Recently, my wife and I were looking at old photographs of rabbis from a century or so ago. One of the interesting things we noticed was that there was a tremendous variety of clothing, especially their hats. There were straw hats, derbies, homburgs, top hats and, my favorite, the Chafetz Chaim’s sort of Breton sailor’s cap. Why do we today visit a chareidi shul or yeshiva and see everyone wearing the exact same style of hat? When did this amazing level of uniformity take hold? It’s ironic that chareidi men are more exactingly uniform than I was when a soldier in the IDF. Granted I wasn’t a very impressive soldier, but still I wasn’t as precisely the same as the other soldiers (I wore baseball caps and sneakers.) as these religious gentlemen are with each other. Why might this be true?
One might think that this falls into the category of AL TIFROSH MIN HA’TZIBUR (Don’t separate from the community, Pirkei Avot 2:4). The Tiferet Yisrael lists five types of ‘separating from the community (based on the Talmud, Ta’anit 11a)’: 1. follow the ritual customs of the TZIBUR, 2. when deciding communal religious issues, never act according to what you would personally want, decide what is best for the community at large, 3. when the community is immersed in difficulties, don’t abandon them, 4. when you pray for yourself, join with the general prayers and needs of the community, 5. when you are appointed to a role of leadership, don’t become aloof from the others in the community, remain a member of the community. The Tiferet Yisrael concludes that by following these few rules, which are a precious secret (SOD YAKAR) and, sadly, ignored by most, you will be honored and beloved.
So, we see that connection to the community is extremely important, but does it include the dress code? Based on this list and the photographic evidence, I must conclude, no. Which finally brings us to a question from this week’s Torah reading. What are the parameters of this togetherness?
Our parsha contains the curious mitzva of NAZIR. The verse states: A man or woman who expresses an oath of the NAZIRITE to separate oneself for the Lord (Bamidbar 6:2). It appears that there is a positive type of separateness. Everything about this verse reeks of ‘separate’. The term I translated as ‘expresses’ is YAFLEH and, according to Rashi, means ‘separate’ (YAFRISH). Then the word NAZIR appears twice and Rashi says that, too, means YAFRISH or ‘separate’.
So, what’s going on here? Are we trying to venerate the concept of separate and different? Clearly, we appreciate unity, but what are the guidelines?
Professor Robert Alter is intrigued by our verse and comments that the key to understanding the institution of NAZIR is the term YAFLEH. He explains that some modern commentaries claim that the term is neutral and that it just means that the initiate into the state of being a NAZIRITE is clearly expressing the wish to make this vow. Others, like the philosopher Baruch Levine, describe this verb as describing a wish to be set apart or distinguished from the community. The Sforno adds that it means separating from worldly pleasures. However, the most traditional position, as expressed by the Ibn Ezra, is that this term is related to NIFLA’OT, and is connected to performing wonders or miracles. This last position states that the NAZIR is doing something truly outstanding, marvelous, but also highly unusual, if not actually unnatural.
The Netziv avers that this extended and wordy presentation is meant to develop the idea that there are indeed two different types of NAZIR. One Nazir is already in a state of separateness from the community (today we might call such a person ‘aloof’ or, perhaps, ‘socially awkward’); the other is someone who just needs a break from societal norms for a spell. He goes on to explain that category #1 might stay a NAZIR forever, while category #2 would probably feel that the minimum NAZIRUT period of a month would be sufficient to satisfy the need for a break from the social pressures of one’s community.
So, where do we stand? As a rule, Judaism encourages humans to be connected to their community. On the other hand, there are some people who feel like square pegs in a round hole. So, we generally prefer a certain amount of conformity and participation in the community. However, I believe strongly that the take away concept of the NAZIR is: It’s okay to be different. Even the Halachik process recognizes that there are individuals who struggle with strict conformity, and variety has a place in Judaism’s big tent.
All of these behavioral variations must, of course, be Halachically acceptable. But within Halacha there are many opinions and options. We must get communities to be tolerant of variety, and parents to assess individual children’s needs. I don’t love my Sephardic grandchildren less, because they don’t daven NUSACH HaGRA.
I believe strongly that even though, for technical reasons, this unusual precept of NEZIRUT is almost never observed today, nevertheless, it still has a lot to teach us about tolerance in Jewish society. And I love my straw hats and Red Sox caps.