Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ordinary Mystics 2: Introduction


I am the chief rabbi of a small Tennessee town in the middle of the Bible Belt. Actually I am the only rabbi in this town. Actually I am one of only four Jews in this town, so being chief rabbi is not such an honor. But it is nothing to sneeze at either, and I am proud to serve as best I can.

One of my jobs as Chief Rabbi is to visit neighboring churches and teach a little about Judaism. I do this often and am always impressed by the fine welcome I receive. My Christian neighbors are eager to learn about the religion of Jesus. I do my best to share with them the wisdom of the rabbis, and our understanding of the Bible, though I am certain I learn more from them than they do from me.

The thing I love best about my neighbor’s faith is their love of simplicity. They got this from Jesus. I walk into church with my 1048 page siddur (prayer book), and they offer me the Lord’s Prayer— less than 100 words! I talk to them about 613 commandments and they come back with two: Love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and Love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).
 I talk to them about how Jews aren’t supposed to eat food off of paper plates during Passover because the plates are made with cornstarch, and they marvel at the fact that the King of Kings, the Lord of the entire universe is concerned with the glue in paper plates.

Of course God is concerned with goodness also, I tell them, but they know this already. Jesus made that clear to them. And he did it in a manner that was simple, direct, intrinsically compelling, and timeless.

“It is the simplicity of Jesus’ teaching that makes it so compelling,” one pastor friend told me. “It isn’t that Jesus taught anything new. Everything he taught we could find in the Old Testament. What was new was the way he taught it and to whom. He taught it simply and he taught it to everyone.”

The simplicity of Jesus’ teaching was not unique to Jesus. He is heir to a 1000-years of prophet tradition that spoke forcefully and simply regarding what it is God requires of us. The prophet Micah got it down to three things: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly, (Micah 6:8). Habakkuk got it down to one thing only: live by faith (Hab 2:4). It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Yet simple doesn’t mean easy. No one who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus, Micah, or Habakkuk would claim that it is easy to do so. It is just that Judaism as a system does seem overwhelmingly complicated to many people, even to Jews.

“You know when I stopped practicing Judaism, rabbi?” The speaker was a man in his mid-fifties. He had just heard me give a talk on meditation in a Jewish context. Never having met the man before I admitted that I had no idea that he had stopped practicing Judaism, let alone when.

“I stopped the moment my rabbi told me I should unscrew the light bulb in my refrigerator on the Sabbath so that the light won’t go on and off when I open and close the door. I just looked at him with my mouth open. Is this what Judaism is all about? Is this what God worries about? Is this what I will be judged for when I die?”

“Well, your rabbi was very traditional,” I said. “More liberal rabbis would not have made that suggestion.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that the law is still on the books. The fact that some people choose to ignore the law doesn’t mean that Judaism has evolved beyond the law.”
 He was right. As Chief Rabbi of my little town I could focus on those aspects of Judaism I like, and ignore those I do not; but even a Chief Rabbi cannot amend the Talmud and remove the laws themselves. Selective observance is the best we can offer those for whom full observance seems overwhelming or ridiculous.

“You know what I need, rabbi? I need a way to connect with God that I can fit into my life. I know that sounds selfish, and maybe it isn’t possible. But the fact is I’m not going to pray or meditate everyday. I’m not going to go to synagogue every week, or even once a month. I’m too busy; too wrapped up with family and work; too jealous of what little private time I have to spend. I certainly don’t want to spend it doing some lengthy ritual from the ancient past. Doesn’t Judaism have anything to offer me that is both spiritually rich and yet practical?”

I get asked this a lot. My stock answer used to be to read my book Minyan where I set forth ten things you can do to get in touch with God and godliness. But even that seems to be too much for people. We live in a time where time is precious, and while we want God no less then our less stressed ancestors, we just don’t have the will to orient our lives Godward.
 What to do? For the longest time I had no idea. Then one day while preparing a commentary for Parashat Nasso (Numbers 4:21 to 7:89) I came across this:

God spoke to the Moses, saying, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: If a man or a woman chooses to do something astounding and take a Nazirite Vow of abstinence for My sake; they shall abstain from … anything made from wine and grapes, even the pips and skin. No razor shall cut their hair …. [and] they shall not come near a dead person… for the crown of God is upon the Nazirite’s head. All the days of their abstinence they are holy to Me,” (Numbers 6:1-8).

