Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Nazir in New York


The Nazir in New York 

Josh Rosenfeld

I. Mishnat ha-Nazir
הוצאת נזר דוד שע”י מכון אריאל
ירושלים, 2005
קכ’+36 עמודים
הראל כהן וידידיה כהן, עורכים

A few years ago, during his daily shiur, R. Herschel Schachter related that he and his wife had met someone called ‘the Nazir’ during a trip to Israel. R. Schachter quoted the Nazir’s regarding the difficulty Moshe had with the division of the land in the matter the daughters of Zelophehad and the Talmudic assertion (Baba Batra 158b) that “the air of the Land of Israel enlightens”. Although the gist of the connection I have by now unfortunately forgotten, what I do remember is R. Schachter citing the hiddush of a modern-day Nazir, and how much of a curio it was at the time.

‘The Nazir’, or R. David Cohen (1887-1972) probably would have been quite satisfied with that. Towards the end of Mishnat ha-Nazir (Jerusalem, 2005) - to my knowledge, the most extensive excerpting of the Nazir’s diaries since the the three-volume gedenkschrift Nezir Ehav (Jerusalem, 1978), and the selections printed in Prof. Dov Schwartz’ “Religious Zionism: Between Messianism and Rationalism” (Tel Aviv, 1999) - we see the Nazir himself fully conscious of the hiddush of his personal status (עמ’ ע):

נזיר הנני, שם זה הנני נושא בהדר קודש. אלמלא לא באתי אלא בשביל זה, לפרסם שם זה, להיות בלבות זרע קודש ישראל, צעירי הצאן, זכרונות קודשי עברם הגדול, בגילוי שכינה, טהרה וקדושה, להכות בלבם הרך גלי געגועים לעבר זה שיקום ויהיה לעתיד, חידוש ימינו כקדם, גם בשביל זה כדאי לשאת ולסבול

and similarly (p. 22, זכרונות מבית אבא מארי):

 נזיר הנני, מדרגה לנבואה. אילו זכיתי לבוא לעולם רק לשם כך, לפרסם מחדש שם זה, נזיר, כעובדת חיים בימינו, כדי להזכיר שאנחנו עומדים ערב תחיית הנבואה בישראל, דייני


The basic outline of the Nazir’s life[1] finds a Yeshiva student from an esteemed Rabbinic family near Lithuania shuttling from place to place in interwar Europe, meeting with R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook during his stay in Switzerland, and studying Western Philosophy in the University of Basel,[2] only to be consumed by a desire to reconnect with his spiritual master in the Land of Israel, which he was able to do some years later. Upon reaching Israel, R. David Cohen increasingly adopted ascetic practices[3], crowned by a Nazirite vow - a lifelong abstention from all grape products and from cutting his hair. The Nazir, as he would thereupon be known, was also a vegetarian,[4] did not wear leather shoes, and maintained a ta’anit dibbur, refraining from speech for forty days from the beginning of the month of Elul to after Yom Kippur.[5] His best-known published work was the systematic presentation of his understanding of the development of Jewish spiritual experience, or ha-higayyon ha-shim’i ha-Ivri, in Kol ha-Nevuah (Jerusalem, 1969). While beyond the scope of this short review, in that work, the Nazir set out to present the gamut of philosophy and Jewish mysticism, showing two contrasting and sometimes complementary systems with the main thrust of the Jewish system being the achievement of prophecy.


            This short book contains an introduction by the Nazir’s only son, R. She’ar Yashuv, followed by an even shorter introduction, entitled דבר המשנה, penned by the editors, Har’el and Yedidyah Cohen. Following this are two separate introductory pieces, אבא מארי and בית אמי, again authored by R. She’ar Yashuv, in which much foreshadowing of the diary excerpts themselves is interspersed with his general memories and impressions of his father and mother. Afterward, the diary selections begin with Hebrew pagination. There is evidence in this section of a heavy amount of editing, censoring, and ‘cleaning-up’ of the relatively small amount of material published here.[6] I say ‘relatively’ because we are told by the editors that the content is culled from over five large notebooks of personal writing by the Nazir, which were graced with the handwritten title: מגילת סתרים - זכרונות נזיר אלוקים (p. 15). 

