Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Holiness and the modern world… Originally posted April 10, 2008

At the moment I am studying Masechta Nazir- the section of the Talmud which discusses the vow of the Nazirite. In many ways it seems strange. In many religions asceticism and withdrawal from the world is seen as desireable and the way to achieve holiness. Physical denial and the abrogating of the pleasures of the world as the means to enhance spirituality and embrace holiness.

At first glance, the nazirite vows seems to embrace this philosophy, after all, the nazirite is forbidden from
1) drinking wine or having any grape products (including grapes themselves)
2) cutting their hair
3) Becoming impure through contact with a dead body.

But then comes the discussion of the actions of the nazir when the period of time as a nazir is completed, he brings a sin sacrifice! Yep, one of the sacrifices this person brings, this person who has deprived himself of physical pleasures in order to connect to God, is commanded to bring is a korban chatas, a sin offering. What is his sin- that he deprived himself of the pleasures of this world!

Now, in the modern era we no longer can swear to become nazirites (you cannot become a nazirite in a state of impurity; since we have no ashes of a red heffer with which to purify ourselves, everybody today is in a state of impurity) but the vow of the nazirite illustrates something very important to us: you do not become holy by withdrawing from the world, becoming an ascetic and limiting your contact with other people. On the contrary, we are commanded to have families. We are commanded to join with others.  In the times of the Temple on the three chagigot raglayim (the pilgramage festivals- Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) the whole nation coming together to feast and celebrate together; nowadays in praying with a minyan. We are told to enjoy the fruits of the world, not in excess, but to the point of being satisfied without being over indulgent.

Holiness in Judaism is not seen as an individual looking inwards, focusing on himself and ignoring the world but rather on somebody looking outwards. Somebody giving out what they have learnt, what they know, teaching others and bringing them along.  Kaballistically God is seen as a light that fills everything, the ultimate source of giving, not needing anything in return, but only wanting to fill the empty vessels, us. Holiness is not in the receiving, not in the contemplating oneself but in giving, in pouring out to others what we know so their vessel will be filled. The great rabbis were not lone ascetics but were leaders of communities, Rosh Yeshivahs, teachers, judges, fathers etc. They were great not because of what they knew but because they knew how to teach others so they, too, could achieve greatness.

So whats the point of this rambling?  Why worry about the fact that Judaism seems holiness, and the achievement of it differently to others?  Not so much to highlight that difference, but to highlight something else. The emphasis on achieving holiness, of emulating God’s holiness is in the giving.  In not denying oneself what the world has to offer, but in assimilating it in the correct fashion, and then teaching others how to do so.  Surely this process, of learning and teaching others, in giving of ones time, knowledge and accumulated experiences should be one of the core ideals of any society.  Yet it is not.  Perhaps that should be what we teach our children to strive for- this ability to absorb knowledge, process it it, then pass on what was learnt to others. We need to teach people to focus on teaching, on responsibilities and to get away from the modern pre-occupation of “me”, of “my rights”, “my desires”, my self fulfillment”- and to get back to where true holiness and community building comes form: giving and obligations- a focus on “YOUR rights”, “YOUR needs” and “Your desires”. We need to teach people how to give again, to see that holiness is in the community, not on the mountain top.


June 24, 2008 - Posted by | Talmud, Torah | , , ,

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