The term is one that I first heard back in high school. There are times I find it helpful, and there are times I find myself resistant to it. The term is “Judeo-Christian.”
This term was first used back in the early 19th century to refer to Christianity’s roots in the Jewish religion and culture. Much later, the term came to be used as it is common nowadays; namely, as a reference to the mores, beliefs, and ethical norms which our religion has in common with Christianity.
Long before my career in the rabbinate, in fact quite early in my childhood, I was acquainted with Christians and fascinated by both the differences and similarities between our faiths and our lifestyles. When my siblings and I were quite young, we spent our summers at a cottage in Rockaway Beach that was owned by an elderly Irish Catholic couple. We became familiar with the entire family, and my mother maintained a lifelong correspondence with the couple’s daughter, Mrs. Eleanor McElroy.
Much more recently, I have been representing the Orthodox Union in a regular forum in which leaders of the Jewish community meet with Catholic counterparts to work on various issues of common interests. Following the guidelines of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik regarding interreligious dialogue, we carefully avoid theological matters, and confine our discussions to ways we can cooperate in achieving shared goals.
Often we encounter striking similarities in the problems that we face; for example, difficulties in funding our respective parochial schools. Then, we speak the same language. But quite frequently, we discover that even when we use the same terminology we are referring to different experiences. Indeed, these differences frequently make it almost impossible to understand each other.
In a recent forum, for example, the Catholic group, having read so much about the “haredim” and their involvement in Israeli politics, asked me to explain just who the haredim were. I tried my best, but they remained confounded as to how a group of fervently pious believers in the literal meaning of the Bible could be anti-Zionist in their politics.
Just as the Catholic group had difficulty understanding such Jewish phenomena, so the members of our Jewish group found some Christian religious concepts alien, even unacceptable. Thus, in one of our conversations, one of the clergyman wished aloud that he could retreat from the pressures of contemporary society and spend the rest of his years in a monastery. I was just one of our group who immediately protested that for us Jews there were no monasteries, and that we did not see the monastic life as a positive religious alternative.
The response of the Catholic group to that remark bring us to this week’s Torah portion, Naso (Bamidbar 4:21-7:89). “How can you not view monasticism positively? After all, the practice has biblical roots, in the Hebrew Bible,” they said.
They were referring to the following verses: “If anyone, man or woman, utters a Nazirite vow to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine … He may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine … No razor shall touch his head … He shall not go where there is a dead person” (Bamidbar 6:1-7).
Of course, any one of our group could easily have referred to the numerous opinions recorded in the Talmud as to the undesirability of nezirut. There are forceful statements against taking the vow, and even those who consider it a sin.
But I took a different tack. “It is wrong to equate the nazir with the monk,” I said. “Granted, the nazir must be guided by certain very stringent prohibitions. But he does not absent himself from society. He is neither a hermit, nor a member of some ascetic sect. This is very different from one who undertakes monastic vows, as I understand them.”
One of my companions rallied to my side, reaching for a volume of an encyclopedias, which was in easy reach in the library. He read out this definition of monasticism: “It is an institutionalized religious practice whose members live by a rule that requires works that goes beyond those of the laity … The monastic is commonly celibate and universally ascetic, and separates himself from society either by living as a hermit or by joining a community of others who profess similar intentions.”
Another good friend simply consulted his pocket dictionary, which stated: “The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek monachos, which means ‘living alone.’”
Our Jewish group, which consisted of individuals who regularly disagree vociferously, were united in our response to the Catholic gentlemen. The nazir was not a monk, certainly not in the common understanding of the term.
The interfaith group did not persist on this topic. Afterwards, however, some of us from the Jewish group continued our discussion over coffee.
We were struck by the fact that three individuals are understood by our tradition as having been Nazirites, at least partially. They include the heroic warrior Shimshon, the prophet Shmuel, and Avshalom, the son of David who rebelled against his father. No question these men were not celibate, not hermits, and not men who refrained from the legitimate pleasures of life. Quite the contrary, they played active roles in the life of the Jewish people.
The distinct difference between our Torah’s concept of the nazir and the Christian concept of the monastic is perhaps best expressed in a passage in Maimonides’ Hilchot Deot, which I will paraphrase:
“Lest a person mislead himself into thinking that since envy, lust, and vainglory are such negatives, I will therefore separate myself from them; forcefully distance myself from them to the extreme; eat no meat and drink no wine; practice celibacy; shun a finely furnished home; desist from wearing attractive clothing, and instead don sackcloth and coarse wool, and similar such ascetic practices. Let him be aware that this is the manner of Gentile priests!
“Let me make clear that a person who pursues such a path is a sinner. Even the nazir, who merely refrains from products of the vine, requires atonement. How much more so the one who deprives himself of the many pleasures of life, which are not prohibited by the Torah. He is simply misguided.”
Almost nine hundred years ago, Maimonides recognized the distinct difference between the concept of holiness as practiced by the Gentile priests whom he knew and the model of holiness which is held up to us by our Torah. The nazir, in Maimonides’ view, is not the paradigm of holiness. The truly holy man must not refrain from living a normal family life, must share in the joys and woes of his friends and neighbors, and must exercise the leadership skills with which he has been uniquely blessed.
It is doubtful, given the sacrificial Temple rituals which conclude the nazir’s term and which are detailed in this week’s parsha, that one can practically be a nazir nowadays. But the lessons of this week’s Torah portion are clear: there are guidelines for those who wish to be holier than the rest of us. But those guidelines rule out separating oneself from family and community.
In this regard, we cannot speak of a common Judeo-Christian norm. The Jewish norm and the Christian norm are distinctly different.