Friday, June 24, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Korakh 5771 – Supporting Our “Priests” and “Levites”

I’m writing this week’s musing from a very selfish standpoint. For the last few decades, I have primarily made my living as a Jewish Educator, especially supervising supplemental religious school programs or teaching for them. If you’ve been following my personal dramas, you’ll know that I’m taking a bit of a downward/sideways shift in my career, still involved in education, and still in a Jewish setting (a day school) however I’ll be teaching music.

Finding work as a Jewish educator (as a school director or similar work) is not so easy these days. (Religious school teachers, however, are always in demand, though the economic crisis is being felt by them as well. Many day schools are struggling as well.) Many of my colleagues are out of work, looking for work, working at reduced salaries and for reduced benefits, or are now working in other fields – some tangential and till in the Jewish community like mine, others no longer working as Jewish professional. Some are not working at all, a circumstance to which I can relate, having been through a two-year period of un/under-employment.

That’s not to say there isn’t any work in Jewish education, there are just many more people competing for those jobs. Many jobs have become part-time, many have few, if any benefits. If we were like ancient Levites, we wouldn’t be able to survive on the support the community was providing.

Now, admittedly, Jewish education has never been a field one goes into with expectations of generous compensation and benefits. All (and I mean all, not most) of the Jewish educators I know do what they do because they love it or feel compelled/obligated to do this holy work. (I suppose there may be some out there who chose the profession for other reasons, but I have personally never mey anyone like that.) All want and expect decent compensation, but recognize it’s not a profession from which they are likely to become rich.

I don’t want to upset any of my rabbinical and cantorial colleagues, most (being honest, I have to say most and not all) do what they do for its holy purpose, and not for financial reasons. I do not begrudge rabbis and cantors the salaries they make and the benefits they receive. They, too, suffer from a plethora of problems that pervade the institution of the synagogue when it comes to employment, contracts, ethics, etc. As a general rule of thumb, they are compensated better than educators – that’s just a basic reality (though there are exceptions.) They too, are being asked to accept salary or benefit reductions (or, at the very least, minimal increases or frozen wages) in many cases. Sometimes, I feel like we are modern “Levites,” except we aren’t landless (though many of us are apartment dwellers-does that makes us landless?)

Yes, I see the work that I and other educators do as of equal value and find the salary discrepancies (which, to us, indicate how we are respectively valued by the community) between us and ordained clergy bothersome. However that is not my focus here. I don’t want to get into a game of comparatives, because in many respects we would be comparing apples and oranges.

So I want to include the clergy as part of the issue I am prompted to raise as my response to encountering parashat Korakh this year.

We – the educators (administrators, teachers, specialists, and support staff alike,) and the the clergy are today’s “Levites.” We perform the essential services that enable the community to worship, learn, engage in the performance of mitzvot, and so much more. For a significant part of the liberal Jewish community, we are also their “surrogate Jew.”  Viewed in this way, we, like the priests of old, are intermediaries between the deity/religious cult and the people. Clergy, in particular, perform what once were priestly duties, though not exclusively so. Clergy, educators, and the like (here a nod to synagogue administrators and support staff) also perform the work of the Levites.

Now it is true that we are living in an age in which clergy are not seen universally as intermediaries, and in Judaism we certainly don’t view communication with G”d as solely the purview of the clergy. In the parasha, we read that the priests are to handle all of the work “behind the curtain,” i.e. the altar and the holy of holies. Even before the destruction of the two Temples, people were starting to question this exclusivity, and with the advent of the rabbinical Judaism that replaced the Temple cult in the diaspora, holy obligations were certainly more decentralized. Rabbis were teachers, leaders, and advisors/decision-offerers, but they were not seen as intermediaries acting on behalf of the people to intercede with G”d (though, taking as an example the story of the “ovens at Akhnai” the rabbis may have seen themselves as the ultimate authority, even usurping G”d – G”d even admitting in the story that G”d’s people have defeated G”d.)

Today’s clergy do not, with rare exception, view themselves in this way. (I am chastened to admit that in addition to knowing a few rabbis that might possibly view themselves with such hubris, I have known a few educators and teachers similarly haughty.)

Anyway, to the nub of my musing. Today’s “Levites” (i.e. clergy, educators, et al) are not landless, and solely dependent on the community for their support and livelihood. That being said, the fact remains that, to a very large extent, they are dependent on the community for its support. That support is often inadequate, and it’s getting worse all the time.

