Why Are More Orthodox Couples Getting Divorced?

Belovski interviewed by Steve Savitsky of the OU

Jan 2012

A society which discourages commitment. A too-short dating process. Unaddressed personal issues. High financial expectations. Steve Savitsky talks with Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski, Rav of Golders Green Synagogue in  London, England, about dating and marriage – and why they sometimes end in divorce.

Listen here

Sermon Notes 07/01/12 - VaYechi

Where are the Leaders?  Shoftim, Shotrim and the Current Crisis

 If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

I’ve just spent a wonderful week in Israel with our third daughter, Tomor Chemdoh, as part of her Bat Mitzvah celebrations.

During our stay, there was a mass rally in Bet Shemesh against the behaviour of a particular group of the Charedi locals.  Ostensibly provoked by an incident in which a man spat on a school-girl because he disapproved of her attire, it was really the result of months of tension generated by a sect of zealots who often use violent means to impose extreme standards of modesty on the rest of the community.  The actions of these self-styled ‘Sikrikim’1 have distressed and infuriated their victims and have attracted international interest (the rally was the second item on the BBC News website the following day).  They have also led to pointed questions about the direction and future of the Charedi communities, and indeed the entire Orthodox world.

Some people are exercised by the fact that the frum community has spawned these extremists, but I am not.  Every group gives rise to a certain number of crazies who will attempt to attain their narrow, dysfunctional goals by whatever means, irrespective of whom they hurt or the damage inflicted on the society they insist they are protecting.  I am much more troubled by the failure of the community, particularly its leaders, to deal properly with the extremists.  A society is judged not by whether it produces radicalised lunatics, but how its leaders respond to the danger that such people pose.  By that measure we are currently failing.

The Torah articulates this clearly: ‘You shall appoint shoftim ve-shotrim - judges and enforcers - in all of your gates’ (Devarim 16:18).  A Torah-based community can only function successfully when the judges - its religious leaders, and the enforcers – its police, work together to ensure that law and order is maintained: protecting the weak and dealing appropriately with troublemakers whose behaviour threatens to destabilise society or oppress groups within it.

While in modern Israel, the religious leaders are not the lawmakers, nor are the police their agents, both have an important role to play in eliminating the canker of extremism and the primitive and often deeply misogynist behaviour (many of their antics are geared to eliminating women from the public sphere) that often follows in its wake.  In a religious society, especially a contemporary Charedi one, the rabbinic leaders are alleged to reign supreme, yet when it comes to the Sikrikim, most rabbis have either been silent or have issued feeble statements that they cannot do anything to restrain them.2  The police have also claimed that they cannot control the zealots.  Yet the Torah expects the rabbis and the police - the shoftim and the shotrim - to work separately or in collaboration to facilitate a just religious society; right now this means ridding it of these sectarians.

Not that this vindicates their lack of response, but I suspect that the police are concerned that their intervention will be counterproductive; there have been statements to this effect.  Like other volatile groups, the extreme edge of the Charedi world is easily radicalised; indeed, there were at least two sizeable counter-demonstrations soon after the Bet Shemesh rally.

As for the rabbis of some Charedi communities, I regret that I must interpret their impotence in one of the following ways: a) they fear the physical consequences of speaking out3 against the Sikrikim; b) they are apprehensive about the professional consequences of condemning them - i.e. they risk being marginalised and losing their own authority; c) like the police, they believe that their intervention will fail or even exacerbate the problem; d) they actually approve of the Sikrikims’ objectives in ‘purifying the camp’, if not the means they use to achieve them.  Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that silence from a rabbinate that has vociferously declaimed on such diverse topics as army service, concerts, mixed-seating on buses, the denier of hosiery, secular education, mobile ‘phones and the validity of scientific enquiry, may indeed indicate tacit approval.  I hope that I’m mistaken about this.

