Thursday, June 09, 2005

CHANGE COMPLETELY OR STAY ESSENTIALLY THE SAME? The Ba'al Tshuvah's Dilemma in the Post-Modern World (Part 2)

CHANGE COMPLETELY OR STAY ESSENTIALLY THE SAME? The Ba'al Tshuvah's Dilemma in the Post-Modern World

-- Rabbi Yaakov Feldman



Those observant Jews who think we should reject the secular world would, no doubt, claim the nazir as proof-positive for their position. They'd start off by pointing ot that while it's true that we're not each charged to be a nazir by the Torah, one can nonetheless only keep the three mitzvot associated with nazirut (avoiding grape products, growing your hair long and avoiding contact with the dead) by becoming one. And they would point out that, after all, the Torah does say, "For as long as he is a nazir he is holy to G-d" (Numbers 6:8), and thereby recommends nazirut and avoidance of all things secular by extension.

Those who believe we should not avoid the secular world, though, would also cite the nazir as proof for their side. They would point out that the Torah is somehow not impressed with nazirut (the state of being a nazir) since we're in fact not commanded to be a nazir. And it even seems that the Torah is displeased with it, as the nazir is called a sinner: "He has sinned against the soul" (Numbers 6:11). "Obviously," they would reason, "we don't have to avoid secular life like a nazir." And there's the dilemma.

Is the nazir holy for abstaining from wine and grape products, for not cutting his or her hair and for not coming in contact with the dead -- for abstaining from, for all intents and purposes, all the normal, secular social functions? Or is he a sinner for denying himself what's permitted him as a Jew in this world, for separating himself from the normal course of life, for denying himself *appropriate* secularity (a vitally important distinction to keep in mind, by the way)? The classical commentators differ in their opinion.

Ramban (Nachmanides) says the nazir is praiseworthy. Ibn Ezra seems to agree when he praises the nazir, comparing him to a king for having mastered his passions. As to the fact that he's called a sinner, Ramban explains that the Torah means he is a sinner when he decides to no longer be a nazir (for it's either a temporary or a permanent state of being, depending upon the nazir's own decision). He should have remained a nazir and as such stayed close to G-d, continued dedicating his life to Him and never stopped. To do otherwise after having been there is to sin.

Ramban is in fact following a line of thought he expressed at Leviticus 19:1-20:27, where he said that a Jew only becomes holy by abstaining from what's permitted him. For after all, as he points out there, one can fulfill all the mitzvot of the Torah punctiliously and still be a "naval", a brute. According to this view, a Jew should dedicate himself to the religious life as much as possible and abandon secularity altogether -- and this is the lesson of the nazir we're all to internalize.

But Rambam would disagree, and fervently so. He states (Hilchot De'ot 3:1):

"A person should not surmise that since jealousy, desire, the pursuit of honor and the like are bad traits ... that he will vehemently avoid them by not eating meat, drinking wine, getting married, living in an attractive home, or wearing attractive clothing; and that he should wear sackcloth, stiff wool, and the like as some gentile priests do instead. For that is a bad thing to do, and it is forbidden. One who acts that way is called a sinner .... For as our Sages say: 'if a nazir who only kept himself away from wine needs to be atoned for, all the more so must one who keeps himself away from permitted things be atoned for (Ta'anis l1a)'. That is why our Sages commanded that we should only avoid the things the Torah itself forbade us, not permissible things ......"

He apparently holds that a nazir's behavior is inherently incorrect. An observant Jew should not avoid the niceties of secularity, but should fit them into his or her observant life. Torah Temimah, commenting on the Rambam's statement, goes even further. He quotes several Talmudic sources which indicate that we must partake of the secular pleasures of the world appropriately, including:

"Is it not enough for you what the Torah forbad you that you have to forbid the permissible?!" (J.T. Nedarim 8: 1);

"It is forbidden to live in a city that has neither public baths nor Botanical Gardens. " (J.T. Kiddushin 4:12);

"A man will have to give a reckoning for all (that's permitted to eat that) he saw and did not eat. " (Ibid.);

"It is a bad sign when a person stifles a good life for himself in this world. " (Tanna D'Bay Efiyahu); and,

"G-d loved Israel so much that He commanded them not to oppress themselves and yet accrue merit." (Yalkut Torah, Parshat R'eh).

And he then quotes Ecclesiastes 7:16 that reads, "Don't be over-righteous, and don't wizen yourself too much."

According to this view, a Jew in his dedication to the religious life is to include the secular, in fact, is forbidden to exclude it -- and this is the lesson of the nazir to all.

And the lesson of the nazir to the ba'al tshuvah would seem to be no different than the lesson to be imparted to all. According to the authorities that perceive no value in the secular, refraining from secular interests would seem to be the instruction to the ba'al tshuvah as well. Even more so, as someone, like the nazir, who has mastered past passions and non-religious interests, the ba'al tshuvah should never demean himself by acting like a "commoner" again by indulging in secularity.