Why is it that, to a great extent, Jewish educators generally do not receive compensation for their holy work that is anywhere close to that received by many, if not most, of the congregation’s membership? Yes, rabbis and cantors often make better salaries, and sometimes their earning are on a par with their congregants, yet this is not always the case, and I do not wish to exclude them from the modern “Levites” who rely on the community’s support.(Now, before you take me to task by assuming all congregants are wealthy - I have written in these musings and elsewhere many times about the Jewish community’s invisible Jews – the working class. I grew up in a distinctly working class Jewish family. It’s a phenomenon more widely found in the urban pales of American Jewish settlement in NY, Chicago, and a few other large urban areas. It’s less common in the suburban pales, and far less common outside the “pale,” – something I know from the experience of having lived in 11 states, in smaller communities in places like Indiana, North Dakota, Tennessee, etc.)

Nevertheless it is undeniable that Jews in America are, on the whole, living pretty good lives financially. People in America’s Jewish communities who are educators and the like are, in general, not living as good a life, at least financially. And yes, money isn’t everything. If it were, most of us might be doing something else.

Being Jewish in America is expensive (I’ve lamented about that before as well.) Nevertheless, a 2010 survey by The Forward found that churches and synagogues do equally well in raising funds despite the voluntary giving in churches vs. the typical dues structure of a synagogue. So I can’t really complain about Jews not supporting their institutions when compared to Christians. (The second article in the Forward series does, however, highlight the big discrepancy between the compensation of Jewish clergy compared to their Christian counterparts. Again, I’m not here to chastise my clergy colleagues, the the discrepancy is a bit troubling. In addition, I know any number of Christian educators, and they are generally compensated as poorly as Jewish educators-though the pay discrepancy is often smaller. In addition, a large number of them are volunteers.) Even though American Jews are generally, statistically, a somewhat wealthier class, I don’t believe the solution to the problem I am highlighting is simply to squeeze Jews harder for money to support its Jewish professional class.

So what do we do to insure that today’s “priests” and “Levites” receive the support they need? The question is a difficult one to answer, and is further muddied by today’s economic situation, plus the ongoing changes in the Jewish community (especially regarding its institutions) brought upon by technological and societal change.

The answer may involve a difficult if not impossible question to ask. G”d found a reasonable (though hardly perfect) solution for the priests and Levites of old. If we take our present situation, and resituate it terms of our biblical ancestors, we might well ask “what would G”d do to insure that today’s “Levites” receive what they need from the community to do the holy service they do? It’s time to write our own Torah on this question.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends


Technorati tags: , , ,

Friday, June 17, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Sh’lakh L’kha – Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat

There is a legal principle in western law expressed in the Latin phrase “Ignorantia juris non excusat” which literally means “ignorance of the law does not excuse” and which is commonly expressed as “ignorance of the law is no excuse” or “ignorance of the law is no defense.”

This very principle is included in this week’s parasha, Sh’lakh-L’kha (and elsewhere in Torah.) Beginning in 15:22, we learn how expiation is to be made for unwitting transgressions of G”d’s commandments through Moshe. I’ve written before in my musings (on this parasha and others) how this betrays an underlying assumption that there will be unwitting transgressions of the commandments. (As a side note, this makes it somewhat easier to understand how the concept of original sin became so prevalent in Xtianity.)

In the parasha, G”d presumes there will be unwitting failures to observe commandments both by the community as a whole, and by individuals, and delineates differing methods of expiation for each.

There is a subtle difference between the two, as translated by the scholarly committee of the new JPS translation. In the case of the community, a bull is sacrificed by the priest, and, as it says in the text, “v’nislakh lahem” they shall be forgiven. A priest also makes expiation for an individual through animal sacrifice (a she-goat.)Although the verb is the same for individuals, “v’nislakh lo” the JPS translates “that he may be forgiven.”

I won’t pretend to be scholar enough to challenge this translation, but I will point out that the subtle change in the English can be seen to imply that forgiveness for individual transgressions may not be as automatic as for community transgressions. Personally, I think this represents a bias on the part of the translators who wish to stress the communal as opposed to individual aspects of Judaism, thus making what appears, to them, a clear delineation from their understanding of Xtian practice. In my reading of the text it is not at all clear that there is any less of an expectation of forgiveness for an individual who follows the prescribed ritual.