Yet whichever of these is correct, and it is probably a combination, the picture is not pretty.  Leaders who are frightened of their constituents or are too weak to act decisively against a public perversion of Jewish values and the consequent mass Chilul HaShem are part of the problem, not the solution.  It is fascinating, albeit predictable, that even in a community where Da’as Torah4 supposedly determines the ‘correct’ view on every topic, presumably including the appropriate way to behave towards those with whom one disagrees, the leaders cannot really control extremists.  Perhaps this exposes something about the Charedi world that is obvious in more democratic societies - despite appearances to the contrary, the authority of the leaders derives from the will of the people.

Leaders must speak out against injustice, irrespective of the personal cost.  They must teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and peaceful, that Torah societies are compassionate and tolerant, and a light to, rather than a blight on the modern world.  They must show that the Torah demands high standards of interpersonal conduct from its adherents and that its leaders harshly condemn and punish those who distort its message.

The fact is that in the case of the Sikrikim, there is safety in numbers: there are hundreds of prominent Charedi rabbis - yeshivah deans, halachic decisors and Chassidic Rebbes.  If they would sign strongly-worded letters of censure and publicly condemn the perpetrators after every incident much could be achieved quickly.  They should also deny known trouble-makers the essentials of Orthodox life - community membership, inclusion in a minyan, aliyot, and even refuse them business and burial - the old-fashioned cherem (ban of excommunication issued against miscreants to deprive them of social and economic opportunities).  And most importantly, the rabbis should work together with the police to identify, apprehend and punish this scourge on the religious world.  And even though this strategy will never be entirely effective, it will shown beyond a doubt that Orthodoxy and its teachers utterly repudiate these contemptible people, something which, rightly or wrongly, is being questioned at the moment.  Then with God’s help will we succeed in restoring the sense that a real Torah society is headed by shoftim ve-shotrim.


1.  The word is a corruption of the Latin ‘Sicarii’, an extremist Jewish group active against the Romans immediately before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

2. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a small number of other important rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but there has been mostly silence from the primary leaders of the Lithuanian-Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.

3. Sadly, this is no idle concern.  There have been some ugly incidents when the property and family members of outspoken rabbis have been threatened; one well-known rabbi who spoke out on a previous occasion had to go into hiding for a week following the publication of his remarks.  Much more seriously, there was even the horrific murder last year of a prominent Sefardi rabbi by a demented ex-follower.

4. The doctrine that rabbinical guidance determines the ‘correct’ approach to every issue, even those outside of narrow halachic parameters.

Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - Chanukah

Of Chanukah and Minority

If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the war of the Maccabees over the Yevanim and the Jewish Hellenist, resulting in the rededication of the Second Temple and a period of limited Jewish autonomy.  In the liturgy we thank God for having handed ‘the mighty in the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the evildoers into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah’ (Al HaNissim prayer).

The second phrase in this text refers to the victory of a minority over the predominant numerical and ideological forces at the time of the Chanukah story.  It also provides an opportunity to briefly consider the challenges of living as a minority - something Jews have experienced for most of our history.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a marvellous and insightful analysis of this topic, an excerpt of which follows.  It’s quite long, but it’s good!  I have retained the US spellings of the translation from the original German.

There is one other particular danger which is to be feared by a Jewish minority.  It is what we would like to call a certain intellectual narrow-mindedness.  This danger becomes especially acute the more closely a minority clings to its cause and the more anxious it is to preserve that cause.  We have already pointed out that, by virtue of its weak position, a minority depends for its survival on whether it can further and foster within all its members the spirit of the cause it represents.  In order to prevail, a minority must be wholly imbued with the truth for which it stands.  We have already noted that such intensive spiritual concern with its cause is the essential prerequisite for the minority’s survival and hailed this concern as the most significant advantage that a truth stands to gain when its guardians constitute a minority.