Now the idea of a Nazirite wasn’t new to me. I had read this passage of the Bible dozens of times. The truth is, however, I never thought much about it. This time was different. All of a sudden I knew this was exactly what I was looking for: a way to be holy, a way to wear the Crown of God for a time that was actually doable in the midst of my hectic life. And if it could work for me, it could work for anyone.
 All I had to do was put the Bible to the test. Could I take the Nazirite Vow, and would doing so be meaningful?

The Nazirite has to abstain from three things: grape products, hair cutting, and dead bodies. I don’t drink alcohol, but I do love red grapes. Yet, how hard could it be to put off eating them for a while? I cut my own hair and do like it short, but I could live with a more fuzzy dome without must trouble. And since I retired from the congregational rabbinate I have yet to see a dead body, so that wouldn’t be a challenge to me at all.

I decided to take the Vow the next week. The Bible doesn’t tell you how long you have to remain a Nazirite. It is a voluntary state, and you are free to make it for as long as you wish. I planned to be a Nazirite for five days. The number was arbitrary, but it felt right. I would take the Vow on Monday and end it before the Sabbath on Friday. This way I could cut my hair for the Sabbath and drink grape juice for the Sabbath meal.

 Just in case I would forget and pop a grape in my mouth, I informed my wife of my Nazirite intension and asked her to refrain from bringing any grapes into the house during the period of my Vow. She agreed. She also promised not to cut my hair while I slept or to sneak any corpses into the house while I was out. Very helpful, my wife.

To make sure I was getting an accurate read on the impact of being a Nazirite, I chose to put aside my daily spiritual practice routine. I stopped meditating, walking, chanting, and even studying. If something was to come of this Vow, I wanted to make sure it was the Vow from which it was coming, and not some other practice with which I was engaged.

I took the Vow at dawn on Monday. “God,” I said aloud, standing alone in my backyard, “for the next five days I Vow to be Nazirite. For five days I will abstain from grapes and wine, from cutting my hair, and from coming into contact with dead bodies. I do this for Your sake, to be closer to You, and to wear Your crown upon my head. I ask that You support me in my efforts. Thank you. Amen”

 That was it. For the next five days I was a Nazirite. No wine passed my lips; no razor touched my head; and no dead bodies crossed my path. Nothing else happened either. Being a Nazirite was easy, and meaningless. I was crushed.

At the end of the fifth day I ended my Vow. The Bible sets forth a formal way of doing so:

This shall be the law of the Nazirite: on the day abstinence is completed, the Nazirite shall come to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting with an offering to HaShem; one unblemished sheep in its first year as an elevation offering, one unblemished ewe in its first year as a sin offering, and one unblemished ram as a peace offering; a basket of unleavened bread; loaves of fine flour mixed with oil and unleavened wafers smeared with oil; and their meal-offerings and their libations.

The Kohen/Priest shall approach before God and perform the service of the sin offering and elevation offering. He shall make the ram a feast peace offering for HaShem with the basket of unleavened loaves, along with the meal offering and its libation.

 At the entrance of the Tent of meeting the Nazirite’s hair will be cut and burned in the fire of the peace offering. The Kohen shall take the cooked foreleg of the ram and one unleavened loaf of bread and one unleavened wafer, and place them on the palms of the Nazirite. The Kohen shall wave them as a wave service before God; it shall be set aside for the Kohen, in addition to the breast of the waving and the thigh of the raising up. Afterward the Nazirite may drink wine.  (Numbers 6:13-20).

I probably should have read this part before taking the Vow. I’m a vegetarian (OK, I eat fish and some dairy, and eggs, but cows think I’m their friend). Even if I had access to sheep, ewes, and rams I am not about to kill them to end this Vow. I am also allergic to gluten, and loaves of any kind make me ill. While I wouldn’t mind ending my Nazirite experiment with a glass of grape juice, the entire ceremony looks to me as a way for the priest to get a free meal and donation at my expense.
 What I did instead was thank God for supporting me in my Vow, cut my hair, drink a small glass of grape juice, and make a donation to a local homeless shelter. I felt good about all four of these little closers, but the five days were basically a bust. I didn’t feel holy. I didn’t feel God’s crown on my head. And I didn’t feel I had found the magic bullet that would allow me and my busy friends to be spiritual in the midst of the madness of our everyday lives.

