Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Problem: Is it Stringency or Simplicity?

Originally published 6/15/11, 10:39 am.
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.
Rabbi Yuter wrote the piece  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


micha said...

I am bothered when the same person will find leniency in two conflicting ways:

1- When they disapprove of a minhag or accepted pesaq, they will bring sources to show it's unfounded and not worth the effort.

2- When they disapprove of a new pesaq that is more chamur than current practice, they invoke the rules of precedent and mimeticism, and put down the new chumerah.

Whether text trumps mimeticism is thus decided by which produces the desired result. Rather than looking at how widespread is/was accepted practice, and comparing that to how much more compelling is the textual argument. I agree consistency isn't necessary; weighing pros and cons won't always push to text or accepted custom. But if there is a nearly perfect trend toward leniency -- or toward stringency for that matter -- doesn't that flag the notion that the person isn't doing halakhah right?

(Aside from leniencies and stringencies in topics where there are rules telling you to favor one or the other:

- trying to be matir agunos, in theory we are machmir because of "maaleh asu beyuchsin" but mapping that to practice we try to collect numerous sefeiqos, no matter how shaky.
- similarly mamzeirim
- being meiqil in eruvin

(And I am pretty sure no "etc" is needed; I've cited this list in front of numerous people for more informed than I, and have not been corrected with another addition to the list.)


micha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nishma said...

I think it's a good thing to examine practices that are questionable or "problematic"

To me a Hanhaggah is like a Text I.E. One treats it with respect, but one ideally analyzes it and tests it out, too.

If by examining a minhag one finds it wanting, then we should not be afraid to say so

Illustrations -

1. I've felt that the Humra of "zli kedar" is really a humra on a minhag and is therefore excessive. I debated this with an "Adam Gadol" on the Avodah List and B"H I discovered that the Aruch Hashulchan said the same thing - Baruch shekivanti.

That said, I have no need to cook a zli kedar dish on the Seder Night so my debate was strictly l'lhalachah v'lo l'maaseh.

2 There is apparently a popular [mythical?] Humra that during the Nine Days one may not eat food cooked from a fleishig pot. Since I work in a felishig Restaurant, this is a key issue.

A customer once asked me about eating our X during the nine days. I told him that X is from a fleishig pot but is otherwise parve and is mutar during the nine days.

Customer: I'm not looking for a "heter"

RRW: this is not a heter, it's the halachah!

Then I whipped out my Mishnnah Brurah to show him. Now, I don't know if the Mishnah Brurah is a "bar hachi" to oveturn such an entrenched perception but we need to re-think sometimes what's being done

3. Sometimes by examining the sources AND the Minhag we realize a kula is weak. EG I'm convinced that poskim from the Maharil through the Mishnah Brurah all favor a Bachur wearing a Tallis Gadol

Sources - First See

SA-Rema O"ch 17:3
Baer hetev 4
MB 10

Then some online sources courtesy of Mr. Michael Popper's

« The KAYJ-forum thread’s URL: ;

URL for the online scan I noted in that thread:

(see the bottom section of the page; note the contrast between the Rhine-region minhag and what was done “bimdinos acheirim”).

Shalom, RRW

Nishma said...

Great post. I had some trouble posting a comment to the blog (am
travelling, working on portable equipment and little time to
troubleshoot), so I am commenting directly, but feel free to post to
the blog.

Great analysis. I find the idea that the machmirim are basically
clamoring for simplicity very compelling. In fact, seeking out
simplicity seems to be a thoroughly traditional value, as many
gezeirot are predicated upon a simple, less differentiating view of
human experience. E.g., fowl becomes equated with mamalian meat
regarding bassar bechalav (and, to be more precise, the meat of chayot
with that of beheimot - to cover all opinions), re: bassar bechalav.
The same is true for many other pieces of Rabbinic legislation.

The question for halakha lema'asseh then becomes: when is the drive
for simplicity excessive or counter productive? For example, I have
argued elsewhere that we should not be quick to label too many newly
discovered foodstuff as kitniot, because excessive stringency will
lead to many more people abandoning the ancient minhag of abstaining
from kitniot on Pessach (for the record, this is not a simple
Ashkenaz-Sefarad split, as Moroccans also abstain from kitniot, though
their list is somewhat less broad than what is common among
Ashkenazim). However, OTOH, being too discerning creates an unworkably
complex system, whereby only great talmidei chakhamim - or ...
conceited individuals - can claim to understand how we should behave.

Kol tuv,

Rabbi Arie Folger

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I think you make an excellent point regarding the whole issue. Really there would seem to be two axes stringency-leniency and simplicity-honest complexity and how these two axes interrelate has become an issue. The problem is not only in the assumed parallel connection stringency-simplicity and leniency-depth but in the very fact that there is also an assumed negative perception of each position. In the minds of too many people, each of the factors -- stringency, simplicity, leniency or depth -- is considered to be all good or all bad. As you correctly point out, there is a time for simplicity and a time for depth, a time for leniency and a time for stringency. The challenge is the determination of when each factor is appropriate. We also have to be able to define things such as good simplicity and bad simplicity, such as dogmatism. But clearly, leaving this issue in a realm of black-and-white is a problem.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

micha said...

Yes, there are people who want clarity / simplicity rather than "gray matters".

There are also, though, people who fit R' Dr Haym Soloveitchik's description (from the end of "Rupture and Reconstruction", Tradition v28n4):

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.

As I prepare a blog entry based on R' Wolbe's description of "frumkeit", I notice how similar his use of the word is to these solace-seekers.