Years ago I hiked in the Judean desert to Wadi Qelt. There I discovered small caves dug into the sides of the mountains. These were caves for Christian monks who had pledged to live a life of solitude and denial. Their meager rations were placed in a bucket that was then lowered from the cave’s mouth. There was one small cave for each monk. My friends and I looked at each other and said, “How un-Jewish!” Denying yourself food is not the Jewish way. Yom Kippur, despite its importance, is not emblematic of our tradition.
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes the ancient Nazirite vow in which a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, refrain from cutting his hair and avoid contact with the dead. This was a voluntary rite and could be made as a life-long pledge or for as brief a period as one month. By making this vow an individual sought a deeper connection to God and an increased measure of holiness. The most famous of Nazirites were Samuel, the prophet who we read about on Rosh Hashanah, and Samson who of course lost his spiritual powers when Delilah seduced him into cutting his hair. (I’m driving in my car, I turn on the radio…) The New Testament records that John the Baptist was a Nazirite. This practice eventually fell out of favor. Such asceticism continues in other religious traditions but Judaism long ago rejected such practices.
Judaism instead developed an approach of moderation. It does not forbid drinking. Instead it uses wine to sanctify Shabbat and holidays. It views wine as a way to elevate celebrations. Life is intended to be enjoyed and wine helps serve that purpose. Judaism did not as well forbid sexual relations or view them as sinful. There is no celibate tradition within Judaism. Instead it framed sex within proper relationships. When a relationship is sanctified by marriage sexual relations are not only permitted between husband and wife but commanded. Yes it really is a mitzvah. By the way according to traditional sources it is the husband’s commandment and the wife’s right. Moreover it is not only for the sake of procreation but more importantly for the purpose of enjoyment. This is Judaism’s realistic view of such worldly matters. There are pleasures in this world that help to elevate and sanctify our lives.
Nothing is unholy. Everything is but waiting to be made holy. The Nazirite and his monkish practices were thus pushed aside by our Jewish tradition.
But even in ancient days there was one thing that even the Nazirite could not deny himself. He could never shut out the community. Unlike the monks who lived like hermits in the Judean desert Jewish “monks” could never choose solitude. Even the most pious of Jews could never choose to be alone. There is no extra measure of holiness in that. To be a Jew is to be part of the community. The congregation can never be shut out.
Hillel suggests: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” For the Jew the greatest holiness can only be achieved with others, never without.