As one who struggles with the exclusivity often found in Judaism, and our modern failure to embrace the concept of the ger toshav, the resident stranger, I cannot pass up the opportunity to point out how, in this parasha we read several times the reminder that there shall be one ritual practiced by both Israelites and resident strangers alike. Though it’s not the main theme I intend to explore in this musing, and I wrote about this just two years ago in my musing “One G”d for All” I feel compelled to write about it again.

Stepping back a bit in the parasha, to verses 15:14ff, we read that when a resident stranger desires to make an offering to G”d, they follow the exact same ritual as an Israelite. There are these key words in the middle and end of 15:15:

There shall be one law for you and the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the L”rd.”

Read that last part again. “You and the stranger shall be alike before the L”rd.”

I have seen far too many intermarried families struggle with modern Judaism’s (possibly erroneous) take on this. I fully understand all of the arguments made by clergy and others for limiting the participation of non-Jewish family members in certain specific ritual acts. (See

To some degree, I find some of these arguments compelling. However, most of these arguments presuppose that one can truly understand what is in the heart and mind of the “resident stranger.” I know far too many “resident strangers” who are more Jewishly knowledgeable and more ritually active than the Jewish members of their families. There’s nothing in the Torah that compels a resident stranger to convert to Judaism. They are merely expected to follow the same commandments as the rest of the community. To those who would say “well, then they might as well convert” I might say that we must not be quick to judge what is in the hearts and minds of others. I have heard some very compelling arguments from modern “resident strangers” as to why they have chosen not to convert to Judaism.

Of course the waters are greatly muddied by the existence of liberal Judaism. How do we define the “resident stranger” in a community that itself has chosen to reinterpret, re-construct, passively or actively ignore, and otherwise conflict with the traditional understandings of the commandments?

I know that my opinions on this matter are conflicted, and that, in even being open to the possibility of full participation of the ger toshav in all aspects of Jewish ritual I place myself in a small minority of Jews. However, I also believe that the survival of Judaism may be very dependent on how we choose to approach the ever-increasing numbers of “resident strangers” in our community. To simply exclude them from certain rituals because they have chosen not to become converts may have a certain appeal to those who do not wish to see Judaism become a free-for-all. If nothing else, I believe each individual case of a “resident stranger” who wishes to more fully participate in Jewish ritual needs to be examined individually, and not by synagogue board policy or clergy decree. (I fully defend the right of all clergy to choose how they will handle such situations, however I do not endorse their various professional organizations or guilds imposing restrictions on their choices.) I personally know many non-Jewish “resident strangers” with whom I would be fully comfortable giving a full aliyah (even to include leyning.) I can’t say this is so for every “resident stranger” i know but that is related to the difficulty in defining the “resident stranger” in the context of modern liberal Jewish practice. The question I pose to clergy, and to all of us is “what we be our standard for how we draw a fence around the Torah?” or the even more provocative “do we even need a fence around the Torah anymore?”

Wow. This is not at all where I intended to go with this musing. It was not my intention at all to write about the “resident stranger.” If you look at the musing’s title, you’ll see my focus was to be on “ignorance of the law not being an excuse.”

What prompted the original title is something that happened to me just yesterday and raises this question: “What do you do when the person ignorant of the law is an officer of the law?”

I recently moved back to New York City. As a law-abiding citizen, I dutifully followed the requirement to get a driver’s license and register my vehicle within 30 days of moving to the state. I had thoroughly researched the requirements, prepared the necessary paperwork in advance, and was delighted when it only took 90 minutes to complete getting both a driver’s license and filing a registration/title application.

I should have known something was amiss when, in preparing to go to the DMV office, I read a note on the DMV website that walks people moving into New York State through the process of registering a vehicle. In included this text:

If you are a non-resident who becomes a resident of NYS, your out-of-state inspection is valid until it expires, or for one year after the vehicle is registered in NYS, whichever comes first. After the inspection expires, you must have the vehicle inspected in NYS. If you receive an inspection extension sticker at the DMV office, destroy the sticker.

The underlining, bold, and italics are mine. At the DMV office near the end of my transaction, the clerk gave me the extension sticker referred to above and I politely told her that I had researched the matter and my out-of-state inspection remains valid. She insisted this was not the case, and gave me the extension sticker, and told me to put it on my car.

