Chumra Wars! A Case Against Religious Stringency.
Pesach cleaning marathons, tznius contests, & kashrus competitions: an outsider looking in might feel very confused trying to understand our priorities.
When we perform a prescribed religious action as designed, we can most accurately tap into the meaning for that practice. When we add on layers of stringency, we risk losing the potential transformation that was hidden within the spiritual practice. Today, there is a tendency toward chumra that is very spiritually dangerous, as it perverts the very essence behind our tradition. While some argue that by creating “fences” we protect the essence of the law, this approach suggests that individuals in the community are not capable of making their own choices or of honoring the boundaries. The goal of Jewish law is not chumra (following the strictest path), but about fulfilling the letter of the law and actualizing the purpose of the moral and spiritual tradition.
When chumra becomes the norm and is referenced tautologically, people often just observe it like it is the halacha without making the effort for halacha to provide a unique connection to G-d. The spiritual practice risks becoming another part of social conformity devoid of religious meaning. Instead, individuals should take on unique chumras that bring them closer to G-d and help them to grow as human beings. One should only conscientiously choose a stringency if it adds more personal meaning, connection, and growth.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z’l, the preeminent 20th-century Sephardic posek, was a major proponent of ruling toward leniency for the sake of honesty and accessibility:
I shall do my utmost with Divine help…to face the problems that tear our world apart. To resolve them in the spirit of our holy Torah, and to strive for rulings with the power of leniency, according to the ways of Beit Hillel…In every instance where there is a dispute between (halachic) adjudicators about strictness and leniency (kula), the opinion that leads toward kula should be accepted according to suitable instructions, (submitted platform in support of his application for chief Sephardic position, 1973).
Others reinforce the concept that we should not use our religion to be boastful or to feel superior. The rabbis taught that being strict to demonstrate religious piety is religiously improper (Hullin 44a). One also should not confuse what the real mitzvah is; as Rambam teaches that blessings may not be recited when performing customs (Megilah v’Chanukah 3:7).
The Mishnah is already clear in providing a limited list of mitzvot that can be performed beyond a prescribed measure: food for the poor, gratitude to G-d for food, visiting G-d’s holy site, acts of kindness, and studying Torah (Peah 1:1). Other mitzvot are not to be done to an extreme. The Sages taught that it is better to perform a mitzvah that is required than one that is not required (Avodah Zara 3a) and there is a prohibition against adding or subtracting from the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:4, Rosh Hashanah 28b). We are not to become confused about our priorities.
Being religiously strict in private when done to feel closer to the Divine is virtuous, but doing it publicly to come off more pious or to conform is spiritually destructive. This is a specific prohibition against religious arrogance (yohara) taught by the Sages (Berachot 17b, Pesachim 54b-55a). Furthermore, developing a generally excessive approach to communal norms is financially detrimental as well. Some began to create such lavish celebrations that rabbis have recently tried once again to impose legal limits on the number of guests, the size of the band, and the expenses. A wedding or bris is not holier if more money is spent in the name of religious honor as modesty is the key virtue.
When one becomes too strict (in kashrut, for example), it can create communal divisions, that the very institution of kashrut was designed to prevent. When stringencies are placed upon family purity laws, it can harm a marriage and cause infertility challenges. While cultural and religious differences need to be respected, chumra can be taken to extreme lengths, and can lead to notoriety rather than spiritual enrichment.
Beit Shemesh, a community shared by the ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, and secular Jews, became a worldwide story in December 2011 when ultra-Orthodox Jewish men harassed and spat at an 8-year-old modestly dressed Orthodox girl as she attempted to walk to her religious school. Reporters were also harassed, had rocks thrown at them, and parents had to run a gauntlet of abuse as they walked their own children to school. In response, thousands of Israelis, endorsed by political leaders of the major parties, rallied to protest what amounted to the ill-treatment of a child by men. What possible religious good is accomplished by humiliating a child? Why are men adding on new layers of requirements for women to dress more modestly? Why aren’t those of financial means more cognizant that when they make religious life another place to be financially excessive that this can exclude those with financial burdens from participating or from holding their heads up high in the religious community.
To be sure, taking on higher ethical standards is praiseworthy (giving more charity, volunteering more, paying higher wages, being kinder at home, etc.). But adding ritual stringencies that continue to confuse the tradition, raise collective standards that demand conformity, and exclude others destroys the transcendent meaning of Judaism.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”