Pinchas Goldschmidt

Naso: The ‘Legacy’ Rabbi vs the Self-Made Spiritual Leader: Which is Better?

What makes a great religious leader? How does an individual excel in their spiritual qualities – the ability to lead large groups of Jews, answering intricate questions on matters of Jewish law; conquering the vast corpus of Jewish literature, in order to be able to answer those questions? 

How does one become a role model for the next generation, inspiring them to be a part of the continuity of Jewish life, and perhaps becoming leaders themselves? 

In Judaism, there are two ways to achieve that level of greatness – and both of them are illustrated in our Torah portion, Naso. The longest Shabbat reading in the Torah – with 176 verses – contains numerous topics, but highlights two holy people: the Kohen (and the Kohen Gadol, the head of the priestly family), and the Nazir, a Jew who voluntarily takes on prohibitions of actions which are generally permissible, such as abstaining from wine and grape-based products. 

The Kohen is commanded to holiness – defined as a separate and spiritually more intense approach to life – through a wide variety of laws. Kohanim are not permitted to come into contact with dead bodies or even enter cemeteries, except when the deceased is an immediate relative. (An exception is the kohen gadol, who cannot even attend the burial of an immediate family member). Kohanim are the only ones permitted to perform sacrifices on behalf of other Jews, and many intricate laws dictate their behavior when handling these; and they are the only ones permitted to eat the terumah, set aside for them by Jewish farmers. Those laws, and many others, apply to the kohen by virtue of his birth; he didn’t seek out these responsibilities and privileges, but because his father was a kohen, he is one as well. 

The Nazir, on the other hand, obtains his status by virtue of volunteering to take on extra prohibitions. Besides abstaining from wine and grapes, the Nazir cannot cut his hair for the term of his Nazirite commitment. (The most famous Nazir in history, Samson, is best known for his long, uncut hair). And the Nazir is also banned from cemeteries and from taking care of the dead – and that applies to immediate relatives as well, just as it does to the Kohen Gadol. 

So which method of attaining holiness is greater? Who should the preferred religious leader be – the one who inherits the tradition of their forebears, ensuring a rock-solid commitment to Judaism now and in the future, or the self-made religious leader, who via personal asceticism and will is able to elevate himself into greater levels of holiness? 

From the letter of the law, it would seem that the Nazir has an edge; after all, the law regarding his “defilement” from contact with immediate relatives is the same as that of the Kohen Gadol, indicating that his level of holiness is as great as that of who is, based on the law, the holiest person in Judaism. 

However we could explain the distinction between the Nazir and the Cohen in terms of how they obtained their holiness. The Kohen, who derives his sanctity from his family has to show respect to his family members when they depart this world, while the Nazir and the High Priest attained

their holiness by their own virtue and therefore they are not allowed to render themselves impure, even for the sake of their own close relatives. 

Asceticism in Judaism is not an easy way to reach spiritual heights and comes sometimes on account of other necessary virtues. The Talmud (Nazir 19:A) writes that the Nazir is a sinner for denying himself that which G-d permitted. “R`Eleazar ha-Kappar… said: Why does the Scripture say, ‘And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by reason of the soul’ (Numbers 6:11). Against what ‘soul’ did he then sin? It can only be because he denied himself wine.” 

These differing views of the Nazir underscore how both the Nazir and the Kohen are equally valid paths to holiness and spiritual leadership. 

I spoke a month ago to a group of rabbis in Germany, and noted that almost all of them came from a secular background and none of their immediate ancestors have been rabbis, and I told them that in many aspects they resemble more to the Nazir than to the Cohen, and therefore are of exalted status. 

One of the most famous Nazirs of previous generations was Rabbi David Cohen, the great disciple of Rav Kook, and interestingly enough, originated also from a secular background. 

The question of religious leadership is one that is relevant in all generations – including ours. Israel, at this time, is in the midst of a discussion of whom the next Chief Rabbis (Ashkenazi and Sefardi) will be, as the current Chief Rabbis wrap up their ten-year terms. Many of the names that have been bandied about including “legacy” rabbis – rabbis with a rich connection to previous generations of religious leaders, including former Chief Rabbis. On the other hand, there are candidates without that background – who have achieved their spiritual status by forging their own path, and working hard at it. Who would make a better leader? Parshat Naso tells us that there are advantages to both approaches – and that a “self-made” rabbi should by no means be dismissed as a candidate because he doesn’t have the family background and connections that others have.

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.
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