Imagine if you will – you are at 6 Flags and watching your 5 year old wait on line for yet another version of a car going around in a circle. You’re standing just outside the cue and watching as he waits with anticipation. He’s been having a great day. Your phone buzzes so you pull it out to see if the alert requires attention or not. You decide you can respond the email with just a sentence or two, you take care of it, put your phone away, look up and he’s gone. He’s not on line any more. You look on the ride, he’s not there. You look again on line, not there. It’s been 30 or maybe 60 seconds and you start to look around. Can’t find him. You call out his name. (I’ll just pick a totally random name for this totally hypothetical situation.) “Shua! Shua!” Nothing. Nowhere. You look on the line again. It’s been maybe 90 second. He’s still not there. Not on the ride. You can feel the adrenaline starting to course. You’re heart beat picks up. Almost 2 minutes. You look at the line next to you, no. “Shua!” Much louder now. Three minutes since you saw him, no sign and you’re just starting to wonder if you should call security.
And then you see him walking calmly back to you. He saw a friend on another ride so he walked over to say hi. In that moment you want to hug him and strangle him at the same time.
I made this totally fictional story up to illustrate that the human brain can feel two things at the same time.
“I’m glad you’re safe! And I want to kill you!”
And that is how I feel about by co-religionists in this moment in history. “I love you. I know we’re part of the same people, the same family, and our souls are connected. And also, I think your brains are broken.”
For the record I don’t think this is because I’m having a mental breakdown. I think it’s because the G-d created our hearts to feel these different things simultaneously. I love you. And I want to punch you in the face.
What brought on this complexity of feelings is the reaction to a young bride who stepped up to the band and played the drums for a moment at her wedding. Her wedding was in the hyper-Haredi town of Bnei Brak, where this was considered by some a violation of the community’s standards of modesty. Essentially what happened next was that people “told the rabbi on her,” and the band had to promise that they wouldn’t do that again. Then the internet got hold of this and things really went off the rails.
People were angry and cried, “Sexism! Misogyny!” Other people, including the wise and thoughtful Rabbi Efram Goldberg, wrote of the rights of a community to enforce its own standards. And back and forth it went with people assuming the worst of what the read and only reading part of a statement and generally not seeking to understand the other. Rabbi Goldberg wrote how we should respect people who choose to adopt standards of modesty that help create a holiness that is delicate and precious. And a few people responded assuming the worst and least likely interpretation of his words. Stupid internet.
This whole episode brought to the front of my consciousness an idea I had been mulling over regarding the nature of chumros – strict religious applications of the law. Nearly every rule in ritual law has some debate over how to apply it. One of the ways that people demonstrate their enthusiasm for Torah and their passion for G-d is by accepting types of practice that would not just be normative, but that follow the more strict application. This is not only true in ritual law, but even in the more difficult to define ideas such as “modesty.” In many important ways the Orthodox community in America and in Israel have adopted standards of practice that are more “machmir” than just 15 years ago. When I first started going to parent teacher meetings at my children’s school moms and dads sat together. Recently these community gatherings have separate seating. One much discussed stringency is that women’s pictures are now omitted entirely from magazines aimed at the Orthodox community. I just want to say that my experience has been that almost every Chumrah – strict application of the law – has a Kulah – a lenient consequence attached to it.
When I was learning in Yeshiva and studying the laws of Shabbos in depth, I decided to adopt a more strict application for when Shabbos ends. (Rabbeinu Tam.) We lived in Baltimore at the time at our kids were young, so it was neither inconvenient nor more expensive to abide by this more strict application – and that’s how I like my chumros, convenient and cheap. But 17 years later we were living in beautiful Sharon, Massachusetts and this strict application of the law was causing some real tension in my house. None of my kids’ friends’ families kept this strict time. None of the shuls did either. And it turned every Sat. night into a big bucket of stress. That’s a Kulah (a lenient application) in the “laws” of Shalom Bayis. So I said hataras nedarim and we decided to do what was normative in that town. Because every chumra has a kulah associated with it.
That might be one reason why the Torah in this week’s parsha is replete with the phrase, “Just like G-d commanded Moshe.” In this week’s Torah reading the final accounting of precious metals and textiles is made and the Torah lists how much of what was used in the crafting of each part of the Mishkan. A divine audit of sorts. And after each vessel and component is described the Torah says, “Just like G-d commanded Moshe.” Perhaps to say, “This is neither more extravagant than necessary nor too simple. Though it involved the creativity and skill of the craftsman, and thus some individuality in interpretation, each component was exactly right. Not too much and not too little.”
Because every chumrah has a kulah associated with it. Excluding pictures of women might make for a more modest magazine but as a community we are wondering of it has unintended consequences for our girls. Will it make them feel excluded and feel like they are not “real” members of the community? Will it limit in some way what our girls feel are options for their contribution to the klal?
But what really makes me what to punch a magazine in the face is inconsistency. As you undoubtedly know modesty is not just about mixed seating and hemlines. It’s about how we carry ourselves and how we present ourselves. The same magazines that would never allow an ad insert with women models allow an ad insert with $500 Shalach Manos baskets, also a violation of modesty. The whole thinking of leaving women’s pictures out is because maybe men will see the pictures and think about the women. So to you, dear editor, I say, “Nu? And having pictures of $500 Shalach Manos and Pesach vacations in Switzerland doesn’t make people think envious and forbidden thoughts?”
I don’t know what to do except call it like I see it and try to teach my kids and students what I think is the Emes. Chumros are not bad, but they have to be used judiciously because every time you’re strict over here it will end up being lenient over there. The human heart is capable of holding conflicting feelings at the same time. And the goal is to live lives, “Just like G-d commanded Moshe.”