            As one begins the section that is purportedly the diary excerpts proper, the narrative quality of the writing is striking. The Nazir definitely experienced the same trials as many Jews during the interwar period, and one cannot help but share in his elation at finally reaching Israel. Throughout, in between expressions of deeply personal religious yearning are some very unique, unexpected stories. To wit, there are four pages of riveting narrative about a desert trip gone awry, reaching a breathless account of the Nazir prepared to die, lying down wrapped in a tallit and tefillin aside Wadi al-Kelt (עמ’ פה).[7]

We also get glimpses of the Nazir practicing his religious path, the telos of which he ostensibly saw as a realization of prophecy.[8] The Nazir advocates his hitbodedut in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, stating his goal as emulating the spiritual wanderings of the biblical prophets in the following outstanding passage (עמ’ נב-נג):

הנביאים ובני הנביאים התבודדו בהרים ובגבעות, מסביב למראה פני שדות וטוהר שמים, ורוח צח חרישת נושבת, מחיה הנפש ומשיב הרוח במראה קודש ...ספרים רבים לא היו הרי לא היו זקוקים לאוצרות ספרים, כמו ספרי ש”ס והפוסקים ונושאי כליהם. כל זה המשא של ספרים וניירות, המלעיטים את הנפש בנייר, והמסיחים את הדעת מן המרומם והנעלה טהר שמי ד’, לא בזה יתגלה ותחיה רוח הנבואה, אלא בתורה שבעל פה, בלימודים בהרים וגבעות, על פני שדות קודש, למראה טוהר שמי ד’, במקומות הקודש, בהתבודדות...כ 

What is especially fascinating here is the Nazir’s dismal view of the culture of the book and written word that in his mind had defined Judaism in exile from the Land, and the placement * of the spiritual connection to the land, or artsiut as a binary to it. To the Nazir, the text-less hitbodedut in nature reflects the return to the prophetic culture of Israel, a level closer to God than the ‘obfuscating’ medium of books and papers. There is a certain anomian bent to the Nazir’s statements above, expressing a desire to circumvent the traditional path of maintaining closeness to God through the study of shas and the commentaries.[9] Additionally, with regards to the anomian practice of the Nazir, even in the spare amount of material collected here, we see numerous indications that the Nazir was not embarrassed in overlooking tefillah b’tzibbur.[10]

Already in his days as a young student, the Nazir expresses the tension that he feels between adhering to the standard Yeshiva curriculum, and that which his inner self desires to study. From an early age, the Nazir is drawn to texts that lay outside the purview of the Yeshiva, some even forbidden outright. The Nazir describes how one attempt to resolve this tension went slightly awry (עמ’ יג), although he remained steadfast in his commitment to traditional modes of study:

הייתי חוזר על תלמודי ומשנן הרבה, לפי סימני ושיטת ספר המזכיר, להרה מיעלאק, שמצאתי בבית דודי הרב ר’ ישעיה, שהיה חברו וידידו, מה”ברודסקאים” בוואלאזין. אך דודי הרב ר’ אברהם החביא את ספר המזכיר, ויאמר, כי שינון זה מפריע להבנת ודעת התלמוד.כ

מעט מספרי “השכלה” התחלתי לקרוא בבוריסובקא, המושבה… למדני לקרוא ולתרגם אחד מצעירי המושבה שהתמשכל… משך את לבי, וישאני על כנפי רוח לשדות הקציר במושבות בארץ ישראל… נודע לי ממציאות זרם השכלה, גם בין אבריכי הישיבה, אבל לא פגע בי ובתלמודי. כ

The struggle in reconciling a skill for, and proclivity towards serious western thought and on the other hand, a depth of talmud Torah and ruhniyyut is a narrative thread that runs throughout the Nazir’s life.[11] One particularly powerful entry records the Nazir’s sincere resolution to stop apologizing and being nervous for this tension, but rather to transcend it entirely (עמ’ מז):

ופה נכרתה ברית ביני ובין הא-ם, א’ ישראל. אין מילה בפי להביע, מה נהיה בעומק רוחי. כל השאלות העיוניות [12]והפילוסופיות, חלפו, עברו, וקרוב קרוב לי אלהי ישראל...כ


