Not a natural daredevil, I used to live a risk-averse halakhic life, almost always choosing the least controversial path. Recently, an amalgam of compelling considerations spurred me to take a different direction, choosing a valid but halakhically risky path. To my surprise, the alternative path turned out to be spiritually rewarding and religiously meaningful, inversely correlated to the halakhic stakes involved.
My entire life I avoided, as best I can, being a bedieved jew; one who relies on non-universally accepted halakhic opinions. Instead, I made sure to comply with halakha in the most optimal fashion, always embracing the stringent approach, thereby ensuring that my performance was valid according to every opinion on the topic.* Professional circumstances, however, recently forced me to settle on a bedieved opinion in regards to a communal halakhic question. I was surprised by the spiritual potency of a bedieved decision-in those circumstances where that is the halakhically legitimate path.
My Brisker rosh yeshiva often shared the following story. One afternoon many years ago, when he was still a yeshiva student, my rosh yeshiva was roaming the yeshiva’s hallways. Suddenly he detected a sobbing sound coming from the Beit Midrash. He rushed to the Beit Midrash, opened the door and noticed his Rosh Yeshiva crying uncontrollably. Hesitantly, in a hushed voice, he asked what happened. Sobbingly, his rebbi blurted out that he had a piece of cake for lunch and after taking the first bite he realized that he made the wrong bracha. He had recited the more general she’hakol bracha, instead of the more specific mezonot blessing. The student was dumbfounded. He turned to his teacher and said: Rebbi, it is true that ideally one should say the bracha assigned specifically to the food they are eating, but you also know that saying the more general she’hakol blessing on a piece of cake is bedieved sufficient. Why then are you crying?
Instead of being consoled, the rebbi’s crying increased. As he calmed down, he turned to his student and said to him, somewhat incredulously: what do you think, that I am a bedieved Jew? God forbid. I strive to fulfill God’s will in the most ideal fashion, never relying on less optimal leniencies. Staring into his student’s eyes he yelled: no, I am not a bedieved jew!
This oft repeated story left an indelible impression on me. My teacher’s teacher was emotionally crushed because he failed to live up to the standards appropriate for someone who takes their observance seriously. The somewhat elitist message was very clear. bedieved options are for the lesser Jews, those who lack the fortitude to fulfill mitzvot in the most ideal fashion. They are not an option for a real ben torah. A devout yeshiva student does not cut corners; he never settles for the lenient opinion.
As a young, fervant and impressionable teenager, this message deeply resonated. The theology our Brisker teachers imparted to us envisioned a God who was harsh, demanding and not very forgiving. God expected us to serve him-correctly, or else … God does not countenance laziness or mistakes. Internalizing those values and embracing those beliefs, I, over time, have come to equate stringency with authenticity. Accordingly, I adopted a optimally stringent approach to observance, always following the most demanding opinion.
The message resonated, theologically and also psychologically. There is psycho-religious comfort in knowing that you have the fortitude to live by extremely high standards.
My fidelity to that theology eventually dissipated. I developed a strong aversion to a belief system which champions a God who is often angry or offended, embracing instead a divinity which, no matter the circumstances, is always loving, comforting and forgiving; more akin to a kind parent than a judgmental teacher. The radical devotion, however, remained. My stringent attitude toward religious practice continued. I still cherished the emotional comfort this life style provided.
Until last week.
Recently, my shul had to deal with a complex halakhic conundrum where there were two opinions, one lenient and the other stringent. The two choices, however, were not equal. Following the more stringent path would have imposed a significant financial burden on the community.
Knowing that it entails a risk, that there is a chance that the minority opinion is incorrect, I still opted for the more lenient opinion.
A loving God does not only care about His children’s spiritual health, their material well being is important just as well. It, as a result, was not a choice between courageously adhering to the higher standards or timidly settling for the lower standards. It rather was a competition between different but equally valid value considerations: punctiliousness vs. financial security. A community’s financial health is no less a religious value than their perfect adherence to halakha.
Following the bedieved path is, undoubtedly, the riskier route. The possibility of getting it wrong remains. Still, the riskier path was the right one.
Surprisingly, the decision to courageously embrace the more lenient opinion in accordance with the value of not unduly inconveniencing the community, was in itself a font of spiritual depth. I was not prepared for the spiritual high it generated. The spiritual rewards for risking a halakhic bullet so that your community is spared undue financial stress is indescribable.
After I finished the essay, I came across this pertinent quote from Rav Kook z”l, whose yartzeit is today, the 3rd of Elul.
“a leniency or [halakhic] adjustment which comes about as a result of extenuating financial circumstances or because of communal necessity is not a deviation from halakha, but is instead an integral part of the “perfect/complete Torah; it therefore behooves every religious leader to console those who are heartbroken because circumstances made it impossible for them to satisfy the more stringent opinion, they should not think they are therefore rshaim.”
I understand him to be saying that when financial, sociological or communal realities necessitate reliance on a less than ideal psak, that psak becomes the ideal-for that community. Halakha does not operate in the abstract. We, the observers of halakha, are an integral part of the halakhic process, because halakha is a mutually dependent dialogue between God and us. Our needs are not an obstacle to optimal halakha, they are part and parcel of it. And, like in every relationship, there is a give and take between the two parties. Sometimes we make accommodations for her (halakha), and sometimes she is inconvenienced in order to accommodate us. Together we grow and become stronger. When all is said and done, halakha and our own spiritual lives, are enriched by this dialogue. Halakha takes on additional relevance, and our spiritual journey is made all the more meaningful by halakha’s willingness to accommodate our material needs.
* Practices which have a social component are always an exception. If the more stringent opinion conflicted with my innate moral compass, I would follow the lenient opinion. If, for example, being more stringent on a particular issue lead toward more discrimination against women or other minorities, I would gravitate toward those opinions which allow me to keep halakhically generated discrimination at a minimum, even if the price was having to follow the less accepted view on the topic.