his introduction to Pirkei Avot, he applies the term to those who see others engaging in ascetic practices and assume those practices are ideal – not realizing they are actually only appropriate for some people at some times, as a corrective measure to combat personal inclinations.

A person might well become a nazir, swearing off wine for a period of time, to counterbalance a tendency to overindulge; Rambam would support that use of one extreme behavior to “cure” its opposite. But one who sees the nazir and decides it must be a great idea to never drink wine, or who imposes other forms of self-denial beyond what Torah law requires – is a fool.

The Torah, Rambam insists, already provides counterbalances for most of us with its carefully-designed laws. He quotes with great enthusiasm a line from the Palestinian Talmud (Nedarim chapter 9): “Are you not satisfied with what the Torah prohibited, that you forbid other things on yourself?”

There are of course Jewish thinkers who advocate more generally for going beyond the letter of the law. Ramban, for instance, famously explains the command to “be holy” (Vayikra 19:2) as a mandate to remove ourselves even from things which are permitted (though he doesn’t specify how far that goes). Similarly, he stresses in his comment on Bamidbar 6:14 that according to a peshat reading, the nazir’s sin is in returning to regular life after such a holy pursuit – not to atone for having taken on nezirut in the first place, the Talmudic view (Taanit 11a) that Rambam is quick to cite, but for having the gall to end it.

There will always be those among us who are drawn more to one side of this debate than the other: those who emphasize the value of living a balanced, “natural,” Torah life as Rambam describes, developing within that a focus on God and connection with Him; and those who are more moved by Ramban’s talk of separating from physicality as a means of striving toward holiness.

There will always be those who find the Torah’s strictures quite enough to be getting on with, and those who, like the nazir, feel some personal or philosophical pull to add fences upon fences in multiple areas of life.

What happens when the two interact?

Setting oneself apart from the community by one’s “holier” practices carries a number of risks – not just to the individual, as Rambam points out overindulgence in medicine can also be detrimental, but to the community.

When more and more people start adding stringencies to their observance of law, becoming stricter and stricter, it can be hard for the rest of us to resist the lure. We become fools, whether because we buy into their view that more is necessarily better or because we would rather be foolish than be perceived as not careful enough. We might even come to think – or be made to think, by the (perhaps sincere) self-righteousness of others – that we have a responsibility to cater to their “higher level.” We assume, foolishly but understandably, that their efforts place them on a higher level.

As it turns out, nezirut offers a paradigm for resisting that pull while simultaneously respecting and even supporting those who do decide for themselves (whether legitimately or not may not be our business) to take a more restrictive path.

Part of that picture is realizing that nezirut, for all its apparent glory and holiness, does not represent the objective ideal. In fact, the halachot of nezirut themselves seem to contain a subtle message to the nazir that his or her efforts, while laudable in their intent, may be inherently flawed.

To be sure, on the face of it, the Torah views nezirut favorably, with the repeated emphasis that nezirut is “for God,” the descriptor “holy,” as well as a reference to the nazir’s mane of hair as a “crown of God” (Bamidbar 6:7). It is impossible to ignore the parallels between the laws of nezirut and the laws of the High Priest: the High Priest is similarly warned against drinking (as are all priests) and prohibited from contracting ritual impurity from contact with a dead body, even that of a close relative, and he similarly wears a “holy crown” (Shemot 39:30).

But just because the nazir strives to be like the High Priest, just because the Torah offers guidance for that effort, does not mean the nazir gets to be the High Priest. Once we note the parallels between the two, the differences also become glaring.

One such difference highlights a detail of nezirut that seems particularly odd. The nazir is enjoined against consuming any type of grape or grape product, and generations of scholars have understood that as an extreme approach to sobriety: “When a person saw the sotah in her disgrace, he would separate (become a nazir) from wine, for it leads to adultery” (Sotah 2a).

Yet when the nazir is told not to consume “shechar,” the prohibition is understood to refer only to alcohol made from grapes; other alcoholic drinks are acceptable. (See Rambam Hilchot Nezirut 5:1, based on Nazir 4a.)

Why, if the goal is to avoid drunkenness and the resultant lowering of inhibitions, should it make a difference what kind of alcohol one drinks? Why forbid grapes, which are harmless until fermented, but allow other things that could actually get a person drunk?

Perhaps it’s precisely because grapes don’t get a person drunk. If the goal of nezirut is to follow a value to its extreme, perhaps the message in this detail of the halacha is that extremes aren’t really the answer. They look appealing; the High Priest, with all his rules, looks like a great model for the rest of us. He is a great model for the rest of us – but that doesn’t mean we should try to copy his rules, which are meant for him alone. The nazir may be inspired to swear off wine and become holier and holier, even like the High Priest, and so the rules for nezirut parallel those of the High Priest – but they don’t make him the High Priest.

