On “moral superiority”
Thoughts on Parashat Nasso
Why do people need religion and what is it for? From the traditional, moral perspective the main goal of religion is to provide individuals with the fundamental distinction between good and evil, and to teach them what is right and what is wrong. Another goal of religion is to unite social life (religious rituals serve that purpose very well) and to bring peace between people. From the existential perspective, religion is supposed to give us a general and coherent vision of the world as something integrated and meaningful, which is essential in the process of giving life meaning / discovering this meaning.
This week’s Torah portion contains laws that apply to all of the above-mentioned aspects of human life. Of particular interest are the laws relating to the ancient practice of 'spiritual purification’ known as the Nazirite. In short, the man who vowed to be a nazir is subject to three restrictions: (1) he must abstain from wine, (2) he must allow his hair to grow, (3) he must not become ritually impure (tame) through contact with a corpse. The law of the Nazir as well as the idea itself was, of course, a subject of an extensive rabbinical debate. For the sake of this d’var Torah, this debate can be best summarized by quoting the following passage from Talmud:
Said Samuel: Whoever indulges in fasting is dubbed a sinner: this is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar Berebi who stated: What is the meaning of the verse states “And he will atone for him for that he sinned by the soul [nefesh]” (Numbers 6:11). But with what soul did this nazirite sin? Rather, the nazirite sinned by the distress he caused himself when he abstained from wine. […] And if this nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining only from wine, is called a sinner, all the more so, does this apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life?!
Conversely, Rabbi Elazar says: One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred, as it is stated: “He shall be sacred, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long” (Numbers 6:5). And if this nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining from only one matter, wine, is nevertheless called sacred, how much more does this apply to the man who denied himself enjoyment of other things? (Ta’anit 11a)
We have two opposing views expressed here on denying ourselves the pleasures of life, forms of asceticism or mortification: One view is that it is a sin to deny the joys of life because it is against the will of God who called us to live and enjoy our lives. The further we go along this path, the worse it gets for us, because the more we negate the purpose and essence of our existence. The opposite view looks suspiciously at these 'pleasures of life’ (to quote Maimonides: …for [wine] has killed the many and the mighty) and sees their limitation as a path to holiness: the further we go along this path, the better for us, because it leads us to holiness.
Both views are biblically grounded, although the Torah in Her wisdom does not explicitly express either of them. This is because the situation is too complex and essentially depends on many circumstances. It seems that the Nazirite, as well as other forms of self-depreciation, were perceived as right if they had a specific goal: to regain control over their impulses and desires. In this context, it is understandable why a person swearing a nazireate acquires a status similar to that of kohanim, being at the same time seen as a sinner who must repent for his sins. Thus, the purpose of the Nazirite was to spiritually ennoble and strengthen a human individual; all the practices of renouncing pleasures served this purpose and were not considered ends themselves.
To see them as such would be wrong, and hence rabbinical opposition on this issue. It also seems that our Sages wanted to protect us from one more thing: haughtiness, arrogance, self-righteousness and the sense of (moral) superiority that may come from spiritual practices. In every time, society and on both sides of the political spectrum we find people who, often not fully coping with their own lives, have made the limitations they put themselves into a virtue. This, in turn, often makes them want to impose these restrictions on others as well: due to their simplistic worldview they see themselves as „morally better” and fail to notice that others may simply not need these restrictions. This fact irritates them, it only enhances their presumptuousness and sense of mission among those whom they perceive as „unenlightened” or „culturally inferior” (although they would never openly admit that they see others this way) This mechanism of moral self-exaltation serves no one, especially when these „morally superior” people have lost touch with reality and the experience of common people through piling up these „ennobling limitations” they impose on themselves.
The world rests on three principles: on justice (din), on truth (emet) and on peace (shalom). (Pirke Awot 1:18). Moral self-exaltation does not serve justice, because self-righteous, arrogant people see reality usually in a very subjective way, almost exclusively through the prism of their own experiences and their ideology, and thus they are incapable of proper judgment of nuanced reality. Self-exaltation does not serve the truth either, because it destroys the possibility of real dialogue and shuts down public debate, so much needed in our times. Thus, it also does not serve peace, because by doing all this, it only divides people into „these and those”, instead of uniting them. So let’s not be like them.