However, precisely such complete dedication to its cause may easily lead the minority into intellectual one-sidedness.  This may well stunt to a degree the development of the minority’s unique intellectual life.  Furthermore, it may make that minority incapable of representing its cause effectively to the outside world.  Thus such one-sidedness in a minority may do grave damage to the very cause that the minority seeks to preserve and to promote.  The richer the minority’s cause, the more will the minority treasure it.  But then it may easily come to regard all other knowledge in “outside” domains as unnecessary, or even as utterly worthless.  It may reject all intellectual activity in any field outside its own as an offense against its own cause, as an inroad upon the devotion properly due to that cause and an infringement on its prerogatives.

Such a one-sided attitude does not stop at mere disregard for other intellectual endeavours.  Once this attitude has taken hold in a Jewish minority, that minority will be unable to form a proper judgment and a true image of those intellectual pursuits which are not cultivated in its own ranks but pursued mainly by its opponents.  Then, as a result of simple ignorance, the minority will begin to fear that which at first it merely neglected out of disdain.  Consequently the minority will begin to suspect the existence of an intrinsic close relationship between these “outside” intellectual pursuits and those principles to which the Jewish minority stands in opposition.

Indeed, the minority may come to regard these “outside” pursuits in themselves as the roots of the spiritual error which it deplores in the majority.  Eventually it may reach a point where it will fearfully shun all intellectual endeavors other than those directly related to its own philosophy as an enemy of its cause and as a threat to the purity and loyalty of its adherents.  (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 2, pp. 246-8)

Although written in the mid 19th-century, Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis describes some segments of the contemporary Orthodox world with astonishing prescience.  Interestingly, one thing that Rabbi Hirsch could not have envisioned is that this minority mentality might be imported into a modern Jewish state in which Jews, albeit not fully-observant ones, are the majority!

Returning to Chanukah, it is easy to see how the occasion has often been viewed through the lens of a triumphant religious minority seeking to build a high and impervious barrier between it and the predominant culture.  This casts Chanukah as a victory in a simplistic, ‘Yiddishkeit over Goyishkeit’ battle.

Yet, the very symbol of Chanukah teaches that it need not be like this.  Interestingly, the miracle of the oil was not the trigger for the institution of the festival, but actually a symbol of the ideological significance of the war.  The Temple Menorah, on which our Chanukah Menorah is based, represents the notion that all forms of human intellectual endeavour can be incorporated within a Jewish purview.  Its main lamp, also known as ‘Menorah’ and representing the Torah, stands in the centre, while the other six arms represent the “other” forms of human wisdom.  Note that the entire lamp must be made of a single gold ingot, the six lateral arms emerge from the central lamp and that only the wick at the top of the central lamp stands upright, while the other six wicks must face the centre.  These requirements indicate that all human wisdom ultimate originates in the same divine source and that the spiritual mission of the Torah must be the focus of all intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, failing to acknowledge the importance and value of the “other” may ultimately prevent Judaism from realising its spiritual potential.  Rabbi Hirsch continues by explaining that the minority:

…has cause to regard all truth, wherever it may be found on the outside, as a firm ally of its own cause, since all truth stems from the same Master of truth.  Finally, the minority should not regard all disciplines that are compatible with its own principles as enemies.  The cause represented by a Jewish minority is not purely theoretical but also involves the practical life of its adherents.  It demands the dedication of all aspects of life to the realization of its principles.  It can have real, true existence, only to the extent to which it can mold and dominate the most varied facets of everyday living…

Chanukah Sameach!

Tomor Chemdoh's Bat Mitzvah

Speech at Seudah Shelishit

GGS 17/12/11

Good Shabbos.  I would like to thank you all for coming to celebrate with me and my family today.  I would also like to thank the Shul for hosting this Simchah and in particular Jacqui Zinkin and Susan Winton for organising the event.

Over the last year, I've been learning a section from Shmuel alpeh with Daddy.  We have focused on perek kaf hey, which is about the story of Avigail, her husband Novol and Dovid HaMelech.  Let me give you a brief outline of the story.

