By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
May 22, 2013
The state of the nazirite is an interesting one in that it is unusually inclusive for the Torah of men and women.
Why would a woman take upon herself such a vow? We know that there were two women in the Tanakh who accept nazirite vows for their children. There is Mrs Manoah. I call her this as we are not actually told her name, only her husband’s even though he is a bit part player and she the star of the episode that Maya read for us, with a direct, possibly intimate relationship with God’s messenger (Judges 13). Mrs Manoah’s accepts the vow instructed of her, for herself during childbirth and for the life of her son whom she is promised.
Hannah makes a direct vow that she will have a son and that he would be a nazirite. Samuel is born and after weaning him she takes him to Eli, the priest and Samuel spends the rest of his life in God’s service (I Sam 1). Both women accept vows for the promise of a son, the motivation is the same and seemingly given freely, although it seems one takes the initiative and the other follows external instruction.
There are two other women whose motivation for adopting nazirite vows for themselves are recorded by the first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus and the Mishnah composed around 200 CE. They state that many women used to take nazirite vows, especially in Roman times. They specifically mention Queen Helena of Adiabene and Bernice, sister of King Agrippa II: Two royal, female nazirites no less!
Queen Helena was said to have taken her vow when her son went off to war. She vowed to be a nazirite for seven years. Her son returned unscathed and she completed her seven years. The Rabbis, men meddling in what should have been a personal issue, insisted that on a technicality, she would have to serve another seven years. An absurdity of the male world that is maintained to this day in various guises, such as the mess that is the conversion process in Israel today. Queen Helena was considered so righteous that due to another seemingly trivial matter of ritual impurity, she served yet another seven years although others suggest only a further month.
Bernice, the sister of King Agrippa II, king of an area now in southern Lebanon took the nazirite vow when she recovered from an illness. When the Romans marched on Jerusalem, Bernice and Agrippa switched sides, beheld the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. She lived the rest of her life in Rome, in sadness apart from her own people and disliked by the Roman Emperor Titus.
For Mrs Manoah and Hannah, nazirite vows seemed to have bought personal gain, the birth of their respective sons. However, by modern standards, having to give up your child as a toddler to be bought up by the priests is a questionable practice and Samson; well in all honesty he was a rotter, a violent, anarchic womanizer who was never going to come to a good end. Queen Helena was incredibly loyal to her vows but lived under a patriarchal system that seemed to have forgotten the efficacy of a nazirite vow, voluntarily setting oneself aside for God, for the strictures of law. Poor Bernice, well she might have wished in Rome that she had never got better.
The Torah states simply that the motivation for taking a nazirite vow was or should be: “To set oneself apart for God (Num 6:2).”
Already by the time of the ancient Rabbis, the role of the miracle, in our case a miraculous response to a nazirite vow was disapproved. In a famous halakhic dispute between Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer (bBaba Metzia 59b), the latter invokes miracles to prove his point and a Bat Kol, a Heavenly Voice says, ‘What have you against R. Eliezer?’ R. Joshua responds quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, ‘It is not in heaven.’ Of this, Israel Abrahams, a significant scholar respected in his time in the orthodox and non-orthodox worlds said, “Liberals have no interest in R. Joshua’s point of law, but his assertion of the rights of private judgment interests Liberals very much (qu. In A Rabbinic Anthology, Montefiore & Loewe, p. 341).”
There is so much in our lives that we can control and also that which is arbitrary. The notion of the nazirite vow has influenced various ascetic expressions of religion but also secular culture, specifically in new years resolutions and perhaps also the market of diets. However, it is less the mechanism but the state of mind and soul that interested Israel Abrahams and us Liberal Jews.
The Torah states simply that the motivation for taking a nazirite vow was or should be: “To set oneself apart for God (Num 6:2).” Whatever the method one chooses, to consciously acknowledge the fragility of life, sometimes its caprice, to take the time to humble oneself, I believe is to do so in the Presence of God. It is a moment of acknowledging that the world does not revolve around me. It is a tranquil time of thought and meditation on the vital elements of what life means to us. It is time that we take too infrequently.
Even in the few moments of contemplation, I believe that we have miraculous thoughts. They are so rich that they we come out of them with a new resolve to act upon that thought. We cannot change or control everything in the world but our thought suggests a course of action, something that we can do to make our lives affective. Perhaps that might be our nazirite vow: not one of asceticism but one of alacrity, of energy and vigour, of action.
“R. Yannai said: One should never stay in a place of danger, and say, ‘I shall be saved by a miracle,’ for perhaps no miracle will be wrought, and even if one is wrought, it will be deducted from one’s merits (bShabbat 32a).” So much the more so when life is good.
Maya, I do not yet know why, but I find you an inspiring person to be around. I pray that you have the confidence to show me through your actions why that is. May you have moments in your life when you stop: a slither of time when you are caught in deep contemplation and thought; and may you act upon those impulses. May we all conquer the easy option of apathy for a celebration of life in action. May good things happen to us just because they do and give us the courage to seek every opportunity to seek goodness for ourselves and those around us. May this be our nazirite vow.
Following R. Eliezer and R. Joshua’s joust with miracles and rationale, R. Nathan was said to have met Elijah and asked him what God did when it was stated that since the Revelation of Torah at Sinai that we celebrated this week at Shavuot, we must live by our own interpretations of the Torah and not listen to a Bat Kol, a miraculous, Heavenly Voice, Elijah replied: God laughed and said, “My children have conquered me.” May our conquering of ourselves and our desire to seek good be pleasing to God. Now that is a vow we might make.