The Nazirite Puzzle

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes procedures for exiting a mysterious state: the vow of the Nazirite. (It is sometimes spelled Nazarite.)

First of all, if you are thinking, well, Nazirite and Nazareth sound similar, sorry to disappoint. They are not related.

In Numbers 6, we read about the Nazirite vow. A person taking the vow promises to abstain from certain pleasures for a named period of time. They vow not to drink wine, grapes, grape products, and any fermented drink, including vinegar. They vow not to cut their hair, and they vow not to come in contact with, or even come near a dead body, even a close relative. The only reason given in Numbers 6 for taking these vows is “to set themselves apart for the Eternal.” The Nazirite vow is a Jewish practice so far out of use that it is largely a puzzle to us.

This week’s Haftarah (prophetic reading) gives us one of the two examples of a Nazirite in Tanakh, Samson. You can read his story in the book of Judges, chapters 13 – 16. The other Nazirite in Tanakh was the prophet Samuel. In both of those cases, the Nazirite himself didn’t make the vow; it was made on his behalf before his birth by his mother. Nor did either man seek release from the vow; Samson was clearly not happy with the vow, but he seems unaware of any exit from it. The fact that the two “case studies” we have seem divergent from the description of it in Torah contributes to the puzzles around the vow.

Today it is still theoretically possible to make such a vow, but there are some difficulties. The main issue is that since the Nazirite requires a Temple rite to reunite with the people and conclude the vow, any Nazirite vow taken today is permanent.  The other issue is the seriousness of taking vows. A vow, or neder, is a very serious matter in Jewish tradition. There is a large body of Jewish law concerning vows. However, the short version is very simple: Jewish tradition discourages us from making vows.

It is now extremely rare in modern Jewish practice for anyone to make a vow, because it is understood to be a binding step. You may hear someone make a statement about something he or she will do in the future, but they will hedge that statement with “blee neder” – “without a vow” – so that should something fall through, they do not incur the penalties of breaking a vow.

How hard do you think it would be to keep the Nazirite vow? Can you imagine reasons anyone might take it today?

Too Busy to Be Bad

“I do not want followers who are righteous, rather I want followers who are too busy doing good that they won’t have time to do bad.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk

Rabbi Morgensztern, more often referred to as the Kotzker Rebbe, was a Hasidic leader who lived from 1787 – 1859. He was born to a non-Hasidic family in Lublin, Poland but was attracted to Hasidism early in his life. Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, who was known for his pursuit of joy in Torah, the Kotzker Rebbe was a bit more stern. He was very much aware of the human inclination to evil [yetzer harah] but also determined to fight against it.

He never published any works, and was quoted as saying:

Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.

(Something tells me that he would not have approved of blogging.)

However, I love his quotation at the top of the screen. Whenever I read it, I think I should find myself another mitzvah to do. If we are not quite busy enough, then we might have time to sit around and congratulate ourselves, and then we would not be truly righteous! However, with 613 mitzvot to keep us busy, what excuse is there for getting into trouble?

If you find the Kotzker Rebbe intriguing, there’s a wonderful piece about him in the Jewish Virtual Library, and more of his sayings on yquotes.

Do you have a favorite saying by the Kotzker, or by any other Hasidic rebbe?

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear?

I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”

I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”

The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.”  Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.

Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.

I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)

U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le'il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma'ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so.  Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le’il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma’ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so. Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung) Note Rabbi Captain Schechter is wearing her tallit over her U.S. Air Force uniform.

In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.

Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.

Photo by  Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.

Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.

Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan,  is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.

But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.

We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.

For the Mothers and the Fathers, the Sisters and the Brothers

It’s Memorial Day here in the USA, and I am cranky.

This is the day we remember our brothers and sisters who died in the wars. And I honor every one of them. I am grateful that of those I have loved who have served our country, all came home in one piece – well, in more or less one piece. As my better half, Linda, said this morning, no one who sees combat is ever really the same again.

She should know. She served in the Navy during Vietnam as a drug and alcohol counselor. She was a sailor on a landlocked base (how surreal is that?) trying to help those who returned stateside with a problem.

Our son joined the Navy on his 21st birthday. I was on the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, and called to wish him a happy birthday. He was all excited about his news, and I kept my voice as calm as I could. This was during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the writing was pretty much on the wall. The idea of my baby in a war, in a stupid, stupid war, was almost more than I could bear. As things worked out, he didn’t go to war, but as far as I knew that day, he was headed straight into it. I was proud of him and I was terrified.

