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What is Holiness? The Lesson of the Nazirite

We are often told that holiness means separation.  There are good grounds for this truism.  The weekly reading that most directly concerns holiness, Qedoshim, freely intermingles the concepts of holiness and separation: “I am the Lord your God who has separated you from other peoples.  So you shall separate the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. … You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from other peoples to be Mine.” (Lev 20:24-26 [NJPS, modified]) And yet, I suggest, there is something fundamentally misleading about this characterization of holiness.

The reading for this past week, Naso, features the laws of the nazirite.  One who vows to be a nazirite becomes “holy to the Lord” (Num 6:8), and is subject to three rules for the period of her vow (Num 6:1-7): She is forbidden from consuming wine or other intoxicants; she must not allow her hair to be cut; and she may not defile herself by contact with the dead, even in the case of a parent or sibling.  These rules evoke the high priest.  All priests are enjoined to drink wine or any intoxicant when entering the tent of meeting (Lev 10:9), but the high priest “shall not go outside the sanctuary” (21:12), and so in his case the injunction amounts to a total prohibition on wine and intoxicants.  All priests are subject to the prohibition against contact with the dead (21:1), but only in the case of the high priest does the prohibition extend to close relatives (21:11).  These two prohibitions align the high priest with the nazirite.  But on the third score, they stand opposed: While the nazirite must let her hair “grow untrimmed (pera‘)” (Num 6:5), the high priest “shall not let his head go untrimmed (yifra‘)” (21:10).

How are we to account for this relationship between the nazirite and the high priest?  Is its essence to be found in the two apparently identical elements, or in the one apparently contrasting element?  I contend that the essence of the relationship lies in the latter, and that the apparently identical elements in fact betray important differences.  The nazirite must let her hair grow long because she embodies life; the organic principle; growth.  Other than nails, and setting aside balding, hair is the one body part that continues to grow when the rest of the body stops growing.  The nazirite makes this fact about hair the expression of her identity.  She becomes a figure of abounding life.  The high priest, by contrast, stands for the rule, the limit, the distinction.  He does not remove his hair altogether; rather, he must keep it trimmed.  He sets a boundary to growth.

Though both the nazirite and the high priest are prohibited from consuming wine, we should see the prohibitions as addressed to two very different aspects of wine, for wine has a dual valence.  On the one hand, it is a mark of cultivation, of civilization.  When Noah leaves the ark, he begins to reconstitute the world, to make it habitable, by cultivating vines.  Viniculture stands for human control over nature.  And yet, on the other hand, when it is consumed to excess, wine leads to a loss of control.  Noah, drunk, lies exposed in his tent, unselfconsciously naked like an animal, like Adam and Eve before they ate from the tree of knowledge.  To be drunk is to lose the capacity to reason, the instinct to distinguish, that makes one human.  The high priest refrains from wine because of the danger of intoxication, for intoxication would inhibit the practice of boundary-drawing that is his essence.

The nazirite refrains from wine for the opposite reason.  As the embodiment of unbounded life, she cannot abide civilization.  She is like the Rechabites, that family that Jeremiah encountered in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 35), whose tradition it was never to drink wine, never to build houses, never to seed fields, never to plant vineyards, but instead to live in tents, to live off the land.  The nazirite is a figure of the wild, a figure in motion, an outsider to civilization, to a life of ordered hedgerows, and she eschews wine because it is the symbol of that life.

I venture that when it comes to the absolute prohibition against contact with the dead, here too we must differentiate between the nazirite and the high priest.  The high priest avoids the dead as a means of giving force to the most fundamental distinction, between the living and the dead.  What the rule tells the high priest is: Attach yourself to living things, and keep apart from dead things.  His relationship is to the distinction between life and death.  In the case of the nazirite, by contrast, the rule is an expression of the fact that the nazirite is life, is the principle of organic growth.  She recoils from death because it is her opposite.  Her relationship is not to the distinction between life and death, but to death itself, under the rubric of opposition.

Is holiness separation?  The high priest, as a paradigm of human holiness, embodies separation, but in fact separation, distinction, is not holiness in itself.  The high priest cultivates cultivation, cultivates distinction, so that he can approach the holy.  The holy itself is embodied in the nazirite.  Or put differently, we may more accurately compare the nazirite not to the high priest, but to the holy of holies that the high priest seeks to approach.  Holiness is growth, is unchecked abundance.  Such abundance is dangerous, wild, fearsome, terrible.  Usually, we adopt the role of the high priest.  We seek holiness as something outside of us, as something to which we relate by means of contiguity.  We approach it cautiously, across multiple checkpoints, and after disciplining ourselves so that we can glimpse it without becoming altogether assimilated to it.  But there is another path, that of the nazirite, which is to seek holiness from the inside out, to become unbound.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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