The story starts with the death of Shmuel the prophet.  Here’s an outline of the chapter:

The scene is set when Shmuel dies and Dovid goes to to the Levaya even though King Shaul is trying to kill him and he is at risk, although Novol, a wealthy man and one-time friend of Dovid doesn’t go because it is the season to shear his sheep. When Dovid hears that Novol is shearing his sheep he sends ten attendants to ask them for food.  However, Novol, whose name means ‘repulsive’, is selfish, refuses the request and denies knowing Dovid. When Dovid hears what has happened, he resolves to kill Novol, judging him to be a ‘mored bemalchus’ - someone who has rebelled against the king.  (Dovid has been selected to replace Shaul, which is why Shaul is out to get him). 

When Avigail, Novol’s wife, hears about this, she intervenes to save the day.  Without telling Novol, she took food and stopped Dovid en route. When Avigail sees Dovid she falls on her face before him and prostrates to the ground.  She says “ Let my lord not send his heart against Novol for his name implies - Novol is his name and revolution is his trait.” Dovid then says to Avigail “Blessed is Hashem, God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me. And blessed is your advice, and blessed are you, who have restrained me from coming to bloodshed and avenging myself by my own hand.”

Dovid accepted Avigail’s prophetic understanding of the situation and recognised that he had been wrong about his right to kill Novol.  When Avigail returns home, and Novol has sobered up after a great feast, she tells him what has happened and how she has saved his life, and he is completely stunned.  Ten days later Novol died. When Dovid heard that he had died he called for Avigail to be his wife. Avigail then became Dovid’s wife.

There are two reasons that I am excited by this story.  One is because although I am known as Tomor Chemdoh, or Thomas or just Tom, my name is actually Tomor Chemdoh Avigail - Avigail is the heroine of the story and I wanted to find out who she was, what the name means and what I can learn from it.  The other is something that I found out about when I learned about what she did.

First, the name Avigail.  Interestingly, she is described as ‘of good intellect and beautiful appearance’.

She may well have been beautiful, but more important, she was clever and capable.  This is understood to mean that there is a relationship between her ‘inside’ and her ‘outside’ - she is beautiful both internally and externally and ‘what you see is what you get’. This is what the rabbis call ‘tocho k’baro’ - the way one appears is the way one really is.

The name Avigail is usually translated as ‘my father rejoices’ or ‘my father’s joy’, but some sources explain it differently.  Sometimes ‘av’ means principle, rather than ‘father’, as in the laws of Shabbos or Nezikin.  Here that would mean that Avigail is an example of rejoicing, but what type?  Malbim explains that ‘gilah’ means the celebration of something new or creative.  Avigail made Dovid HaMelech see Novol and even his own life from a new perspective, which is really what her story is all about.  In fact, another meaning of Avigail is Avi – Geulah (redemption) - her mission was to save her husband and Dovid.

These ideas are very important to me, as everyone must contribute something of their own to their family, their community, school, and to the world.  I hope that I can do this and make people happy at the same time!

But it’s something else that Avigail achieved that really spoke to me when I learned about her life.  Her intelligence shines throughout the story, but it’s her courage that is so impressive.  She is willing to risk her life to meet with Dovid HaMelech, a strong and powerful person to save Novol.  She meets him in the mountains, when he is already en route to kill Novol and challenges his decision.  She explains to him that while Novol is not a good person, he must not kill him.  The meforshim explain that Dovid believed Novol to be a mored bemalchus (someone who has rebelled against the king), but Avigail’s approach to him, which is said with nevuah, shows Dovid that he is not entitled to judge Novol this way.  He may be the king in waiting, but he is not yet the king.  Avigail shows him that if he kills Novol, he will do two wrongs - one to unnecessarily end Novol’s life and the other to spoil his chances of actually becoming the king - she saves, as her name suggest, both Dovid and Novol. Avigail shows that she can challenge even powerful people when they are mistaken, but does so politely and successfully.  This is something I would like to emulate: to be able to stand up for things that are right and to be able to challenge even powerful people even when personal risk is involved, but of course always in a polite and respectful way.