All soldiers in every war are somebody’s baby. They might be big and strong and capable with weapons, but they are each beloved of someone. My heart today, Memorial Day, aches for the mamas and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers. I ache for the girlfriends and the boyfriends and the family pets. I ache for everyone who remembers someone they loved who will never grow older.

And I am angry – deeply angry – at anyone who dares to sell those precious lives  cheaply. Saying “I support the troops” is nothing; it’s lip service. Sending other people’s children into war when yours aren’t going is about as low a thing as anyone ever did. And yes, I know, great men have done it: Abraham Lincoln tried to keep his son out of the Civil War, to name just one. That doesn’t make it right.

I don’t want to hear about how “they are all volunteers, so it’s OK.” Aaron was, yes, but the vast majority of young men and women who go into the military in this country do so because it’s their best option, because college has been priced out of their means. The only way I will accept that our Congress and the Executive Branch can send our young people to war will be if all their kids have to go, too.

That was part of my experience in Israel: when I was completely shaken by Aaron’s news, Israeli parents would put an arm around me and hug me. They told me to be proud, that I had raised a good man. And I knew those weren’t cheap words, because they had served, and their children would serve. And I was consoled, not because some idiot in a suit “supported the troops” but because those men and women understood.

Today, Linda and I remembered those who died. It’s not a weekend for barbecues and celebration at our house; it’s quiet. It’s the day I count my blessings, because all my loved ones are home. It’s the day I think of all those who miss someone who will never come home again.

It’s the day I pray that Isaiah’s vision will someday come true:

[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:4

The Patience of a Little Dog

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When Linda is away, Princess often waits by the front door. She stares at the frosted glass, hoping for a shadow. Dogs are wonderfully patient. Princess will go do other things for a while, but she always returns, hoping.

This is one of my mental images of prayer. We sit by the frosted glass, hoping for a glimpse of the Infinite One. Maybe this morning, maybe not. But as Princess would tell us if she could, it’s worth the wait.

Shabbat Keeps Me

More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish People. – Ahad HaAm

These words were written a long time ago by one of the early Zionists. Ahad Ha’am, “One of the People” was born Asher Ginsberg in Kiev, in the Ukraine, in the 19th century. He became a prolific writer, active in the revival of Hebrew.

He is remembered as the founder of cultural Zionism, arguing that the Jewish homeland should be more than simply a nation of Jews. Rather it should be a Jewish state, incorporating Jewish values. He warned against the fantasy that Israel was an “empty land” and cautioned that it was important to take seriously relationships with Arabs living in the land.

I love the quote at the top of this page. It reminds me that I lose sight of Shabbat at my peril. Shabbat keeps the Jews, but it also keeps me.

What is your Shabbat observance? How did you decide on it?  I look forward to your comments!

Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

Shavuot is nearly here.

Sometimes I think that Shavuot is the Jewish festival of the future. We know that in ancient times Sukkot was the most-anticipated Jewish holiday, so much so that people called it HeChag, THE Holiday. And in our own era, the big Chag is Pesach, or Passover. More Jews worldwide celebrate Passover in some form than any other event in the Jewish year. But the third Chag, the third pilgrimage festival mentioned in the Torah has not yet been the “big” festival. I wonder if there is some future age in which Shavuot will be the day we all anticipate?

Unlike the others, Shavuot is just one day, sundown to sundown. There are no sukkot for partying, no seder table at which to sit. Instead we eat some cheesecake, say the appointed prayers, and Torah students stay up all night and study. We do these things to remember the fateful day when we, as a people, accepted the Covenant and received the Torah.

I fell in love with Torah study during a Shavuot all-nighter, and it always feels a bit to me like an anniversary. It’s become a time to ask myself, what Torah have I learned this year? What do I want to learn in the future?

That feeling is actually not so far from the reality. A Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin [betrothal] and Nissuin [the actual wedding.] If Passover was a betrothal, with a formal commitment and the giving of an object of value (freedom) then the Giving of the Torah was the wedding between God and Israel, joined forever in a covenant. This truly is our anniversary celebration.

In Bava Metzia 59b, the sages remind each other Lo b’shemayim hee – “She [Torah] is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, this year on the night of May 23, we will celebrate the moment when Heaven and Earth met, and Israel accepted the Torah into her arms.

Perhaps one day we will find a way to celebrate Shavuot that will express the gravity and joy of the occasion. Until then, I will simply say, Chag Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!