We may take it for granted that in several segments of the Jewish world today, anyone who wants to can become a Jew, and anyone who wants to – Jewish by birth or by choice – can choose to life a life devoted to Torah and mitzvot, either by being a passionate and engaged Jew, or by being one who also pursues ordination as a rabbi or cantor. The doors are open for those who would seek to enter.
But that was not the case during the First and Second Temple periods. During that time, if you were male, and your father was a Kohen (a member of the Priestly caste), then you would live a life of consecrated holiness as a matter of course. You would offer the sacrifices, attend to the Temple ritual and its implements, and answer questions of Jewish practice when they were posed to you. If you were a woman, then the closest you might get to such a life was by marrying a Kohen, which would give you access to eating holy offerings and to participating, if in an adjacent way, through the work of your husband.
But what of those from the most common caste, those whose fathers were Yisrael? Other than bringing offerings when required (or desired), there really wasn’t much possibility of living a sanctified life as a full-time pursuit. For those whose souls hungered to cleave to God, there wasn’t much offered to satisfy those holy urges.
Except for the chance to become a Nazir. Lay Israelites thirsting for immersive holiness could take a vow to become a Nazir (women could too!). Once they took that vow, they were required to abstain from wine, beer and other fermented drinks (and grape products), to abstain from cutting their hair and from coming into contact with a corpse. These prohibitions parallel the restrictions on the priesthood, offering the Israelite seeking a deeper connection to the holy to have such access.
Even in the ancient patriarchy of the Bible, even when holiness was a status inherited from one’s father by blood, even then the Torah provides a path of entry for the common folk.
The message is clear, and rabbinic Judaism expanded that small beginning into a way of life: holiness belongs to the entire people. Anyone who wishes to live a life of mitzvot and of holiness is offered a path, encouraged to hold fast, and to make of themselves a beacon of Torah.
What are you waiting for?
Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
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