            Although we could continue with citations of the fascinating and singular material found in Mishnat ha-Nazir, with space limits in mind, I want to briefly make two final points. Firstly, the paucity of translated material from the Nazir’s writings (something I too have failed to do here), and the lack of much meaningful study of his work and life in English give one pause. Aside from Schwartz’ article in Tradition, short references here and there in his translated work mentioned above, and some of Garb’s work, there is real room for English-language studies and translations of the Nazir’s writings. I have tried here to include in this review a short precis of the most accessible of the Nazir’s published writings in Mishnat ha-Nazir, and some of the extant literature on the Nazir as well.[13]

Finally, a closer reading and analysis of the Nazir’s life and writings might yield an organic, spiritually-minded, and transcendent approach to many of the issues of science and faith, authority and autonomy that lie at the root of many debates within American Orthodoxy. For those wishing to find a different way, rather than the tired apologetic and name-calling that characterizes some of the current popular discourse, the Nazir’s writings and their popularization may serve as a model and guide for alternative modes of thinking about Jewish religious expression and mindset.

[1] The most detailed biographical study on the Nazir that I have come across is contained in the first section of Yehuda Bitti’s 2007 doctoral dissertation (unpublished) at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, bein Pilosophia le-Kabbalah be-Haguto Shel ha-Rav David Cohen (5647-5732). Other biographical sketches are available on the Yeshivat Mercaz ha-Rav website, and this video of his son’s recollections of his father.
[2] There exist some wildly inaccurate rumors and legends concerning the Nazir’s days in the University. For example, James David Weiss in Vintage Wein: The Collected Wit and Wisdom, the Choicest Anecdotes & Vignettes of R. Berel Wein (Shaar Press, 1992), pp. 232-234 contains outright and gross misinformation regarding the Nazir, going so far as to recount that the Nazir had completely left religion during his appointment to the Mathematics faculty(!) in Freiburg, only to be brought back to the fold after meeting R. Kook. The truth is that the Nazir was giving regular Talmud lectures at the time as well, coupled with intense study (עמ’ כז) in the Philosophy department.
[3] For example, on עמ’ סז, the Nazir writes that he has now gone five days without eating, only drinking tea. He begins the entry by describing how he desires to accept these bodily afflictions, but in the ambivalence that characterizes many of his personal writing, he continues to say that his body simply cannot take it:
[3]אף על פי כן קשה, קשה לי הרעב מאד. הרעב מוצץ את לשד מוחי, כסרטן. מפני מכאובי הגוף, שאלות הנשמה והרוח נדחקות, במה עוברים ימי, מפני הקטנות
[4] As was the Nazir’s wife, Sarah (daughter of R. Hanokh Etkin - and the Nazir’s first cousin); see p. 30. Although the Nazir had intended for his son, R. Sha’ar Yashuv ha-Kohen (recently Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and now president of Mechon Ariel for Higher Religious Studies; a unique and fascinating figure in his own right) to be a Nazir from birth (עמ’ צד), according to this article he was absolved from the vow by a beit din convened in the family home at age twelve. He did however, remain a vegetarian, and relates his father’s disappointment at the decision to get a haircut.
[5] See p. 31, as related by his son:
[5]אני מרבה לשתוק ( ארבעים יום של אלול וראשית תשרי, ימי צום ותענית ואפילו כל שבתות השנה - לא דיבר ולא סח אפילו בדברי תורה, רק קורא היה מתוך הספר ומראה באצבע, ולעתים, בימי חול - רושם דבריו בקצרה על גבי פתק ומגישם לשומע) אמא, מדברת. אך תמיד: דיבור של מצוה או דיבור כשר בהחלט 
[6] Although obviously a heavy amount of editorial discretion must go into choosing which entries make it into less than 100 pages from over five full handwritten journals, the constant non-sequiturs, the omission of months and even years of entries at some points, the almost complete lack of entries related to the Nazir’s profoundly loving and respectful relationship with his wife (details of which are judiciously related in R. She’ar Yashuv’s introductions only), and other clues lead the reader to surmise that even more interesting and unique writing of the Nazir is withheld or suppressed.