So that was that. Back to the discipline of meditation and the rest. But I just couldn’t let the Nazirite go. Something about it just kept nagging at me. There was something missing. It should work.

So I tried it again. And again. “No bars, no barbers, no morgues” became my mantra. I turned it into a t-shirt slogan and a bumper sticker. I liked the sound of it, but the reality was that it just didn’t matter.

“Since when did you become such a literalist?” a friend of mine asked when I shared with her my efforts as a Nazirite. “You don’t take anything in the Bible literally, and all of sudden you have reduced this one portion to no bars, no barbers, no morgues? Come on, what does this say to you?”

 She was right. My entire approach to Judaism has been one of the creative iconoclast. Why was I imitating the past rather than using it as a catalyst for innovation?

I went back to the text to see what it means and not just what it says. The answer was so clear, you have probably already thought it yourself. Abstaining from wine means avoiding mind-numbing stimulants: television reality shows, infomercials, maybe even television itself. (Dear God, say it ain’t so!) Hair is an almost universal sign of power. Think of Samson. Not cutting your hair means growing your own sense of power, you own self-esteem, self-reliance, and self-worth. Dead bodies are, well, dead bodies. What do I make of this?

It took a bit of reflection but it soon came to me that while I was not about to find a dead body in the street (I would not be so sure of this if I still lived in Miami or Los Angeles), I could find lots of them in my own head. Dead bodies were the dead ideas I schlepped around with me. Dead bodies were the corpses of old, rotting, negative thoughts that haunted me. Avoiding dead bodies was abstinence from dead and deadening habits of mind.

 Now I was on to something. I tried the Vow one more time. This time I gave up wine and grape juice along with other intoxicants: television, movies, newspapers, radio, and even gossip. I didn’t cut my hair, and began to focus on growing my power by being of greater service to others. And I spent lots of time looking for dead bodies: dead thoughts that keep me from experiencing my unity with, in, and as God.

I ended the period of the Vow the same way I did before, but this time I felt different. The five days of this revised Nazirite period were rich with insights. While I did not have it down just right, I knew I was heading in the right direction.

This small book shares my experience with the Nazirite Vow. My hope is to offer those of you looking for a way to be an ordinary mystic in the midst of your everyday life, an ancient yet contemporary way of doing so; one rooted in the Bible and relevant to your life.

The first three chapters explore what the Nazirite Vow is, who should take it, and when. Chapters Four and Five deals with the issue of God. If this Vow is to bring you into direct contact with God, we had best be clear as to what we mean when we use the word.

 Chapter Six explores the notion of godliness, living in the world in a manner that reflects our understanding of ourselves as incarnations of the divine. Chapter Seven introduces the key to my re-creation of the Nazirite Vow; something called the Three Garments of the Soul. The three Garments are Thought, Word, and Deed, and I found that they correspond neatly to the three abstentions: avoiding dead bodies, intoxicants, and hair cutting. Once that link is made, the rest of this little book takes up each abstention in turn, explores its meaning in a contemporary context, and then offers specific tools from the Jewish tradition to work with them.

Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten revisit the three abstentions of the Nazirite Vow in light of all that has gone before. It is here that I make plan what is being asked of you as a Nazirite. Chapter Eleven pulls the whole thing together and challenges you to try it out for yourself.

While the ideas in this book come from Judaism, they are relevant to everyone. Just as you may learn from the other great religions of the world without having to join them, so may you learn from Judaism without having to become a Jew. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, the Nazirite Vow is a tool worth exploring. Please, give it a chance. It is worth the effort.


SteveL said...

For a time, try to cleanse yourself of old addictions (wine), egocentrism (haircuts), and old mental garbage (corpses), and try to live compassionately. Do justly . . . love mercy . . . walk humbly (Micah 6.8). So simple, so hard.

JiM_G! said...

Deeply enjoyed your post. Thank you.