The term, “Chumra” means stringency. It is used often in matters of Jewish Law. The original definition of Chumra has taken on a different meaning in modern day Orthodox Judaism. At times this interpretation can have positive results, while at other times, it can have very negative detrimental effects.
Jewish Law, or “Halacha” as it’s known in Hebrew is a very complex system handed over to the Rabbis from the time of Moses. The purpose of Halacha was to interpret and protect the Torah so that it would continue to be observed throughout the generations. The Rabbis were also given the license to make protective rabbinic laws that they believed necessary for Jewish survival. For example, Moshe Rabbeinu himself decreed that the Torah be read every Shabbat.
There were instances where doubts arose in certain legal situations. The Rabbis formulated a system where if the doubt was of a rabbinic nature, then one could be lenient. This leniency was known as a “Koola”, in Hebrew. If the doubt was of a Torah origin, then one needed to take the more strict approach, or go L’ Chumra’ in Halachic jargon. This was the way a Chumra was originally viewed.
If we go back fifty or sixty years in America, Orthodox Judaism was not that strong. It was a much greater struggle to be observant at that time, than it is today. Kosher food was harder to come by and not every community had a Mikva, ritual bath. Even burials according to Halacha was not a given. Finding employers that were understanding of the Sabbath was also not so easy to find.
When I was ordained as a rabbi in the late seventies, in Skokie, Illinois, we were trained to help the community deal with their challenges by attempting to remain within Halachic boundaries, but also trying to find leniencies wherever possible.
Over the years, the Orthodox community made great advances in major cities across the United States, where being religious was no longer that difficult. This was the beginning of the new definition of Chumra.
On one level, which was of a positive nature, Jews could afford to be more strict. There were now numerous Kosher establishments to choose from and compromises were not necessary. A Jew was not embarrassed to display his Judaism in public and more and more Jewish men were seen with Yarmulkes and married women wore head coverings.
If we go back in time to the period following the Six Day War, there was a huge wave of Religious Zionism all across America. If you were an Orthodox Jew, it was a given that moving to Israel was on your radar. People would never openly say that they were not moving, but would say that they hoped to move within a relatively short time. As America became more affluent and life in Israel was clearly more difficult, the Zionist dream began to fade. The serious idealists had moved to Israel, and the less idealistic stayed where it was more comfortable. Hence, the birth of the new ” Chumra”.
Religious Jews needed to have their consciences to be at peace. They began adopting stringencies, or Chumras, that were more in line with the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist communities. Such Chumras included a more strict dress code, a higher standard in Kashrut supervision, and enrolling their children in schools that were more extreme. Perhaps if they were really strict in certain areas and if their new rabbis told them that they don’t really have to move to Israel, then their guilt for not being true religious Zionists would subside.
Another phenomenon was the Baal Teshuva movement, where many unaffiliated Jews became observant. From a positive perspective, these were very sincere individuals and they wanted to do everything right. They felt good taking the more strict approach as they felt this would keep them strong and they would not fall back to their old ways.
The sad part of this Chumra idea today is that it is not made clear what is the law and what is a Chumra. Passover is the time of year when people are really into Chumras. It is understandable that we be extra strict because Passover is only one week, but sometimes it can get ridiculous. One year, a certain individual in a very religious neighborhood, covered the bumper of his car with aluminum foil a few days before Pesach. He did this for a joke, but within an hour, a dozen cars also covered their cars the same way!
The sadness of this Chumra infatuation is felt the most in Jewish education. Young students are given restrictions that are only Chumras, but are a major turn off. When they are told that everything is forbidden without clarifying the basis of the prohibition, it makes the students want to run away from Judaism. There are grey areas within Halacha, where depending on the situation, a “Koola” would be much more beneficial. For example, one of my daughters was sent home from school because her earrings were too long!
We must be aware that young people have many choices of lifestyles today. For them to remain observant, things should make sense. We need to take more of a “Hillel” approach than a “Shammai”, more Chumra approach. I grew up in Bnei Akiva where talking to girls was not a sin and some of those girls even wore pants. It was not perfect Halachically but it was a very wholesome way for us to learn to love Judaism and love Israel. Clearly, there are times when Chumras are necessary, but it’s equally clear that a badly placed Chumra could be very, very harmful.