[7] One of the Nazir’s companions on the almost disastrous trip is R. Moshe Gurvitz, compiler and editor of Orot ha-Emunah (Jerusalem, 2002) along with R. Kook’s future son in law, R. Shalom Natan Ra’anan.
[8] As for the Nazir’s possible self-identification as a prophet-initiate, one needn’t look further than his own children’s names, and his inquiry as to the permissibility of giving them to R. Kook. See עמ’ עז. There are even indications in the diary of the Nazir undergoing quasi-prophetic experiences - see for example, עמ’ צה and עמ’ עט, עמ’ עג.
[8]Also see the remarks made by R. Aharon Lichtenstein in Shivhei Kol ha-Nevu’ah, printed in the back of Kol ha-Nevu’ah (Jerusalem, 2002) who describes the entire project of the Nazir as התעוררות לנבואה, albeit with some reservation. For two studies of the Nazir and prophecy in general, which basically sums up his entire oeuvre, see Avinoam Rosenak, The Prophetic Halakha: Rabbi A.I.H. Kook’s Philosophy of the Halakha (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 2007) pp. 253-266; R. She’ar Yashuv Cohen, ha-Nevu’ah be-Mishnat ha-Nazir in Itturei Kohanim: be-Inyanei Mikdash ve-Nevu’ah (this is apparently an old issue of Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim’s journal). For a more general overview of the relationship of the Nazir’s higgayon and prophecy, and one of the very few studies made of the Nazir in English at all, see Dov Schwartz, The Hebraic Auditory Logic and the Revival of Prophecy, Tradition 26:3 (2002), pp. 81-89.
[9] For some discussion of the trend of anomian as opposed to antinomian practice and thought, especially through the prism of the writings of R. Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kook, see Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth Century Kabbalah (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 2005) pp. 77-78. Although Garb highlights selections from Orot ha-Kodesh in which R. Kook’s anomian advocacy of the practice of yihuddim is on display, one wonders the role of the Nazir, who exercised a strong editorial hand over the publication and arrangement of Orot ha-Kodesh, and even saw himself as a co-author due to his work on it, in bringing this particular stream of R. Kook’s thought to the fore in Orot ha-Kodesh and the selections cited by Garb. Perhaps this is what is being hinted to in the oblique references to criticism and push-back from other students of R. Kook that the Nazir hints to in the diaries. See Mishnat ha-Nazir, עמ’ צא in the entry titled “הבקורת”.
[10] See עמ’ פה, where the Nazir makes preparations for a possible Shabbat alone.
[11] One very interesting entry records the Nazir’s strong impressions upon meeting חוקר נסתרות אחד, and being shown manuscript writings of R. Abraham Abulafia. This חוקר is none other than Prof. Gershom Scholem. Despite Scholem’s regard and perception of R. Kook’s ‘Zionist’ Kabbalah, it is apparent that he did not hold the Nazir in the same esteem, but nor did he reserve the disdain he held for ‘Oriental Kabbalists’ of the day. See Boaz Huss, Ask No Questions: Gershom Scholem and the Study of Contemporary Jewish Mysticism in Modern Judaism 25 (2005), pp. 141-158.
[12] On the Nazir’s approach toward what we would call Torah u-Madda, see Jonathan Garb, ‘"Alien" Culture in the Circle of Rabbi Kook'’, in H. Kriesel (ed.), Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought. pp. 253-264. Be’er Sheva, 2006; For a more muted, but still positive perception of the Nazir’s engagement with secular thought, see R. Ya’akov Ariel, Science and Faith: R. David Cohen - ‘The Nazirite Rabbi’ - and his Method of Study, in Tzohar (no. 8, 2002). Finally, see R. Ari Yitzhak Shevat, We Have Nothing to Fear From Criticism: On the Scientific Study of the Nazir & R. Kook’s Attitude Thereof  in Tzohar (no. 31, 2008) although the approach taken by Shevat seems to fail to account for the transcendent, integrationist attitude of the Nazir and tries to recast him as a sort of apologist, which, in my opinion is precisely not what emerges from the Nazir’s own accounts of his secular learning and knowledge.
[13] An excellent resource for everything Nazir-related can be found at this Google Site, arranged to collect, categorize, and publicize the Nazir’s body of work. 

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