A fundamental question that has been debated since the beginning of Jewish history regards the degree of contact and integration one should have with outside culture. Should we embrace it, drawing out its positive features as we assimilate it into our Torah worldview? Should we try to achieve a deeper understanding of Torah through a study of "non-Torah" sources, or should we avoid the potentially corrosive influence it may have upon us?
This "debate" defies easy resolution (or any resolution at all). It is something with which we all must struggle, on many levels; from the theoretical and practical to the intellectual and emotional. "These and those are the words of the living G-d", provided that "whether one does more or one does less, his heart is directed towards heaven".
Those who believe passionately that Torah must be lived in the "real" world, and that we must not run away from the severe dilemmas posed by modernity, face a very real challenge. We must deal seriously with the issue of maintaining our religious purity in the face of a pervasive culture far removed from Torah. For those who feel that full religious observance can only be maintained by building insular communities and separating ourselves as much as possible from the outside world, one must ask: How can the Torah have a message that is relevant to the world at large? And how can one manage successfully if one cuts oneself off from the world around us?
A microcosm of this debate is seen in the attitude of our Sages towards the nazir. Although the Torah permits the drinking of wine—at times it is even a mitzvah—the nazir vows to "separate himself unto the Lord... he shall separate himself from wine ...neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes nor eat grapes" (6:2-4). The nazir decides that he (or she) will be an ascetic, abstaining from the permissible pleasures of this world in order to "separate...unto the Lord". Clearly, his intentions are noble.
Yet there is a sharp debate amongst the commentaries as to the desirability of becoming a nazir. On the one hand, the Torah declares that "as long as he is a nazir, he is holy to G-d" (Bamidbar 6:8). Just like the kohen gadol, the high priest, whose life was dedicated to teaching Torah and serving in the Temple, the nazir is enjoined from having any contact with death, the defiler of holiness, even for a relative. Though a nazir must bring a sin offering, implying that the act of becoming a nazir is itself sinful, Nachmanides claims that it is the abandonment of his status as a nazir that is the sin. To leave a world dedicated solely to cleaving unto G-d for the mundane and impurity of this world requires a sin offering.
However, many claim the sin offering of the nazir is just as it appears to be: an indication that it is sinful to deprive oneself of the permissible pleasures of G-d 's world. "One who sits in fast is called a sinner". Maimonides, quoting the sages, proclaimed, "Is it not enough, what the Torah has forbidden, that you want to add further restrictions?" One must sanctify the mundane, not avoid it.
Perhaps the desirability of nezirut depends on one's motivation. If our souls thirst for G-d and the material inducements of this world are of no interest to us, then becoming a nazir can bring us to the pinnacle of holiness. However, if we decide that it is only by actively rejecting the pleasures of this world that one can seek G-d, then we are making a big mistake. It is sad when one must resort to vows of abstinence to control one's desires.
For some, holiness is to be achieved by following the path of the nazir and limiting interaction with this world. For others, holiness manifests itself in sanctifying this material world by fully participating in it. Each person must discover into which category he or she falls. This way they will be on the proper path to holiness, to "separating themselves to G-d."