Recently, I have been representing the Orthodox Union in a forum in which leaders of the Jewish community meet with their Catholic counterparts to work on social issues in which we have common interests.
Often we encounter striking similarities in the problems we face; for example, difficulties in funding parochial schools. But quite frequently, we discover that even when we use the same terminology we are referring to very different experiences.
In one conversation, one of the Catholic clergymen wished aloud that he could retreat from the pressures of contemporary society and spend the rest of his years in a monastery. I was just one of our group who protested that Jews did not see the monastic life as a positive religious alternative.
The response of members of the Catholic group: “How can you not view monasticism positively? After all, the practice has roots in the Hebrew Bible.”
They were referring to the following verses in this week’s parsha: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…, If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a Nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine…, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grape vine…. No razor shall touch his head…. He shall not go in where there is a dead person” (Numbers 6:1-7).
“It is wrong to equate the Nazir with the monk,” I said. “Granted, the Nazir must be guided by certain stringent prohibitions. But he does not absent himself from society. He is neither a hermit, nor a member of some ascetic sect…”
One of my companions read out this definition of “monasticism:” “It is an institutionalized religious practice whose members live by a rule that requires works that goes beyond those of the laity…The monastic is commonly celibate and universally ascetic, and separates himself from society either by living as a hermit or by joining a community of others who profess similar intentions.”
Our Jewish group were united in our response: The Nazirite was not a monk, certainly not in the common understanding of that term.
We were struck by the fact that three individuals are understood by our tradition to have been Nazirites, at least partially: the heroic warrior Samson, the prophet Samuel, and Absalom, the son of David who rebelled against his father. These men were not celibate, nor hermits, nor men who refrained from the legitimate pleasures of life, but played active roles in the life of the Jewish people.
The distinct difference between our Torah’s concept of the Nazirite and the Christian concept of the monastic is perhaps best expressed in a passage in Maimonides’ Hilchot De’ot, which I paraphrase:
“Lest a person mislead himself into thinking that since envy, lust, and vainglory are such negatives, I will therefore separate myself from them, forcefully distance myself from them to the extreme, eat no meat and drink no wine, practice celibacy, shun a finely furnished home, desist from wearing attractive clothing, and instead don sackcloth and coarse wool, and similar such ascetic practices — Let him be aware that this is the manner of gentile priests!”
There are guidelines for those who wish to be holier than the rest of us. But those guidelines rule out separating oneself from family and community.
In this regard, the Jewish norm and the Christian norm are distinctly different.