Well, I didn’t put it on my car because it would expire in 10 days and I wouldn’t be getting my vehicle inspected until my MA inspection ran out in January 2012. I didn’t destroy it either-I still have it.

Well, yesterday afternoon I found a ticket on my car, citing me for failing to have  a NYS inspection sticker. I should charitably suspect that perhaps the officer failed to note the valid MA inspection sticker, located on the passenger side of the windshield, though I’m not sure if it would have mattered if he did. MA does not use registrations stickers (you just carry the registration papers in the car,) only inspection stickers, and they go on the passenger side. My suspicion is that the officer was not familiar with the policy as stated on the DMV website (on two different pages, I might add) and also unaware that MA puts inspection stickers on the other side of the windshield – or perhaps he did see it but thought it was an MA registration sticker, being unaware that MA doesn’t use them. I’m trying to be fair-I cannot know what was in the heart and mind of the issuing officer.

I’ll fight the ticket, of course (though I am not convinced of an easy win even though NYS DMV policy is clearly on my side according to their own website.) Going through this maddening scenario did make me think of the parasha, and all this “ignorance of the law” stuff. I, a dutiful citizen, who made it a point to familiarize himself with the DMV’s (commandments) followed those commandments (though perhaps I need to make expiation for not destroying the extension sticker?) yet was nevertheless asked to make expiation for a sin I did not commit. Worse yet, I had changed my temporary status as a “ger toshav” a resident stranger in New York State by, in effect, becoming like a convert in Judaism – getting a NYS license, et al.  Yet still I was being punished. At the same time, although I cannot be certain of this, I suspect that the issuing officer was not fully conversant with all the relevant commandments, and issued me a citation, requiring my expiation for a sin I did not commit.

The parasha is harsh on those who knowingly transgress the commandments. Such people bear their guilt and are cut off from the community. (15:30-31.) In the following section (15:32-36) we read of the poor fellow caught wood gathering on Shabbat. Because there was as yet no direction on what to do with such a transgressor, the community had to wait for G”d to voice an opinion. G”d’s choice: stone him to death.”  Whoa. Hold on.

I guess the implication is that this man transgressed willingly and knowingly, but how can we be certain of that? The Torah doesn’t provide any background at all, and I can imagine all sorts of extenuating circumstances. Perhaps the man was feeble-minded? Perhaps he didn’t realize it was Shabbat. Perhaps he had a medical or psychiatric condition. The question also arises, what were the people who discovered this man in the woods up to themselves? Maybe, to cover their own sin or guilt, they conspired to make this other man a scapegoat?

This is a very troubling story. It’s not one I have used in the workshops I’ve done over the years on my favorite topic “Troubling Texts in the Tanakh” but I’m certainly going to add it to my repertoire now!

I hope I am luckier than the alleged Shabbat wood-gatherer in fighting my ticket, but reading this troubling story in the parasha doesn’t give me a lot of confidence at the moment. If this sort of potential injustice exists in the Torah, what hope might I have in the labyrinth of the New York City Traffic and Parking Court system? Wish me luck! I’ll try not to let this spoil my Shabbat. Who knows? Maybe I can be like Joshua and Caleb and ignore those around me who tell me it would be easier to just pay the fine for the crime I didn’t commit than to go through the process of challenging it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

Technorati tags: ,

Friday, June 10, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – B’ha’alot’kha 5771-Manadatory Retirement

As I have mentioned before, B’ha’alot’kha is a densely-packed parasha, with many lessons and ideas. I commend to you other musings I have written on this parasha to explore some of them.

This year, as I was rereading the early parts of the parasha, I was drawn back to my days as a theatrical professional. The parasha describes how the Israelites would set out from their encampment in a prescribed order so that when they reached their destination, things would fall into place. The whole procedure is well thought out so that people arrive on time to do the things they need to do (like the Kohatites and Levites setting up the Mishkan and Sanctuary.) It reminded me of a typical touring theatrical troupe. The tech crew disassembles the set  and then drives all night to the next venue to set up the set so it is ready when the actors and musicians arrive later in the day. In the parasha, the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan is similarly well-timed and organized.I also imagine that, like today’s “techies” the Levites and Kohatites were the unsung heroes of the effort. When the audience (the people) and the actors (the Kohanim) show up, all is ready for them.

