Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ordinary Mystics 4: Why Take the Nazirite Vow?


Chapter Two: Why Take the Nazirite Vow?

There is only reason to take the Nazirite Vow and that is to set aside time to focus more intensely on God and godliness.

If you are anything like me, you just don’t have the time for, or perhaps even the interest in, the detailed rituals of mainstream religion. I am a Jew who is just tired of Judaism. Not the principles of Judaism—love God, love your neighbor, love the stranger, do justly, love mercy, walk humbly—but the overwhelming number of rules and restrictions.

I am always amazed when I meet someone who has become a baal teshuvah, a returnee to traditional Jewish life. I admire their zeal, and respect their choice, but it isn’t and will never be mine.

Whenever I meet a baal teshuvah I inquire into the purpose of her newfound observance. Of the dozens of baalei teshuvah I have met, I can think of only two who referred to God when explaining their newly chosen lifestyle.

“I’m doing this,” one forty-year-old man told me, “because this is the way of life God ordains for us Jews. We are the Chosen People; we are to be a light unto the nations. We are to model God’s goodness, and the way we do this is by adhering to God’s law. I am doing this because God wants me to do this.”

 This is a good answer. While I don’t personally believe in the idea of the Chosen People, and credit priests and rabbis rather than God with the myriad laws that make up Jewish living, I cannot help but respect such an answer and the person who makes it.

The other answer that moved me greatly came from a young woman I met on a retreat in northern California. In response to my query as to why, after being reared in a secular and nonobservant Jewish home, she chose to become Orthodox, she said, “I live this way because it brings me closer to God.”

Another great answer. This is the way God wants us to live, and living this way brings us closer to God. Clear, concise, and compelling. Judaism is in good hands with such people at her core.

Most of the time, however, I get answers that are variations of the following: “Why do I choose to be an observant Jew? Because this is how my ancestors lived; this is what it means to be a Jew: we adhere to the laws and traditions of Judaism.”

This answer may sound similar to the other two, but it is very different. The reason one becomes observant of Jewish law is to preserve Jewish tradition. Where the previous answers linked the person to God, this answer links the person only to tradition. It is a kind of ancestor worship.

In my experience, ancestor worship is behind most of the return to tradition thinking that is currently in vogue. The point is to secure the survival of the Jewish people by adhering to their traditional way of life. Judaism becomes an end in itself rather than a means toward an end. This is new, and very dangerous.

Judaism was never the point of being Jewish; God was and is the point. Judaism was the means to reaching God, and when it failed to function in this capacity God sent prophets to point out this out and urge the people to get back on track.

That is why the prophets are always decrying the focus on Temple sacrifice. That is why Isaiah dismisses the people’s ritual fasts in favor of a fast of the heart that focuses on liberating self and others from the prison of injustice, selfishness, and hubris.

Judaism is not about being Jewish. Being Jewish is not about adhering to the law. Judaism and Jewishness are about God. And God is all about unity, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and humility.

What does this have to do with the Nazirite Vow? I think one of the reasons the Vow was created was to offer people a chance to shift their focus from religion to spirituality; from the cult of the priests to a direct encounter with God in, with, and as all things.

So why should you explore the Nazirite Vow? Two reasons: First, because no matter how observant or nonobservant you may be; chances are you are not where you want to be in your relationship with God. Second, because no matter how strongly you yearn for God, chances are your lifestyle and obligations to family, friends, and co-workers makes it impossible for you shape your life around strict spiritual discipline.

You just don’t have the time, the freedom, the privacy, or even the inclination to become a monk or a nun. You might fantasize about going on a three-month Buddhist retreat, but you will never get around to actually doing it. It isn’t that you are lazy or weak-willed; it is that you are living in the world and just can’t get away from it.

The Nazirite Vow allows you to be a monk in the world. It helps you set aside a part of your life to be more God-focused without asking you to drop any of the obligations your life normally carries.

As a Nazirite you continue to meet all your obligations to family, friends, school, work, and the rest of your life. You do not retreat from the world. You do not take time off. You simply (though not easily) shift your focus so that all of these obligations become arenas for God-encounter.

This cannot be over emphasized. The Nazirite does not leave home or abandon community. This is a not a matter of going on retreat, or isolating yourself from others. Taking the Nazirite Vow challenges you to find in the midst of the hectic and harried moments of your everyday life opportunities for God-encounter. The Nazirite still has to pick of the kids and take them to soccer practice. But now he does so with an eye to being of service to others. The Nazirite still has to go to her department meeting, but now she does so as an opportunity to practice being just, compassionate, and humble.

The Nazirite doesn’t change the externals of her life; she changes the internal focus of her living.

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