The Nazir and Narcissus
As Jo-Ann detailed, this morning’s sedra deals in detail with the vow of the Nazir. There are 21 verses in Torah dedicated to explaining how the Nazarite Vow works, but we don’t really learn about the Nazir’s motivation, or whether indeed it’s even a good thing to become a Nazir. Levinas points out that the rabbis dedicated an entire tractate of Talmud to the nazir- 132 sides of the page to be precise, seemingly there is a lot to discuss!
Nazirites are treated with a fair amount of suspicion in Jewish tradition. They are seen as aloof, self-important, and overly pious. Maimonides calls the nazirite a sinner, because people should be moderate in their actions, and not take on overly pious or ascetic practices. There are already so many laws that we are commanded to keep, what makes the nazir special, what do they get by adding these extra restrictions?
There’s one bit of being a nazirite that is particularly interesting to me, and that’s the question of their hair. Nazirites cannot cut their hair whilst they are bound by their vow, and it is what marked them out visually as different in ancient times. The reason that many Rastafarians today have distinctive long hair and dreadlocks is because of their observation of this vow- consecrating themselves to God. Levinas (who addresses the Nazir in his book ‘Nine Talmudic Readings’) says that not cutting hair is a way of showing disinterest in appearance, opting to take oneself away from grooming, and from the need to look at oneself every day. But, he cautions, at some point it has to be cut, because otherwise it becomes a kind of uniform. He says it’s fine to let it grow as long as the pure intention remains, but the moment it becomes a public way of displaying piety and a self important symbol then it has to go!
And this is why the Nazir is so intriguing. Jewish texts walk the line between discussing the Nazir as a pious figure who sets themselves aside for God, and between condemning the self-involvement of this kind of piety.
Ruth Calderon, the former member of the Israeli knesset and founder of one of Israel’s secular yeshivot, writes in her book ‘A Bride for One Night’ about one such Nazir. Using a story found in both the Babylonain and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Tosefta, a rabbinic text parallel to or maybe older than the mishnah, she reflects on the perception that a Nazir is self-involved, perhaps even self-infatuated- and shows the instinctive disdain that those in priestly roles had for Nazirites.
The story of is of a priest, who tells of a Nazirite who came to him to make a sin offering and then was going to cut his hair and end his vow:
Shimon the Righteous told that there was once a Nazir who came to him from the south. And he saw that he had beautiful eyes and a fair countenance and a head of curly locks. The priest said to him: “My son, why did you seek to destroy such lovely hair?”
The Nazir said “I was shepherding in my town, and I came to draw water from the spring, And I looked at my reflection, I became absorbed by its beauty and reached closer to it in the water, and my evil inclination surged over me and sought to banish me from the world.”
Ruth Calderon imagines the Nazir falling into the water to immerse himself in his own beauty. As he does so, his hair becomes saturated with water and startles him back to reality. He realises that his hair has become a way for the evil inclination to enter him, and he says to it, “Evil one, you had nothing to provoke me with except something that is not yours, Something that will, in the future, become dust and worms and maggots. I shall shave your hair off for the sake of heaven.”
This kind of Nazir, one who seeks to maintain the purity of their vow, says talmud and tosefta, is what our parasha is talking about.
You might recognise this image, a beautiful young man with long hair staring at his own image in a pond. It is a Rabbinic re-casting of the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus.
The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, as told by Ovid, describes a beautiful young man who is the son of a river nymph. He is so beautiful that many young men and women fall in love with him but he is not interested and breaks their hearts. Most famously, he breaks the heart of a young woman called Echo who prays to the Gods and her prayer is taken up by the goddess Nemesis. Narcissus lays down to rest by the water after a long and tiring day and when he leans over to drink he catches sight of his own reflection and is mesmerised. He falls in love with his own image and is unable to detach himself from the beauty he sees. He dies staring at his own reflection, completely overcome by love he could not possess; the same pain felt by those who he scorned. Myths tell that he was so in love with his image that even in the boat across the river to the afterlife, he bent over to the water to catch one last glimpse of his face.
Calderon explains: “people tend to view Narcissus as a symbol of excessive self-regard. Yet as Terrence Real writes in his book about male depression, quoting the sixteenth-century Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino: “Narcissus did not suffer from an excess of self-love, but rather from a lack of it. The myth is actually a parable about paralysis. The lad, who first appears restlessly in motion, is suddenly fixated on one image and cannot forgo its elusive enchantment. Had Narcissus truly loved himself, he would have been able to extricate himself from the ropes that bind and spell-bind him.”
“The curse of Narcissus is his paralysis, not because he loves himself but, rather, because he becomes dependent upon his own self-image. He is filled with a cruel sort of pride, so he pretends he is invincible—but the myth lays bare the secret of his vulnerability. Because he lacks the ability to develop a real relationship, he becomes enchanted by and eventually enslaved to his own image.”
The rabbinic tale has a different ending to the Greek myth. Unlike Narcissus who can’t break free, the Nazir is depicted as having a moment of realisation, seeking out a priest, cutting his hair, and returning to the path of righteousness.
These stories are cautionary tales. Taking on demanding practices like the Nazir’s, can be helpful tools for the spiritual self, but it is all too easy to fall into a place of excessive self-regard; to fall in love with one’s own piety and one’s own sense of self. Narcissus loves the image he sees, but not himself. The Nazir from the south is almost sucked into the same position, loving his ritual expression and the self he sees more than the God he undertook the vow for. Replace piety here with political ideology, hair cutting with other displays of adherence to a set of principles, and there is also a transferable message. Loving the image of who we become when we do something must not take over the motivation for doing it in the first place.
The story of the Nazir from the south appears 6 different times in rabbinic texts, indicating the power of the story. May it act as a cautionary tale for us, provoking us to reflect on how our rituals and religious expression bring us closer to God, and to always be aware of the possibility that we have within us to love the image of our pious selves more than the values and principles that drive our piety.