Some years ago, I was on a rabbinic study mission to Israel with a number of other colleagues, one of whom was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, may his memory be a blessing. Arnie, as he was known to everyone, was an idiosyncratic rabbi, truly one of a kind. He reveled in being mischievously disruptive, prodding, and provoking.
We were on an El Al flight. I was sitting across the aisle from Arnie. They brought out the in-flight dinners, and the flight attendant placed a hermetically sealed tray in front of him. “Zeh kasher?” he asked. “Is this kosher?”
“Of course, this is absolutely kosher,” replied the flight attendant. Arnie scanned the hechsher, the kosher certification label, then turned to the increasingly impatient flight attendant, and declared, “this is not kosher, this is treif (non-kosher).”
“Of course this is kosher; in fact, it is even glatt kosher!” came the angry reply. “Exactly,” replied Arnie, “and anything glatt kosher is treif!”
The poor flight attendant just looked at him, but Arnie was not yet done. “Glatt kosher is a needless stringency,” he said, “and implies that people who merely ‘keep kosher’ are somehow less devout about their religious practice. This in turn violates the prohibition on ‘halbanat panim,’ causing someone embarrassment. Anything that a Jew does that causes embarrassment to another Jew is therefore treif!”
The flight attendant looked down at Arnie, paused for a moment, and then said: “So, would you like the fruit plate instead?”
Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah yields 613 commandments incumbent on the Jewish people. One would think that this daunting total would be sufficient for most Jews, yet this week’s Torah portion teaches of additional stringencies that in biblical times one could assume under the status of being a “Nazirite,” one consecrated to the service of God.
One who wished to become a Nazirite did so by taking a vow, avoiding grape products (especially wine), abstaining from cutting one’s hair, and keeping adequate distance from a corpse (a prohibition normally only incumbent on Kohanim, descendants of the line of Aaron.) One who became a Nazirite entered into a temporary, voluntary status. When the time of the vow was fulfilled, the Nazirite was released from the restrictions through a series of sacrificial rituals.
Every religious tradition shows evidence of a tendency toward excessive pietistic performance, the submission to stringencies that designate one as exceptionally dedicated to the divine. While the inclination toward religious devotion is admirable, it also carries with it the risk of creating a hierarchy of devotees, whose scrupulousness suggests that lesser observance is inadequate. Regrettably, what often starts out as an honorable quest to strengthen one’s own religious identity can result in the adoption of a severe lifestyle that separates a person from one’s community or even one’s family. The restrictions on the Nazirite may in fact have been designed to make people think twice before swearing a vow or making a promise.
With a few exceptions, Jewish tradition has avoided the ideal so often found in other spiritual traditions, in which isolation from, rather than integration into, the everyday routines of life is seen as a higher level of devotion. Jewish tradition has almost no equivalent to the traditions of monks and monasticism, those who leave everyday life for a cloistered community, where, for example, celibacy for clergy was the expectation.
The urge toward exemplary religious devotion can be noble and healthy. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to increase one’s participation in religious ritual, or in simple terms, doing more mitzvot. The more we weave Jewish practice into our lives the more it can shape and influence our spiritual growth. But such choices should be seen as acts of involvement and not of isolation. Others whose levels of observance differ need not be disparaged. There are many paths to the One God.
And as we learn from the Torah as well as from an in-flight encounter between a rabbi and a flight attendant, what we choose to do should not elevate us at the expense of embarrassing others. What we choose to do should promote community, not provoke isolation. What we choose to do should help us to build bridges, not barriers. Most importantly, what we choose to do should connect us to, and not separate us from, each other.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh engages in independent rabbinic projects in Bryn Mawr, Pa.