According to the authorities that perceive value in the secular, though, continued involvement with secular interests would seem to be the direction to the ba'al tshuvah. Even more so, as someone who has already experienced the secular and has found value within its realms, the ba'al tshuvah has an even greater potential to bring holiness to the secular by including it within his Torah life.

Yet there may also be a third approach to understanding the nazir -- one that conveys a specific message to the uniqueness of the ba'al tshuvah.

Rambam states (Hilchot Nedarim 23:23):

"One who takes vows to correct personality traits or to rectify his actions -- such as the glutton who forbids himself to eat meat for a year or two; the alcoholic who will not allow himself wine for a long time, or who will not allow himself to get drunk; the person who runs after profit and wealth who will not allow himself to take gifts, or will not allow himself to benefit from the people of a particular city; or the person who is proud of his good looks and takes a vow to be a nazir, etc. -- is an enthusiast and is to be commended"

In other words, Maimonides seems to be amending his own position in regard to the nazir, stating here that there are times when the actions of the nazir are praiseworthy. One who once lived a less-than-holy life and who no longer wants to -- like the potential ba'al tshuvah -- is to be admired for being austere; that there are times when it's appropriate to abstain from secular pleasures, to plunge further into the world of the spirit, and there are times when it's not. Nazirut (and the avoidance of the secular) is, within this view, a Torah-advised tool for restraint, not a radical departure from the secular; and when used as such it is to be praised.

Sefer HaChinuch seems to agree (cf. Mitzvah 376). Quite astonishingly, he says that the nazir's greatness and holiness ties in his *only* abstaining from grape products, haircuts and contact with the dead, and nothing more! As he puts it:

"G-d created a being on earth who would be both physical and spiritual -- man .... (whose) soul must dwell within a material (world) of desires and sin .... and who must strive (to live) within the edifice in which he has been placed (i.e., the physical world). And because the bricks, beams and foundations of that edifice only exist with the supervision of man ... (he must not avoid) the upkeep of that edifice altogether and have it turn to ruin, for that would be considered a sin: the King wanted (man) to be (that combination of the physical and the spiritual).... The holiness and excellence of the nazir lies in the fact that he set aside the work of the physical and conquered his desires in a way that would not destroy the edifice: he kept himself back from drinking wine, and he grew his hair long so as to control his desires, but (he did not) slowly undo the edifice.... Such a person lives up to the expectations for a human being."

But perhaps it's best explained by Kli Yakar, who says:

"The point of nazirut is not that (the nazir) separates himself from wine for thirty days (the minimum period of nazirut) and then goes back to being a drunkard! ... The point is that he should accustom himself to less and less ... and that in thirty days he will no longer be as drawn to it as he was."

This third view imparts a lesson from nazirut that is unique to the ba'al tshuvah. The ba'al tshuvah is to separate himself from secularity for a while, as the Rambam suggests, but he can (and should) then return to it to appropriate levels. One explanation of the benefit of the period of abstention lies in the fact that he will have weaned himself off from any unholy pull that secularity may have had over him. In this regard, Kli Yakar explains the psychology of the ba'al tshuvah as well as the nazir when he says:

"The nazir is called a 'sinner' because if he was really innocent and righteous ... he would not have had to have taken a nazirite vow. For who's to stop him from practicing abstention ... without making (such) a vow? So from the fact that he has to assume nazirut we see that he himself knows that he doesn't have the self-control, and that that is why he has to run to make such a vow ... "

The ba'al tshuvah knows in his heart all the problems of the secular world and its unTorah-like attractions. He knows that those attractions are too strong for one of his unsteady spiritual stature. So he should decide to pull away from secularity in earnest and vehemently, because he needs to do that at that time. After all, to paraphrase Kli Yakar, who's to stop him from practicing abstention (i.e., from abandoning the excesses of the secular world) without becoming observant?

But there is another reason for this period of abstention. His vision of the secular is also to change. His strength to withstand the pull of the secular is not only to develop, but his understanding of the secular is also to change. Like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who returned to the cave and isolation from the world only in order to understand the necessity of the world [4], the ba'al teshuvah is to again embrace the secular (i.e., the world outside) -- but with a very different vision of it. His relation to secularity is to be a less inclusive and less intensive one than his past one, but, more significantly, his secularity is to be permeated by Torah and mitzvot.

By then, in one sense, the ba'al tshuvah would have made a thorough change of self by having been indulged in Torah and mitzvot exclusively for a time and afterwards through the infusion of Torah into all his prior realms. Yet, in another sense, he would not have made such a change, for he would have returned to his world (albeit differently). That ba'al tshuvah would have changed both his music and his rhythm.

And he would hopefully have also begun to strive toward holiness and union with G-d Almighty as well, which is the point of it all. For as an earlier Slonomer Rebbe zt"l would say: "Ribbono Shel Olam, have mercy on me and draw me close to You! For what would my life be all about were I not to merit drawing close to You?"



[4] See T.B. Shabbat 33b.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and

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