Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Chumra and the Challenge to the Torah Ideal

Originally posted 1/15/08, 12:58 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
I draw your attention to the following post, entitled,  "Too Stringent By Half," at The Blog of Garnel Ironheart, (I have reproduced the post below but do still direct you to this blog for interesting posts.)

"I recalled years ago eating at the Shabbos table of a man who davened at the Agudah shul in Toronto. We spoke about various matters, amongst them how hard it was to find chalav Yisroel candy bars (for his kids, me I'm a Mars Bar kind of guy).
He sighed and, in what I can only decribe as a moment of unguarded weakness, noted: "When I was a kid, we used to stop in at the corner store on the way home from school and pick out any candy bar we wanted. We never heard of hecsherim on them. Now I can't buy a candy for my children unless it's chalav Yisroel. When did this happen? Uri Orbach of Ynet notes the same creeping stringency in the ongoing commotion surrounding separate seating in public buses that service the Chareidi population. He correctly points out that concepts and ideas that even the most stringent Jews would not have thought about thirty years ago have now become normative within the Chareidi community which, in turn, is attempting to impose its standards on the rest of the frum world.
This is how the process generally works. Someone comes up with a chumrah (you've all certainly heard of the Chumrah-of-the-Week club). Many times it's either a ba'al teshuvah looking for ways to up his observance so that he doesn't feel inferior to his frum-from-birth friends or it's a rabbi in an outreach setting who has a particular liking for this crazy stringency but knows that preaching to people who know what he's talking about will just get him laughed at. But ba'al teshuvahs? They'll try anything!
The next step is that other people see these stringencies being practised and when they ask about them they receive an innocent look back: "Well, it says in the that you're supposed to." And, either through insecurity or a fear of being left behind, these other people begin to pick up the chumrah. Finally, widescale observance spreads through the community and outsiders who refuse to hop on the bandwagon are categorized as "less frum" because they don't accept this chumrah which was almost universally ignored until recently.
Now, I'm not talking about actual halachos that fell into disuse over the centuries such as shaatnez, a married woman covering her hair, or chalav Yisroel in certain places. What I am talking about is sleeves that must go to the wrist (just below the elbow is fine according to most mainstream sources) and separate seating on buses.
All these little things slowly redefine what's considered normative in Torah observance and leave more and more people who are really shomer mitzvos out of the increasing rigid group of people who believe that it is they who define what a mitzvah is and what it isn't. It behooves us to remember that a way of observance, if supported by legitimate halachic sources, is as legitimate and "strict" as any other, regardless of the external differences."

The following is the comment I entered in response to the post.

"Why someone adopts a chumra of a certain nature reflects an overall gestalt in the person's understanding of the Torah ideal. Why someone does not adopt a certain chumra should be of the same nature -- reflecting one's perception of the overall Torah ideal and the perception that abiding by this chumra would detract from an ideal. We, throughout Shas, encounter many members of Chazal being described as having a specific chumra. Two important observations emerge. One is that the other members of Chazal who did not adopt this chumra still had respect for the person who had this chumra, recognizing that it reflected a specific value that this person desired to highlight in his observance of Torah. Two, that the other members of Chazal who did not adopt the chumra did not feel that they were missing something in their religious observance thereby. They understood that this chumra was not for them and would detract from their path to the Torah ideal that they wished for themselves.
"The difficulty of this new world of chumras, besides the obvious ridiculousness of some of these 'chumras of the month' is that they envision a monolithic vision of the Torah ideal for everyone, thus weakening the real dynamics of Torah. There is an ideal beyond the chumra; in fact there is a spectrum of ideals beyond a specific chumra and we have to find the ideal that connects to us -- and that incorporates a specific individual mixture of chumra and kullah that furthers the ideal. For example, it is strongly suggested that a talmid chacham not accept additional fasts -- as fasting will negatively impact on his learning. Thus for one person, a fast is a good thing, for another it is not. A monolithic vision that maintains that fasting is always inherently an act of tziddkus in simply wrong.
"But the reaction to chumra must include a recognition of a value in the kullah towards creating a specific Torah ideal. The case of the chocolate bar is on point. If the desire to have more chocolate is simply seen as a hedonistic, animalistic drive that wants to be satisfied and the kullah is simply allowing this over a higher religious commitment to chalav Yisrael, then the chumra will win and the kullah will be seen as negative -- and to some extent rightfully so. But if one perceives a value in the lifestyle that includes the ability to have easier access to chocolate and one understands the Torah ideal that includes this value and constructs a Torah lifestyle that includes the value, one has an argument to withstand the monolithic pressure of the chumra world.
"What is necessary is not the argument that the kullah is okay too. What is necessary is the argument that the kullah is part of an overall Torah ideal that one wishes to strive for, against the monolithic and narrow vision of the Torah ideal of the chumrah world."


Rabbi Ben Hecht


Anonymous said...

Here is a description of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz Ztz"l the founder of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. This is from a blog that the chumrah crowd love to hate, but apparently the writer is a grandson or great grandson of Mr. Mendlowitz and new him personally.

Dr Mike said...

I think that's a great blog and you should refer people towards it more often!