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Judaism: “Do not be Overly Righteous” - Stringencies in Judaism

The challenge of stringencies in Jewish practice.
Published: Tuesday, August 06, 2013 6:39 AM


One of the most divisive issues facing the Jewish world today is the place of khumrot (religious stringencies) in our daily lives.  On the one hand it is undeniably accepted and proper to create a “fence” around the commandments, as did our Sages in times of old in order so that a person should not fall prey to sin, as is written in Ethics of our Fathers “And make a safety fence around the Torah” (Chapter 1:1 ).

However, on the other hand, the Torah clearly states, “The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it.” (Devarim 13:1).  Additionally it is written, "Do not be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16.). How are we supposed to reconcile these two conflicting interpretations?

Maimonides writes in The Laws of the Rebellious Ones 2:9, “A court has the authority to issue a decree to forbid something which is permitted and have its decree perpetuated for generations to come.” However, he then writes that while this is holds true, if the Sages declare that their rabbinic enactment is to be considered equal to a Torah prohibition, then they are transgressing the verse  “…you shall not add to it.”  This explanation from Maimonides helps us to reconcile our question brought above in regards to how one must balance khumrot: it is permitted and commendable to make stringencies, but it must be clear and known at all times that it is a stringency and not the law itself. Unfortunately, the failure to comprehend this distinction can lead to devastating conclusions.

While very much a contemporary issue for our modern times, much has been written and discussed on this topic by leading Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. More than twenty years ago, Rav Solovetchik commented on this phenomenon of adding stringencies and wrote,  “On the one hand the young Talmidei Chachamim(Torah Scholars)  of America occasionally tend towards exaggerated extremism which is frightening in its arrogance; frequently, they move in the opposite direction and agree to concessions and the path of least resistance. In a word they are perplexed in the pathways of Judaism, and this perplexity is the product of an imperfect grasp and experience of the world.” (Al Ahavat HaTorah pg 408)

Sadly, this trend is not limited to the United States, and has not slowed down with the passage of time but rather it has intensified on both ends. The exaggerated extremism Rav Solovetchik decries, expressed in the stringencies that are now passed as law, has today surpassed even the wildest of imaginations. And the path of least resistance as referred to above can easily be applied to modern day rabbinic leaders, who at times fail to combat this growing trend with a strong voice.

Furthermore, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes that there can be dangerous consequences when practicing stringencies which fall beyond the letter of the law.  He writes quite clearly that in some cases, a person’s intense desire to draw close to God through enacting stringencies can lead to behavior that is against halakha (Jewish Law). He points out that the entire episode of the rebellion of Korach, which ended in disaster and destruction, was motivated by a pure desire to come close to God.

Rabbi Berlin points out that the significance of the commandment of tzitzit (fringes) preceding that of the story of Korach is to allude to the fact that this commandment should preclude such behavior. As the verse states, “and you will see them (tzitzit) and you will remember all of the commandments of Hashem your G-d, and perform them…” The very essence of donning the white and blue strands of tzitzit is to serve as a material reminder for all Jews – those practicing according to letter of law as well as those trying to reach beyond-- to remain within the normative boundaries of halakha (Jewish law).

Most symbolically to our discussion, the blue threads of tekhelet (fringes) allude to those who are yearning for the heavens, who wish to elevate their level of religious commitment with the addition of stringencies, Rabbi Berlin reminds them that they must not allow their yearning to lead them to transgress the normative law. (Ha’amek Davar, Bemidbar 15:39.)

Having established that boundaries are required and that stringencies must be taken on with care, what then is the appropriate course for those who are motivated to practice above the letter of the law? How can they determine the proper circumstances in which to fulfill this worthy aspiration?

Rav Shlomo Aviner provides a rubric which, I believe if followed correctly, will ensure that going beyond the letter of the law will not impinge upon the law itself. First and foremost, he writes, a person must follow the letter of the law and do all that is required, avoiding the negative commandments and observing the positive ones.  Only after fulfilling these baseline requirements, no simple matter, should a person begin to accept stringiness upon himself.

With that in place, once the decision is made to accept a stringency, there are still two more conditions that must be taken into account. Rav Aviner writes that first and foremost, a person must consider whether or not the stringency in one matter will lead to a leniency in another. He explains that if a person is stringent and meticulous to perform the command of rebuking ones fellow, up to the point where he embarrasses him publicly, this is no longer stringency but rather a leniency in “loving thy neighbor.”

I would like to cite additional sources from the Talmud which support the stringency/leniency conundrum which Rav Aviner brings above. The Talmud illustrates the concept of “a pious fool” with the following two examples: A woman is drowning, and a man with the ability to save her does not do so because it is improper to look at a woman. Similarly, a small child is drowning and a person delays saving him until he removes his tefillin (since jumping into the water while wearing tefillin is disrespectful towards them). By the time he has removed the tefillin, the child too has drowned (Sotah 21b).

The common denominator of these examples is a lack clear understanding of what is actually required of a person in a given situation, and the fallacy of inappropriate stringencies leading into horrendous miscarriages of action.


A true desire to cleave close to God would reflect itself in all dimensions of spiritual service, both between man and his Creator -- and no less important -- between man and his fellow man.
The second condition, according to Rav Aviner, is that if a person wishes to practice beyond the letter of the law, he must first make sure that he is doing so with the pure motivation to draw close to God and not for any egocentric reasons. Rav Shlomo Volbe in his work Alei Shur, asks if our motivation to go beyond the letter of law has pure motivations, then why is it that the vast majority of stringencies are between man and God and not between man and his fellow man?

He writes, “We must ask ourselves why He would only expect that premium level of service in our Chalav Yisrael milk, and Glatt Kosher meat, and not expect the same level of premium service in our level of charitable giving, true love and support of other Jews even those with views that differ from ours, meticulous care to go beyond the letter of the law in our business dealings and monetary interactions…” (Alei Shur, V.II, page 152)

A true desire to cleave close to God would reflect itself in all dimensions of spiritual service, both between man and his Creator -- and no less important -- between man and his fellow man.

By taking to heart the message of the blue tekhelet (fringes), we should remember that those who are yearning for the heavens should not let that yearning lead us to transgress any of the other multiple dimensions of Divine service. And with this we should merit to “...walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” (Devarim 5:33)