Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ordinary Mystics 3: Who is a Nazirite?

Chapter One: Who is a Nazirite?

A Nazirite is a man or a woman who devotes herself to God and godliness for a fixed period of time. We will deal with the meaning of “God” and “godliness” in Chapter Five, for now let’s just let the terms be, and get a better grasp of the biblical idea of the Nazirite.

The first thing that strikes me regarding the Nazirite is its gender equality: “A man or a woman who shall do something astounding by taking the Nazirite Vow,” (Numbers 6:2). The Hebrew Bible is notoriously patriarchal, and most spiritually focused material speaks to men specifically, yet here both sexes are mentioned explicitly. There is something profoundly inclusive and egalitarian about the Nazirite. This alone would make it especially relevant to our time.

The fact that both women and men can choose to become Nazirites means that it is a practice that can benefit both sexes. Unlike so much in Judaism, there is nothing sexist about the Nazirite Vow. We don’t have to reinvent it to pertain to all people. Though we do have to massage it to get at its deeper meaning.

 The biblical text in which the laws of the Nazirite are found is from the Priestly period, but the practice itself is much older. This is why the taking of the Nazirite Vow is so simple while ending it is so complicated. Whenever you find complications you find priests and lawyers.

The priests of Israel were a landless class that survived off the donations and offerings of the people. Unlike Buddhist monks, however, who also live off the generosity of the people, priests were not enjoined to live lightly or simply. On the contrary, the Priestly Code made the priests some of the richest men in Israel.

The Priestly Code is rooted magical thinking. Magical thinking says that if you do “x” God will do “y”. “Y” in this case is usually something you desire: good health, a long life, many children, wealth, etc. “X” in this case revolves around sacrificing animals. The method of magic is quite complicated and impossible for a layperson to master. Only highly trained specialists could be relied upon to perform the magic properly. And they didn’t come cheaply. 

 It is interesting to see that in the Bible all one needs to do to become a Nazirite is to declare oneself so inclined and to abide by the three rules of the Vow: abstaining from grape products and hair cutting, and avoiding any contact with dead bodies. This costs nothing as far as money is concerned. Yet to end the period of your Vow you need to bring so many sacrifices to the priests that most people just couldn’t afford this.

My hunch is that the first part of the text, the part that is free, is the original text before the priests discovered a cash cow (pun intended) by linking ritual sacrifice to the Nazirite experience.

Don’t think it is the priests alone who managed to complicate the Nazirite idea, however. The rabbis, too, managed to get entangled in this. The Bible says that a Nazirite cannot cut her hair for the period of the Vow. The rabbis added a bit to this saying that if you cut even a single stand of hair you are liable to a double measure of flogging. I am not certain as to what a single measure of flogging was, but I am pretty sure a double measure isn’t good.

 And not only if you cut it: If you pull out a strand of hair, or if hair falls out while you are rubbing or scratching your head you may also in big trouble. Of course hair falls out of your head naturally, and sometimes this happens when you scratch your head, so the rabbis had to distinguish between scratching an itch and rubbing your hair in order to make some fall out.

Rather than add “no head scratching” to the Vow, the rabbis focused on the intent of your head scratching, saying that since you do not intend to pull hairs out of your head while scratching your head, the Nazirite is only liable to double flogging if he or she rubs her head with dirt.

I admit that I did not add “no rubbing your head with dirt” to by practice of the Nazirite Vow, but that is not to say you shouldn’t.

As far as avoiding the dead, the rabbis prescribed a double measure of flogging for any Nazirite who lives in a house with a death body, or who visits a dying person and stays until the person has died.

 Unless you live over a mortuary, I don’t see how this could be much of a problem. Though, I have had guests stay with me so long that I thought they might die before ever moving on. Now I can refer to my taking the Nazirite Vow when I have to ask them to please move out.

Regarding wine and grape products the rabbis determined that if as a Nazirite you drink 3.4 ounces of wine or wine vinegar you will be flogged. The same is true if you dip a piece of bread in 3.4 ounces of wine. I don’t know if this is a single measure of flogging or a double measure. Regardless, it would be careful about gulping down up any wine-soaked sandwiches.

All of this flogging is from the rabbis; the Bible mentions no penalty for breaking the Nazirite Vow. Since the rabbis, unlike the priests, receive no financial benefit from adding this layer of brutality to what is otherwise a benign practice, we have to wonder regarding their motivation.

My guess is that the rabbis made taking the Nazirite Vow more risky in order to discourage people from taking it in the first place. I suspect they did this for three reasons.
 First, the rabbis were very much opposed to asceticism and saw the Nazirite practice as being in violation of their sense of healthy spirituality. Wine, for example, was a regular part of everyday life. Meals began with the blessing over wine as a way of giving thanks to God for food. With our own awareness of alcoholism we might imagine that abstaining from wine was an act of moral uplift, but in the time of the rabbis it was an unnecessary denial of a legitimate pleasure provided to us by God. In the rabbinic mind, avoiding legitimate pleasure was an insult to God.

A second problem the rabbis may have had with the Nazirite Vow had to do with honoring the dead. Rather than avoid dead bodies, it was rabbinic practice to wash them, cloth them in simple burial shrouds, recite psalms over them, and keep them company from the time of death to the time of burial. It was considered an insult to the deceased to ignore or avoid him. Yet a Nazirite was urged to do just that even if the deceased were her father or mother. To the rabbis this was an act of cruelty not spirituality.

A third reason the rabbis may have made the taking of this Vow more difficult is political. While Nazirites did not form communities of their own, or work in opposition to anyone, the number of people who took this Vow increased in times of political crisis.

The rabbis lived under brutal Roman occupation. At that time there were four ways of dealing with the occupation: collaboration, resistance, withdrawal, and limited engagement.

The priests by and large collaborated, hoping to maintain both their power and the peace by working with the Romans. The Essenes withdrew into the desert awaiting the final battle between good and evil that would see them the ultimate victors. The Zealots battled Rome as homegrown guerrilla fighters. The rabbis sought to accommodate the occupiers by, as Jesus put it, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.

The last thing the rabbis wanted was a bunch of newly fanatic religious running around the country stirring up trouble. And this is what they feared the Nazirite Vow might bring about. They could not outlaw the Vow itself, but they could impose such stringent penalties that few people would risk taking it.

Today, however, none of this matters. While you might say we live under the occupation of rampant capitalism, scientism, and secular materialism, we are not forced to abide by these. We are by and large free to live as we choose.

Given the world in which we live is so different from that of the priests and rabbis of ancient Israel, we need not bother ourselves with the additions either group tacked on to the original Nazirite Vow.

We don’t have to concern ourselves with feeding the priests, sacrificing animals to god, or rubbing our heads with dirt. Nobody is going to flog you for breaking the Vow. I promise.

So why go into this in the first place? To make a very simple point: the power of the Vow was too great to forget. Neither the priests nor the rabbis could simply erase it from the memory of the people. There was something powerful and compelling about the Vow that refused to give way to meddling from either group. And it is that compelling something that I wish to share with you as we go about reconstructing the Vow for ourselves.

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