Recently I was directed to an article on the Jewish Ideas and Ideals website by Rabbi Alan Yuter on Sefirat HaOmer and the minhag of practicing some form of aveilut during intervals of this time period (available at http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/sefira-restrictions). The piece was written in response to a statement by a leading Rosh Yeshiva that critiqued various new halachic innovations, perceived by individuals as meeting the technical requirements of the law but, in this Rosh Yeshiva's assessment, clearly did not meet its spirit. His argument, further, was that, in many cases, regardless of the attitude of the community at large, they also did not even meet the technical requirements. As an example of this, he focused on the development of 'voice only' musical tapes marketed as permitted during Sefirah since there are no musical instruments in the arrangement. The very fact that people would even consider listening to such tapes during Sefirah, displayed to this Rosh Yeshiva the weakness of people wishing to circumvent the law. It seems his argument further was that listening to such tapes during Sefirah also violated the technical requirements of the halacha. In any event, "many of the gedolei rabbonim [great rabbis] have ruled that one should not listen to this type of music during Sefirahand The Three Weeks" and this is what the community should implement.
In response, Rabbi Yuter contended that this was, in fact, a gross simplification of the spirit of the law and also its technical requirements. Given the relatively recent development of this prohibition on music during Sefirah itself , especially in tape form, such a hard line view as presented in this statement, he found, in itself, to be problematic. While Rabbi Yuter's presentation was technically sound in many ways, I began to wonder what it was in this Rosh Yeshiva's statement that really bothered him. Was it that this Rosh Yeshiva was overly stringent or overly simple?
There is an interesting aspect to the split that seems to be developing within the Orthodox world. In the minds of those who, let us say, are more to the left of the spectrum, those that maintain more stringent positions are also perceived to be more dogmatic. They, in turn, while also advocating for more lenient positions also define themselves as more intellectually critical. There is actually some truth to this assertion for the argument for leniency is often built on a recognition of disagreement, machloket, in the fabric of Halacha, a fact that clearly points to the inherent intellectual nature of it. These assertions, though, are much more rigid then they need be or even should be. There is, in fact, great sadness in this formulation of distinction in the two camps, that stringency is immediately associated with dogmatism and that leniency is presented as inherently associated with intellectual fortitude. The question, though, is not whether this need be. This I would contend is obviously not so. The model of Beit Shammai should also be in our mind; they were deemed to be the more intellectually deeper as well as the more stringent.The question, though is: why is this so?
I obviously touched upon one reason for this. Dogmatism offers support to the more stringent position while recognition of divergent viewpoints, reflecting the more intellectual nature of Torah, offers support for the more lenient. The further question, though, is: which is the more dominant motivation. Do we desire leniency (and that is not necessarily bad, but that is for a different discussion) and such embrace greater intellectual understanding? Or is it that we wish to meet higher intellectual standards which inevitably lead to greater leniency because of the greater understanding of possibilities?
A similar question I do not believe could be asked concerning the stringent/dogmatic side. I don't think anyone would contend that the motivation is really dogmatism and thus they are more stringent. The very fact that often proponents of such views try to claim that they are not being dogmatic would seem to support a contention that the drive is not for dogmatism, at least on a conscious level. There may, though, be a drive for simplicity resulting in a desire for clear answers, a drive for that leading to the more stringent view. This perhaps should be considered a possibility. In fact, though, arguing that there is a drive for stringency leading to a desire for greater simplicity would also seem to be a problem. Of course, we see with the further embracing of chumrot that there may, in fact, be somewhat of a drive for greater stringency -- for various ancillary reasons -- but I think that the greater drive is not stringency but rather consistency and tradition. I think that we could easily contend that the psychological motivation of this camp -- what we have termed the stringent/dogmatic side -- is actually pretty easy to define. There is a desire for a specific answer deemed to be clearly correct and this, inevitably, must lead to dogmatism. This is one side of the present frum world.
It is the intellectual/lenient world that raises the greater question of what is the motivation. Is it, bluntly, a disgust with dogmatism or a desire for leniency? With the disgust for dogmatism we can include an anger at the misrepresentation of truth and/or the authenticity and value of Torah study, limud haTorah. This drive, though, as mentioned above, does not necessarily have to lead to leniency. (I guess we should also have noted that dogmatism does not always have to lead to stringency. There are dogmatic liberals. The final point about dogmatism, though, is that it does necessarily lead to a perception of solitary answers.) What is happening, though, is that it is often being presented in a matter that it does. This is becoming the exact problem. I have no way of knowing, bluntly, the answer to the above question. What essentially bothers me is that a perception of an inherent link between leniency and intellectual honesty is developing -- and this has its own problems and dishonesty.
I guess this specifically bothers me because of its effect on Nishma. Its becoming that if you project yourself as analytical and thoughtful -- specifically in the presentation of spectrum of opinions -- it becoming assumed that your real motivation is leniency. Nishma, as such, is often labelled in this camp while it definitely is not. This is not to say that it is in the stringent/traditional camp either. Its interest is solely the veracity of limud haTorah. It has no agenda aside from thought. Given the climate of our present world, this is hard for anyone to imagine. Presenting spectrum -- you must be to the left.
And then there is the other side of this problem -- if you are to the left, i.e. lenient, the assumption is that you must be intellectual. This further leads to the portrayal of advocates of left positions as specifically intellectual and/or intellectually motivated. And this further keeps the general fallacy in our world continuing.
Rabbi Ben Hecht