Of sages and saints


Parshat Naso contains the law of the Nazirite — the individual who undertook to observe special rules of holiness and abstinence: not to drink wine or other intoxicants (including anything made from grapes), not to have his hair cut, and not to defile himself by contact with the dead (Bamidbar 6:1-21). Such a state was usually undertaken for a limited period; the standard length was thirty days. There were exceptions, most famously Shimshon and Shmuel who were consecrated before their birth as Nazirites for life.

What the Torah does not make clear, though, is whether it considers this choice to be commendable, or merely permissible. On the one hand the Torah calls the Nazirite “holy to G-d” (Bamidbar 6:8). On the other, it requires him, at the end of the period of his vow, to bring a sin offering (Bamidbar 6:13-14).

This led to an ongoing disagreement between rabbis. According to R. Elazar, and later to Nahmanides, the Nazirite is praiseworthy. He has voluntarily undertaken a higher level of holiness. The prophet Amos (2:11) said, “I raised up some of your sons for prophets, and your young men for Nazirites,” suggesting that the Nazirite, like the prophet, is a person especially close to G-d. The reason he had to bring a sin offering was that he was now returning to ordinary life. His sin lay in ceasing to be a Nazirite.

Eliezer HaKappar and Shmuel held the opposite opinion. For them the sin lay in becoming a Nazirite in the first place, thereby denying oneself some of the pleasures of the world G-d created. R. Eliezer added: “From this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life.”

Almost every religion has people who, in pursuit of spiritual purity, withdraw from the pleasures and temptations of the world. The Qumran sect known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been such a movement. In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted similar kinds of self-denial. In retrospect, it is hard not to see at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Chasidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts may have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam. At least some of the negative evaluation of the Nazirite may have been driven by a desire to discourage Jews from imitating non-Jewish practices. Judaism believes that G-d is to be found in the physical world which is, in the first chapter of Bereishit, pronounced “good” seven times. Judaism believes not in renouncing pleasure but in sanctifying it.

What is much more puzzling is the position of Maimonides, who seems to hold both views at once in his law code the Mishneh Torah.

In Hilchot Deot, he adopts the negative position of R. Eliezer HaKappar:

“A person may say: ‘Desire, honor, and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world; therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme.’ As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing … This too is bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way.”

Yet in Hilchot Nezirut he rules in accordance with R. Elazar: “Whoever vows to G-d [to become a Nazirite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy … Indeed, Scripture considers him the equal of a prophet.”

How does any writer come to adopt contradictory positions in a single book, let alone one as logical as Maimonides?

The answer lies in a remarkable insight of Maimonides into the nature of the moral life as understood by Judaism. What Maimonides saw is that there is not a single model of the virtuous life. He identifies two, calling them respectively the way of the saint (chassid) and the way of the sage (chacham).

The saint is a person of extremes. Maimonides defines chessed as extreme behavior — good behavior, to be sure, but in excess of what justice requires. So, for example, “If one avoids haughtiness to the utmost extent and becomes exceedingly humble, he is termed a saint.” 

The sage is a different kind of person altogether. He or she follows the “golden mean,” the way of moderation and balance. He or she avoids cowardice on one hand, recklessness on the other, and thus acquires courage. He or she avoids miserliness in one direction, prodigality in the other, and instead chooses generosity. The sage knows the twin dangers of too much and too little. He or she weighs the conflicting pressures and avoids the extremes.

These are not just two types of person but two ways of understanding moral life itself. Is the aim of the moral life to achieve personal perfection? Or is it to create gracious relationships and a decent, just, compassionate society? The intuitive answer is: both. What makes Maimonides so acute a thinker is that he realizes that you cannot have both — they are in fact different enterprises.

A saint may give all his money away to the poor. But what about the members of the saint’s own family? They suffer because of his self-denial. A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about his country and its defense? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him. But what then about the rule of law? Saints are supremely virtuous people — as individuals. But you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Indeed, saints are not really interested in society. They have chosen a different path.

It was this insight that led Maimonides to his seemingly contradictory evaluations of the Nazirite. The Nazirite has chosen, at least for a period, to adopt a life of extreme self-denial. He is a saint, a chassid. He has adopted the path of personal perfection. That is noble and exemplary. That is why Maimonides calls him “praiseworthy” and “the equal of a prophet.”

But it is not the way of the sage. The sage is not an extremist — because he or she realizes that there are other people at stake. There is one’s family, one’s community. There are colleagues at work. There is a country to defend and a society to build. The sage knows he or she cannot leave these commitments to pursue a life of solitary virtue. 

In a strange way, saintliness is a form of self-indulgence. We are called on by G-d to live in the world, not escape from it. Hence, while from a personal perspective the Nazirite is a saint, from a societal perspective he is, at least figuratively, a “sinner” who has to bring an atonement offering.

Maimonides lived the life he preached. We know from his writings that he longed for seclusion. There were years when he worked day and night to write his commentary to the Mishnah, and later the Mishneh Torah. Yet he also recognized his responsibilities to his family and to the community. He carried a double burden as a world-renowned physician and an internationally sought halachist. He worked to exhaustion.

Maimonides was a sage who longed to be a saint, but knew he could not be, if he was to honor his responsibilities to his people. That is a profound and moving judgment — one that still has the power to inspire today.