Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ordinary Mystic #1: Preface

The Bible is a big book with big ideas and even bigger ideals. I admit to being addicted to reading it. I have made a career of commenting on what I read, and interpreting it for the modern reader. I find the Bible infinitely compelling, fascinating, enlightening, and annoying. 

Compelling because the stories contain the universal elements of the human drama. Fascinating because so many of its insights are both old and incredibly relevant. Enlightening because there are truths mentioned in the Bible that remove the shutters of my narrow egoic self and let in the light of God that is spacious Self. And annoying because for all of this the Bible also contains some of the most misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, and ethically primitive ideas ever invented.

For many people the latter renders the Bible useless. They focus on the worst material and ignore the best. This is like my refusing to read Shakespeare because I find the anti-Semitism of the Merchant of Venice insulting. If I only read or learned from those books and authors with whom I agreed one hundred percent I wouldn’t read anything. Not even my own books, as I tend to change my mind over time and don’t always agree with what I said in the past.

Unlike the Bible, Ordinary Mystics is a series of short posts with very few ideas. It is meant to be understood without breaking an intellectual sweat. I want you to find the suggestions offered in this book either so compelling that you will do them, or so absurd that you will ignore them. What I don’t want is for you to agonize over them.

You have enough to agonize over. You have enough problems and challenges in your life. And even though most of these are of your own making, I have no desire to add to them. On the contrary, I wrote these posts because I believe that if you take them seriously you will find a method for letting go of lots of the problems that plague you.

The connection between the big ideas of the Bible and the small ideas of Ordinary Mystics is that the latter come from the former. This is a book all about one idea found in the Bible, the idea of the Nazirite.

A Nazirite is a person who dedicates a certain portion of her life to God and godliness. It might be a day, a week, or a month. The rules of the Nazirite are simple: abstain from wine, don’t cut your hair, and avoid dead bodies. Or as I prefer to put it: “No bars, no barbers, no morgues.”

Understanding the implications of becoming a Nazirite and learning how to live by these three rules for a period of time is what the next few posts are all about. There is nothing special about this. Very simple, really. Unlike most of the rituals in the Hebrew Bible, taking the Nazirite Vow is almost a do-it-yourself venture. You get to apply the three abstentions to your life, rather than mold your life to the abstentions.

Because of, rather than despite, its free-flowing nature, I believe that taking the Nazirite Vow can be one of the most powerful and personally transformative acts you will ever do in your entire life. A huge claim for a blog, I know. But there it is.

What I want to do with the Ordinary Mystics posts is explore the nature of the Nazirite Vow and how to adapt it to your life. In so doing I will do what I have always done with biblical texts and teachings: lift them out of their historical context and see what they have to say to us here and now.

Therefore I am not overly concerned with history, traditional commentary, or convention views of Judaism, whether orthodox or liberal. What concerns me is the potential for the contemporary practice of taking the Nazirite Vow to bring an ever-deepening spiritual awareness to people who imagine their current life situations to preclude this kind of deepening.

The Nazirite Vow is for students, householders, parents, married, and singles—anyone whose life is so busy that going off on a spiritual retreat is a seeming impossibility. While I am a great supporter of retreating from the world now and again, and a huge fan of solitude (I spend most of my days happily alone), I recognize the fact that for many a weeklong retreat is just not in the cards. Taking the Nazirite Vow is not about retreating from your life, but engaging every aspect of it with a heightened sense of purpose.

A Nazirite is an ordinary mystic, meeting the everyday obligations of her normal life. A Nazirite is what my friend and teacher Brother Wayne Teasdale calls being a monk in the world. This is what makes this little known aspect of Jewish teaching so powerful. It is as if it were tailor-made for our hectic lifestyles.

If you read these posts and find the idea of becoming a Nazirite worthy of your time, give it a shot, and tell us how it went via the Comments section of the blog.


Raksha said...

I'm very glad to hear you're going to be doing a series of posts about the Nazirite Vow because I've always been curious about it. Although what it involved is fairly easy to pick up from the Bible (as you put it, "no bars, no barbers and no morgues"), what I have never understood is why people took the Nazirite Vow. The Bible doesn't spell this out, and seems to take it for granted that everyone already knows why. Maybe they did at one time, but that was a long time ago.

I have a question related to the theme of your "Ordinary Mystics" series: Is it customary, or in some circles obligatory, for people to take the Nazirite Vow during the 40-day counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot? The reason I'm asking is because an online friend of mine, who I would describe as "Conservadox" in her practice, mentioned last year that she couldn't have her hair cut until after Shavuot. This was on a Jewish discussion board, and nowhere did the word "Nazirite" appear in any of her posts or any of the replies to them. I just inferred it because she said she couldn't have her hair cut, but nobody ever explicitly mentioned the Nazirite context or precedent.

Buttercup said...

Very interesting. I'll be following your series and seeing how this works in my life.

SteveL said...

What is the point of taking the Nazarite Vow? I can only find what is proscribed: no booze, no haircuts, no contacts with corpses. What good is accomplished by observing these proscriptions? Is the vow just empty ritual? Or are there positive purposes in the vow . . . . acts of love and compassion? Is the ritual only a step to becoming a monk, after which he/she finds in daily life the paths to love and compassion?

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Raksha said...

@Steve L.: I'm also waiting for Rabbi Rami to explain what was the point of the Nazirite Vow, but as far as I can tell it was a personal and voluntary spiritual practice.

What I mean by "voluntary" is that unlike most Jewish ritual practices and proscriptions, it wasn't practiced because it was a mitzvah, or commandment. Not as far as I know, anyway. Mitzvot were and are obligations, like the commandment to observe the Sabbath. As everyone knows, Sabbath observance involves a long list of ritual observances one is required to perform, and an even longer list of forbidden actions one must refrain from doing. These can get so incredibly complicated they make me grateful I'm not Orthodox--for that reason among others.

Rabbi Rami can correct me if I'm wrong, but the Nazirite Vow doesn't seem to fall into the category of mitzvot or commandments, at least up to the point of actually taking the vow. After it had been taken, there was (and I assume still is) an obligation to follow through for the stated time period. After all, one must not take the Lord's name in vain by swearing a false oath.

Although the three main proscriptions are well known--no bars, no barbers and no morgues--the Nazirite Vow wasn't a step in becoming a monk, to be followed by another stricter vow. It seems to have always been a stand-alone spiritual practice.

In ancient times it was customary, or at least very common, to take the Nazirite Vow for much longer time periods than those indicted in Rabbi Rami's post, sometimes as long as 20 years. But even then it wasn't taken for a lifetime. I believe there was a special ritual of purification or release at the end of the specified time period, which Rabbi Rami will no doubt tell us about.

migali said...

Hmm--Well I don't go to bars and a six pack of beer will last me a couple of months. My wife already tells me I go way to long without getting a haircut. Unfortunately--
I have to draw the line at no corpses/morgues :-)

Rabbi Rami said...

Raksha, it is customary not to cut your hair during Omer, but this has nothing to do with taking the Nazirite vow. I think think Omer the time when Jewish barbers traditionally went on vacation, but then I just made that up.

And to Steve, I hope I will answer these questions as the series progresses.

Raksha said...

@Rabbi Rami: Thanks for the clarification. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Irwin said...

I have not thoroughly researched this,but didn't one have to make a sin offering at the end of the nazirite period? I believe this might be worth commenting on.

Irwin said...

I have not thoroughly researched this,but didn't one have to make a sin offering at the end of the nazirite period? I believe this might be worth commenting on.