Several years ago, one of our rabbinic students came to me for advice. Having just completed the first round of interviews for his first time full time rabbinic position, he returned full of excitement and anticipation about process and about his future as rabbi. Now, any of us who have ever engaged in a full job search process knows how important the art of interviewing can be; and how much more so in the rabbinate.
So, having spent much time throughout the senior year preparing for the job search process, my student returned with more questions about how best to prepare himself before going out to synagogues for weekend interviews. 'Rabbi Peretz', he asked, 'how do I respond to questions about my hair? One of the organizations I interviewed with asked me how I thought their congregation might respond to my long hair?' You see, my student had (and still has) long, curly hair that is most of the time in a ponytail, though sometimes loosely flowing down past his shoulders. Wondering if people would assume he was a hippy and label him, he asked me if I thought that to be a rabbi in one of our North American synagogues, he would have to cut his hair.
This story has stayed with me ever since, and is on my mind this week as I read the weekly Torah portion of Naso. Parashat Naso describes the Nazir, a person who is not satisfied with the multitude of other commandments and prohibitions which all Jews are commanded; instead he/she looks for further limitation, vowing to become a Nazir:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a vow of the Nazirite, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other toxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or any other toxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout his term as a nazarite, he shall not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skins. All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazarite of the Lord, the hair of his head left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head. (Numbers: 6:1-7)
As we note, the self-described Nazarite, voluntarily abstains –for a minimum of 30 days and sometimes up to seven years –all as means of separating him or herself, or elevating his or her spirit before God. Yet, as the Torah tells us later, at the end of the period of the vow, the Nazir brings a purification sacrifice to be offered in the temple. Is this a voluntary offering? It is simply a ritual to end the time of the vow? Is it a sin offering and does this mean that the Nazir has done something wrong?
The Talmudic tractate of Nazir regards the Nazir's vow as one of asceticism, a necessary concession needed by one who may have just witnessed the disturbing unfolding of the ritual of the Sotah, the narrative just prior to it in the Torah, in which a woman accused of adultery is forced to drink 'bitter water' (a mixture of water and dirt) which will help determine her guilt or innocence. Even the innocent onlooker, says the Talmud, is affected by witnessing this woman's ordeal, and would need something drastic to help him return to a state of equilibrium.
Many more chapters and sections of the mishnah and Talmud are covered with rabbinic debate the subject of the Nazir. For some, the Nazir's willingness to abstain from behaviors of the common folk is worthy of praise, elevating the person into Jewish sainthood (if there is such a thing). For these commentators, the nazarite's behaviors are likened to those of the priests, who also abstain from such behaviors of the common people. Others condemn the Nazirite as a person whose control over his or her impulses is limited, and therefore requires new boundaries and limits. For them, the Nazarite's long hair stands as testimony to the difference between the Nazarite and the priest. After all, a priest could not serve if his hair was too long and too long was defined by the growth of the same period of time of the Nazarite vow: 30 days.
The Medieval commentator Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) understood Rashi's teaching of the Nazarite to be praising, offering a 'way for young people to distance themselves from worldly pleasures and passions' and 'to serve God with a clear mind.' Ramban suggests that it is a great blessing to have those who are willing to commit themselves to a more strict religious practice, beyond that which is commanded to each one of us, and the sacrifice he brings is to acknowledge the readiness to let go of that lifestyle and return to the life of the average person.
Others saw the Nazarite vow to deny themselves the enjoyments of life as nothing less than sinning. In fact, Rabbi Eleazar Hakappar suggests that it is precisely because of this sin of neglecting the joys that God has given to all people that the Nazir has to seek forgiveness at the conclusion of the vow by bringing the sin offering to the Temple. (Taanit 11a)
The debate about the Nazarite goes on and on, and I suspect it will continue to go on. And, perhaps the debate about long hair on men will continue – not just for the Nazir. And so, this brings me back to my student. I am happy to report that he has spent the last several years serving as a successful pulpit rabbi with his long hair. And, the answer to his question was then as it is now. For him, his hair was such a part of who he was and who he is, and is a statement of his true personality and character, that he would cease to bring his true essence into the world without it. To cut it would be like cutting him off from himself, and therefore from his community, and from God.
And so my advice to him then is my blessing for this Shabbat. I suggested that he thank the person for asking, and tell them that he was happy that they noticed because his hair is such a part of who he is, of his creativity and of his spirit. And, if he were to become the rabbi in that community, he would hope to share those parts of himself with the questioner and with other members of the community as they seek together to create community and serve God.
What for one person is the highest attainment of spiritual practice and awareness is for another distancing, foreign, and lacking meaning. What is for another holy and separate is for the first, profane. Our task with one another is to allow our common Jewish practice to guide us in sharing and rejoicing while also making space for individual expression and creativity.
Ken Yehi Ratzon - So may it be.