Turning now to today’s parashah, which is the day of my actual Bas Mitzvah.

In perek lammud zayin, posuk gimmel it says: “And he loved Yosef from all his sons because he was ‘ben zekunim hu’ for him and he made him a beautiful coat.”

I’ve left the phrase ‘ben zekunim’ untranslated, as that’s what I’m going to talk about. Rashi comments on Ben Zekunim - son of old age - that is, Yosef was the son of Yaakov’s old age.How can this make sense if Yosef had a younger brother Binyomin and Yaakov was even older when Binyomin was born?

Rashi is obviously unhappy with the first answer because of this problem (I found that the Maskil LeDovid says the same thing), so he looks for other meanings of the word Zekunim.

He relies on the Targum who translates it as “a wise son for him.” Rashi explains that this means that Yaakov handed Yosef everything that he learnt from Sheim and Aiver - these were famous people who had run a yeshivah from ancient times to teach people about the one God.  But that means the verse is telling us that he loved him because he gave him all his wisdom, but really it is the other way round. He gave him all his wisdom because he loved him! Therefore Rashi offers a third explanation: Yaakov loved Yosef because he looked like him. Zekunim is being read midrashically as “ziv ikunim - his facial features” i.e Yosef resembled Yaakov.  This means that Yaakov loved Yosef because he saw in him his own character traits, capabilities and challenges.

The normal way to explain the three readings of Rashi is that only one reflects HaShem’s intention, but we don’t know which.  However, my father said, using the interpretative method of the Shem MiShmuel that all three can be correct readings, and they are linked in the following way.

Yaakov loved Yosef because he was born while his father, Yaakov was in his old age.  Because he was born at this stage in Yaakov’s life, he was the child who reflected his father’s character, and because of this, Yaakov chose to pass on his wisdom to Yosef.

This is another important message for me - I need to learn from my family and community how to be a successful Jewish adult, but also, like Yosef, strike out and find my own path in life.

I have had the pleasure of grwoing up in this warm and welcoming community and I want to thank you all very much for providing this for me.  I am very blessed to have grown up in my family and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mummy and Daddy for providing me with the wonderful life that I have.  I would also like to thank my brothers and sisters for always being there for me.  One of the reasons I am here today is because I have three amazing grandparents - Grandma, Grandpa and Bubbe - who care for and love me.  I know that my late Zeide would be very proud of me today.

As I become an adult I hope that I can learn from this week’s parashah about how to enter the world successfully as a Jewish adult, and like Avigail, my name’s sake, be willing to fight for what’s right, and bring simchah to my family, to my community and to HKBH.

Sermon Notes 29/10/11 - Noach

Noah and Becoming One's Self

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This week’s parashah starts with the phrase אלא תולדות נח נח – these are the products of Noach: Noach.  Rabbi K.K. Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe, notes that to be spiritually successful, the product of Noach must be, well, Noach.

Making one’s unique contribution to the world by developing, within the framework of Torah and mitzvot, one’s own spiritual character, is an essential feature of a meaningful religious life.  Too often, we try to fulfil the aspirations of others, becoming clones of them, rather than ourselves.

Sermon Notes 15/10/11 - Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Gilad Shalit: Rejoicing After The Deal Is Done

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

I have taken a couple of days to process my own feelings about the impending prisoner exchange in Israel, which will include the return of Gilat Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity.  By Shabbat Chol HaMoed I felt able to offer some thoughts on an extraordinary moment in Israel’s history.

I saw a quote from MK Yisrael Hasson which sums up my stance beautifully: הלב שמח, הראש דואג  – the heart rejoices, the head worries.  Who is not filled with delight at the prospect of Gilad’s return – a Jewish boy, a soldier captured protecting our land, will soon be freed and celebrating with his family?  Yet who is not also consumed with angst at the prospect of releasing 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were responsible for major terrorist atrocities?  And perhaps more worrying, what are the longer-term consequences for Israel of vastly inequitable deals such as this?  It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a victory for Hamas and an incentive for further abductions.