The rules for the High Priest, it turns out, are not so extreme; instead, they are logical. Though the Talmud (Nazir 4a) cites a view that a priest is forbidden to serve only if he’s consumed grape wine, Rambam (Laws of Entering the Sanctuary 1:2) rules that unlike the nazir, a priest can’t have any type of alcohol – not never, like a nazir, but specifically when it’s not appropriate, when he may be called upon to serve in the Temple. That’s the logical approach to stringencies: Consider each situation on its own merits, and adjust accordingly – not a broad, sweeping, illogical jump to one particular restriction as the solution to all one’s ills.

The nazir rules don’t make sense; nezirut is not a really reasonable way to live.

If the nazir is told to develop a “crown of God,” reminding us of the High Priest, perhaps part of the idea is that through that very comparison, he or she might recognize the vast difference between a loose, neglected growth of hair and the pristine, carefully designed, dignified band of gold worn by the High Priest that was carved with the very words “holy to God.” The nazir wants desperately to become “holy to God,” but the attempt to become so by copying the High Priest is a crude imitation of the individual designated by God to represent ultimate holiness.

The Torah accepts the nazir’s goal of ultimate purity, ultimate holiness, ultimate abstention from the ills of physical indulgence and wine in particular. It’s great that the nazir wants to work on him- or herself to such a degree, to develop such a closeness with God – and nezirut might even help serve that purpose if done properly.

But part of doing it properly is remembering that everyone has his or her path of growth, and that nezirut won’t make a person into someone else.

The nazir might consider the statement of Rabbi Elazar in Taanit (11a-11b): “A person should always consider himself as though a sacred object is immersed in his bowels [which he must not damage].” (Credit to Sefaria for the Steinsaltz translation/explanation.) Each of us is already inherently holy, deep within; attempts to increase that holiness through laws the Torah didn’t impose run the risk of damaging, rather than enhancing, that core holiness.
This statement of Rabbi Elazar is raised by the Talmud as an apparent contradiction to another statement of his, that commends the nazir as “holy.” (This, in contrast to the view of Rabbi Elazar Hakapar, mentioned above, that names the nazir a “sinner.”) The contradiction within Rabbi Elazar (is it holy to deprive oneself, or does such deprivation violate our mandate to protect our insides?) is resolved by concluding that the value of extra restrictions depends on the person; it’s not right for everybody.

Taking on extra stringencies, beyond what Torah law requires and beyond established practice developed through the majority of Torah communities, is a personal choice, one potentially fraught with inconsistencies and risks even for oneself and one that would certainly be inappropriate and even damaging if imposed on others.

Even as the Torah commends the nazir’s intent, even as Rabbi Elazar highlights the holiness the nazir might build, we are cautioned against betraying our personal holiness in pursuit of someone else’s more appealing holiness.

And through another area of halacha in which the nazir is discussed, we are reminded to respect and support, but not assume full responsibility for, another’s personal holiness.
We are told in Vayikra 19:14 “lifnei iver lo titen michshol – do not place a stumbling block before a blind person.” Both the blindness and the obstacle are interpreted metaphorically: “Rabbi Natan says, From where do we learn that a person should not stretch out a cup of wine to a nazir, or a limb from a living animal to a [non-Jew, who is forbidden to eat it]? The Torah teaches, ‘do not place a stumbling block before a blind person’” (Pesachim 22b).

Is the nazir blind? Does he not see the cup of wine, and know he is not to drink it? Of course he knows, and he is responsible for his own sin if he breaks his vow by drinking the cup he was offered. But at the same time, we all bear some responsibility for each other; at the very least, to not actively and deliberately try to “trip” someone into sinning. Even when the law was self-imposed, and has nothing to do with us, we can support its fulfillment. That’s how we show respect and concern for each other.

At the same time, Talmudic and later scholars struggle to determine the lines between our communal responsibility and the nazir’s own responsibility. The Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zara 6b) concludes the prohibition of offering wine to a nazir only applies if the nazir would be unable to get wine without your offer, only when you bear sole control over that potential stumbling block. The details are further deliberated among Rishonim and Acharonim, but this is not the place to rule on lifnei iver.

Instead, the point for us is to note that Chazal’s use of nazir as one of the paradigmatic examples of lifnei iver indicates that even though the nazir has removed him or herself from the community by these rules and tried to become something more – the community does not have to turn its back on the nazir, and can respect and support those efforts.

At the same time, we note that despite that sense of responsibility for each other – there are limits. We are not told to avoid wine ourselves, to purge it from our cities and towns and stores and homes, just because the nazir might be tempted. After all, the nazir took the vow; the nazir is ultimately responsible for his or her own fulfillment of the vow.

There are limits to what one person’s stringencies can impose on others – in terms of support as well as influence. We have a collective responsibility not to shove wine in the nazir’s face, and perhaps the nazir has a responsibility not to shove his or her ideas about asceticism or stringencies in our collective face.

We can find a balance between our own “extras” in pursuit of holiness and our expectations of others around us. We can find a balance between our support for others’ “extras” and our own individual and communal pursuits of holiness in line with what the Torah has already laid out for us.

As Rambam reminds us, balance is usually the key to not being foolish. And what the Torah commands is probably just perfect.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, Lehrhaus, and more, and she serves as Editor-At-Large, Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org. Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through Webyeshiva.org.
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