The Value and Challenge of Chumra (Stringency)

Within the modern orthodox community, discussions of chumra, or stringency, and its place in Judaism are often met with a certain aversion. We cringe a bit. The word alone conjures up stories of women being pressured to move their seats on airplanes so that certain men who are strict will not sit next to them, and images of newspapers devoid of pictures of women out of a strict concern for modesty on the part of some advertisers or publishers. Chumra may evoke memories of Pesach, when we were asked to change our entire menu when we invited someone who decided to be strict and only eat non-gebrokts even though that is not his family’s custom.  In other words, our modern orthodox community often associates chumra with extremism, and undue burdens being placed upon us much to our great displeasure.

And, in fact, taking chumrot upon oneself does have real drawbacks. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that sometimes more external chumrot are taken on to replace real religious experiences. Similarly, Rav Amital, zt”l, has warned that if one is too stringent, it threatens to drain the joy out of religiosity and replace it with fear.  Additionally, we have seen some confuse stringency with halacha and we have seen some cast aspersions on those who are not stringent. That being said, are all chumrot created equal?

I believe that there are at least three legitimate motivations for taking additional chumrot upon oneself.  Those are, (1) a sense of Kavod haRav & deference to a minority position in halacha, (2) a recognition of our own weaknesses and a desire to place a fence around ourselves to prevent us from sinning, and (3) a desire to passionately elevate ourselves to come even closer to God.

Rav Herschel Schacter explained how one might use chumrot as a means of demonstrating Kavod haRav, respecting Rabbinic authority. One example of such a chumra is deciding not to carry on Shabbat even though there is an eruv in town.  In this instance, there is a bona fide halachic debate whether we can build eruvin in communities even if 600,000 people don’t travel on any public road in the city on any given day.  Someone who is strict and opts not to use an eruv on Shabbat is doing so based on a desire to fulfill each mitzvah and each halacha as fully as possible, being mindful of all well-respected opinions on the subject.

Sometimes, what motivates being strict is concern that we may sin. An example of this is the Nazir who abstains from wine, haircuts and dead bodies, despite it being perfectly legitimate according to every halachic authority to drink wine, get a haircut and visit a cemetery.  So why does the Nazir take these additional obligations upon himself? According to our Sages, the individual who witnesses the sotah ritual is repulsed by the possibility of marital infidelity and is worried about his own human weaknesses. Therefore, he creates a set of chumrot to help protect him from succumbing to sin in the future.

Another way to view the Nazir’s behavior is that his chumrot can also be seen as being motivated by a desire to be different, to be holy like a Kohen.  After all, both the Nazir and the Kohen cannot come into contact with a corpse and just like the Nazir cannot drink wine, a Kohen cannot do so while he performs the sacrificial service in the Mikdash.  Moreover, the long hair of the Nazir is similar to the Tzitz, the headplate of the Kohen Gadol, which is referred as “Nezer” haKodesh, the holy crown. The Nazir is someone who wasn’t born a Kohen, but he wants to live a passionate Kohen-type life. Wanting to elevate ourselves to come even closer to God and to become like a Kohen is another legitimate motivation for stringency.

On the other hand, there are illegitimate motivations for adopting chumrot, as well. For example, some people may adopt a stringency just for the sake of creating the perception that they are pious. Additionally, whenever we adopt a chumra, we must balance the value of the chumra against other factors like the impact it has on others and the fear of blurring the line between halacha and chumra.  Before taking chumrot upon oneself, an individual should reflect on exactly why he is engaging in these chumrot. He should ask himself and honestly consider whether these chumrot actually achieve the ideals and values that he is trying to inculcate through observance of them.

As to many of us in the modern orthodox community who do not engage in chumrot, who perhaps are too concerned with the chumra pitfalls that we enumerated, it’s important not to paint everyone who practices a chumra with the same broad brush.  And just as those who are stringent should reflect honestly on their choices, so too should the rest of us. We too should ask ourselves if our choices and practices are instilling the values that others are trying to inculcate through chumra in our daily lives.

First, Kavod haRav: Maybe we don’t have to be strict to accommodate all halachic views.  Maybe we don’t have to rule like a daat yachid, a singular opinion, but do we have to have enough Kavod haRav?  Do we respect Gedolim even if they may not fully align with our hashkafa? I remember once being part of a public Q & A session.  Someone asked me what I thought about a certain Rosh Yeshiva being that on a particular issue he did not align with our general religious worldview.  My response was that I may not identify with him on one or a few particular issues, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study his Torah and try to learn from him with respect to all the other Torah that he teaches.

Second, fear of sin:  Maybe we will not engage in chumrot, but do we place ourselves in situations where we are more likely to fail spiritually? For example, do we sometimes spend time with a group of people knowing full well that the conversation in the group will be filled with lashon hara and nivul peh?

Third, passion: Maybe we don’t become a Nazir, but where’s our passion for Judaism?  Do we constantly feel that a fire is lit inside of us to grow in Torah study and in feeling connected to God?

The next time that we see someone engage in a chumra, let us appreciate not only the dangers of the chumra, the extremism, the confusion of halacha and chumra, and the impact that it may have on others, but let us also consider the underlying values that motivate someone to engage in chumra – the Kavod haRav, the fear of sin and the passion and yearning for real growth. Let’s ensure that whether or not we engage in chumra, we are fully engaged in these very legitimate values.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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