Jewish sources have long debated this issue.  The most well-know case was that of the 13th-century German-Jewish leader, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was kidnapped in Lombardy in 1286.  Tradition has it that a huge sum was raised to ransom him, but he refused to allow the community to pay the money for fear of encouraging other abductions.  Even after he died in prison in 1293, his body wasn’t released for burial for a further 14 years.  In more recent times, the view of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a world-leading American scholar, was solicited during a 1970 Arab plane-hijacking.  One of the passengers was Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, a famous Rosh Yeshivah and Torah personality.  Rabbi Hutner’s students were considering raising a large ransom for his release, but Rabbi Kaminetsky opposed this move.  He argued that in wartime (and he considered the ongoing Arab-Israeli hostilities to be such a situation), the delivery of a ransom strengthens the enemy’s position, something unconscionable, no matter the alternative.

Yet in my view, this position, while compelling, is only relevant pre facto and must not determine our response to the Shalit deal post facto.  This distinction is informed by a halachic rule about what one says about a poor purchase made by a friend – while beforehand one may say that one doesn’t like the item, once he or she has purchased it, one must set aside one’s reservations and be unfailingly supportive and positive.

The agreement over Gilad Shalit’s release is done.  Whatever our misgivings about the deal and its consequences, we must all now thank God that it has happened and enthusiastically celebrate Gilad’s imminent return to his family.  Any other response would devalue the significance of his release, spurn the efforts expended by so many on his behalf and divide the Jewish people.

Summer Reading

What I've been Reading

Over the summer, I managed to read the following books, mentioned here in author order

 

Talia Carner

Jerusalem Maiden


David A. Cooper

God Is A Verb: Kabbalah And The Practice Of Mystical Judaism


Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend (recommended by Leslie Kolbrener)


Todd M. Endelman

The Jews Of Britain 1656 to 2000 (thanks to Robin Summers)


Martin Gilbert

In Ishmael’s House: A History Of Jews In Muslim Lands (thanks to Rabbi Liss)


David Hazony

The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life (recommended by Clare Goldwater)


Roxana Jones

While I Was Learning To Become God (review copy)


Judy Klitsner

Subversive Sequels: How Biblical Stories Mine And Undermine Each Other (thanks to Simon Cohen)


 Ze’ev Maghen

John Lennon And The Jews: A Philosophical Rampage (recommended by Melanie Phillips)


Bernard Malamud

The Fixer (recommended by Mike Posen)


Yvettte Alt Miller

Angels At The Table: A Practical Guide To Celebrating Shabbat (review copy)


Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: The Biography


This is also an opportunity to introduce my new 'Book Blog', Belovski's Books, which will feature short reviews of these and other books.

Sermon Notes 10/09/11 - Ki Taitzey

Of Riots, Honesty and Mending Society

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Just before Tisha B’Av, I spoke about two recent murders in the Jewish world.  I suggested that the root cause of much evil in society is the lack of respect for human life, something very much on the mind of the prophet Isaiah when he rebuked our ancestors.  This thought seems especially relevant this weekend, as the world marks the 10th anniversary of the ‘9/11’ attacks on the USA.  As we think of the victims, their families and mull over a day which destabilised the world in radical ways, Isaiah’s message seems especially apt.

Just after that Shabbat at the beginning of August, the UK was treated to a series of devastating riots.  Exploiting unrest over the death of a man in a police shoot-out, violent criminals looted, burned and destroyed high-street shops and warehouses, causing huge damage, closing businesses and terrifying local residents.  Much has been written about the riots, including an important and sensitive piece by the Chief Rabbi here.  Many of us will have also been distressed to note the appearance of some Stamford Hill Chassidim caught rubbernecking in footage from the Tottenham riots.  This has given rise to a new anecdote: there are three types of people in Stamford Hill – those who don’t have a television; those who do have a television but don’t tell anyone; those who now have a television!