I’ve experienced the touring life in the theatre. I’ve also experienced being the pianist in the band, who, unlike the trumpet or clarinet player (but like the drummer) can’t just show up at the rehearsal or gig ready to go (unless you’re lucky and successful enough to have roadies who do it for you.) There have been, still are, and likely will still be plenty of times I curse myself for being the pianist who has to schlep his instrument, set it up, pack it up, and schlep it to the next gig.

As I was stuck in this reverie, only half paying attention to the parasha as I read through it, I was brought up short by the end of chapter 8 (vv. 24-25.) This is where we learn that Levites begin their service at age 25 and retire at 50. In actuality, when they “retire” they are still permitted to do guard duty and similar ancillary work.

The idea of forced retirement has always troubled me. I know so many people who have been valuable and productive workers for many decades past our arbitrary retirement age. I do understand that life expectancies were shorter in biblical times, so it’s not the retirement age of 50 for the Levites  that troubles me as much as the implied assumption that there should be a mandatory time of retirement.

Now there are certainly positive ways to spin this. Just as G”d knew we needed one day off in seven, and gave us Shabbat, G’d may have recognized that it might not be a great idea to work well into our old age without giving ourselves a break. (A cynic might say that G”d perhaps believed that after so many years on the job, one reached a point of dwindling returns for the effort and it was better to retire them.)

Yet each of us in a unique individual. Even allowing for the idea that we are all b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G”d, we are not made froma  cookie cutter or mold. Some of us might be far happier working until we are dead than being forced to retire. Others might be thrilled for the chance to finally stop working and enjoy retirement. There is at least some recognition of the idea that older folks might want to keep working in the fact that “retired” Levites could still perform certain non-ritual duties.

I, for one, would like to retire at some point. Unfortunately, I despair at this ever becoming possible giving the economic climate and my own failures to be properly prepared financially to retire. I certainly don’t want to be forced to retire at some certain age.

I spent last summer at a Jewish summer camp, where I was one of a handful of older adults on staff. I found it refreshing and invigorating to be around so many younger workers. This summer I’ll again be one of few older adults in a staff of 20-somethings, albeit in a different camp setting. I’ll admit it can sometimes be a challenge to keep up with my juniors, but it’s a challenge I like trying to meet – even when I fail at it.

I suspect that, throughout Jewish history, there has been much variance in what older adults choose to do – retire, keep working, etc. Mandatory retirement is a vile concept that, at least in the US and Canada, has been made illegal. In the US, of course, the government has exempted itself from the law as it often does – so the FBI, for example, has a mandatory retirement age. (Sort of amusing in that I just watched the 2010 film “Red” with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren as retired black-ops types last night.)

The industrial revolution, and increasing personal wealth led to a lowering of the typical retirement age (reaching an average in the mid 50s during the last part of the 20th century.) It’s not like we were working any harder than the generations before. In fact, I suspect most of them worked much harder than we do. But we developed a growing sense of entitlement (and perhaps a touch of hedonism) that found us enamored of the retired life.

The pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Boomers are not seen keen on early retirement. Some of it is related to finances, but there are other reasons as well.

In his now classic piece “Retiring Retirement” published by Stephen F. Barnes in 2007, he wrote:

No longer satisfied with just a nice dinner and commemorative watch, golf or some other kind of lessons, and arts and crafts courses at the local Senior Center, many of us want a lot more out of our “golden years.”

I’d like to believe that our ancestors found ways to allow older Levites to do more than “guard duty” once past the age of 50, so that those who chose could lead continually fulfilling lives. There’s no evidence one way or the other.

In our own time, we surely recognize that mandatory retirement is an idea that has outlived its usefulness (well, to be honest, it can be a useful tool to help deal with employees who have overstayed their welcomes-I can think of synagogues that would love to retire their rabbis at a time of their choosing rather than the rabbi’s choosing. Actually, I think that’s probably happened at some synagogues. Synagogues are not, unfortunately, great bastions of employment ethics – but don’t get me started on that topic today.)