This week’s parashah ends with two, ostensibly unrelated, mitzvot – the requirement to deal honestly in business, and the obligation to eliminate the memory of Israel’s murderous archenemy, Amalek.  Rashi addresses this juxtaposition:

If you cheat with weights and measures, you should fear the attack of the enemy... (Rashi to Devarim 25:17)

It is noteworthy that the Torah refers to a dishonest person as an ‘abomination’ (Devarim 25:16), a form of opprobrium usually reserved for the most severe transgressions.  According to Seforno (commentary to Devarim 32:16), these acts drive away the divine presence – that is they cause the rupture and demise of society.

But that is just the point – dishonesty and bloodshed, here represented by crooked business dealings and Amalek, are closely linked.  A society in which there is no respect for the property of others will, given time, slide into one in which human life is cheap and dispensable.  It is a small and frighteningly-easy progression from looting to killing, from the abomination of theft to the abomination of bloodshed.

Yet the converse must also be true – scrupulous honesty mends society, invites spirituality and nurtures our sense of the value of every human being.

Sermon Notes 03/06/11 - Naso

The Nazir and the Self-Critical Jew

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

A nazir or is a man or woman who voluntarily takes a vow to abstain for a defined period from wine and grape products, taking a haircut and contact with the dead (See BeMidbar 6).

To get to the bottom of this rather odd concept, it is necessary to understand the key word – יפלא   – which appears in its opening sequence of the relevant passage.  It teaches something about the nature of the vow itself: the Talmud translates it as ‘with clarity’.  While this has certain technical aspects, it can also mean that the nazir must be certain of his or her motivation and fully understand the vow’s ramifications before taking it.

This touches on why someone might choose to become a nazir.  Possible reasons are: (a) to articulate a burning passion for spiritual growth which is expressed through the temporary adoption of a set of personal stringencies; (b) because of a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach to life – the nazir thinks that he or she is ‘better’ or more spiritually advanced than others.  While, at least in some circumstances, motivation (a) is laudable, b) is harmful and a misuse of a powerful spiritual opportunity.  By demanding פלא   – clarity, the Torah expects the nazir to engage in a process of soul-searching before taking the vow to ensure that it is taken for the right reason.

The haftorah (drawn from Shoftim 13), describes the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Shimshon, who was a life-long nazir.  An angel appeared to Manoach and his wife and promised them that they would produce a child who would save the Israelites from the Philistines.  When challenged by Manoach, the angel revealed that his name was פלאי   – the very word that introduces our passage.  Shimshon was to aspire to devote every fibre of his being to God and the Israelites; while in practice, he didn’t always succeed, the angel left his parents in no doubt as to what would be expected – an extraordinary degree of clarity of altruism in pursuing his mission.

Although we no longer have the vow of the nazir (although see here and here for information about Rabbi David Cohen, the ‘Rav ha-Nazir of Jerusalem’, a real nazir of recent times), its principles are certainly germane today.  Stringencies – in Hebrew, חומרות – are very much in vogue in the religious world.  While in the right circumstances, the implementation of carefully-selected stringencies can stimulate genuine spiritual growth, it is regrettably common for them to be little more than a type of destructive halachic one-upmanship.  The passage of the nazir provides a stark lesson – one must always question one’s motivation when adopting voluntary religious responsibilities.  The Torah requires us to develop the self-awareness needed to distinguish between a genuine desire for spirituality and ‘keeping up with the Cohens’.

Finally, the importance of the nazir’s motivation, and by extension, the need to become a self-critical Jew, is illustrated by a famous piece in the Talmud.  Shimon ha-Tzadik, a high-priest of the Second Temple era, explained that with one exception, he never ate the offerings brought by nazirim, as he suspected their motivation:

Shimon ha-Tzaddik said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the guilt offering brought by an impure nazir.  On one occasion a nazir came from the South, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. I said to him: ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said to it [my lust]: "Wretch! Why do you brag in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave off [his beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven."’ I immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many nazirim such as you in Israel! (Nedarim 9b)