If nothing else, this week’s parasha got me (and hopefully you) thinking about the whole concept of  retirement, mandatory retirement, etc. Not a bad topic to muse about this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B'ha'alot'kha 5770 - Ecstasy (Redux 5760)
B'ha'alot'kha 5766 - Vay'hi Binsoa - Movin' Out, Movin' On
B'ha'alot'cha 5765-Unintended Results?
Beha'alotekha 5762 - Redux 5759 - The Kiss of Moshe
Beha'alotekha 5760-Ecstasy

Technorati tags: ,

Friday, June 3, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Naso 5771 – The Nazarite Conundrum

Both this week’s Torah portion and Haftarah speak of the nazir, one who has pledged a life of service to G”d. This is surely and honorable and admirable thing. It takes someone really special to live the life required of a nazarite. Or so we might think. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that the whole idea of the nazarite may have been the seeds of many of the problems that now besiege religion (and not just Judaism.)

Judaism is practical in its understanding that life’s struggle is about maintaining the best possible balance between the extreme – light and dark, good and evil, etc. Judaism recognizes the need for the existence of these oppositional forces. Judaism’s object is not be all and only good. It is about the struggle to find the balance. Judaism recognizes, for example, that it is often our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, that helps drive us to do the things we need to do to succeed in life, to earn a living, etc. Judaism’s challenge is to allow enough of the evil inclination to successfully compete in the world without totally compromising the ethics and values that our yetzer tov, our good inclination, compels us to follow.

A nazir is asked to forego some of the things that our ancestors viewed as temptations to give in to the the yetzer hara-things like alcoholic beverages. Nazarites are also asked to make great sacrifices. For example, they are not permitted to be near dead bodies, including even their closest family.

I’m not entirely sure how to evaluate the requirement that a nazarite not shave or cut their hair. For the sake of the argument I wish to make here, let’s place it in the category of the nazarite being able to avoid more quotidian tasks (though I’m certain the act was more symbolic than practical.)

Now, it must be understood, to place all this in proper context, that one need only become a nazir for only a limited or fixed period of time. A lifetime commitment was not required (though some did make such commitments.)

Most people became a nazir in fulfillment of a pledge made by themselves for G”d’s help (or perhaps sometimes to convince G”d to grant their request.) Parents could pledge their children to religious service, though this is not quite the same as an adult choosing to become a nazir.

So where am I going with this? Well, I am wondering if the most spiritual and holy people are those who, to some degree, separate themselves from the community.  To some extent, I would more likely admire some everyday person trying their hardest to find the balance between good and evil while living an ordinary life than I would admire someone who was a nazir. To bring the concept along further, we can add concepts layered upon the nazarite idea by other religions – think of monks, yogi, brahmans – or, in the Jewish world, first the priestly class of the Temple periods, and later the hasidic (and other) scholars who did (do) nothing but study all day while others provide(d) for the means to support the scholars and their families.

The great rabbis of the talmudic period and later were not exclusively scholars, and did not live a nazir’s life. I imagine their ability to help the Jewish people understand how to live their daily lives in accordance to the Torah might have been greatly hampered had they led secluded lives. It is precisely because of the earthiness, their connection to things quotidian, that they were able to give a lot of practical advice. (Not all of the talmudic rabbis’ advice is practical, but that certainly was of concern to them.)

There are studies that suggest that the problems of abusive priests among Catholic clergy is unrelated to the requirement for celibacy. While this may be true, it certainly casts a shadow on the church’s extension of the nazarite concept to their own priests.

It all goes back to gan eden, and that forbidden fruit, a mistake I have long since classified as G”d’s first big mistake in parenting 101. I am unconvinced that self-denial is the only or even the appropriate path to enlightenment, or connection with the Divine. It doesn’t have a particularly successful history.

All of this is not to say that a simple life is not a good idea. I am not opposed to those who seek a simpler way of life. Personally, I’m not one who is overly enthusiastic for that simpler a life. I do appreciate the technologies that our brains enable us to create – even with their inherent dangers and drawbacks. However one can seek to lead a simpler life without having to make the sort of sacrifices asked of a nazir. In fact, I suspect those looking to live close to the land would not at all be aided by taking a nazarite’s approach. They need to be very connected to their earthy sides as well as their Divine sides.

The nazirite. An idea whose time never really came, and an idea that was never particularly useful. There are many other ways to bargain with, make promises to, or give thanks to G”d.

Our ancestors may have thought the nazarite concept was a good idea. Our ancestors can be wrong.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Others musings on this parasha:

Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)


Technorati tags: , , , ,