Thoughts to Ponder, Number 22
9 Kislev, 5760; 18 November, 1999

Chumroth: Religious Stringencies, Good or Bad?

Self-imposed severities have become part and parcel of the religious Jewish community of today. Many people feel the need to express their religious devotion to God through the acceptance of stringencies which conventional Jewish Law does not require. They observe Shabbath more strictly; they make sure that they only eat "glatt" kosher, use the largest measurements for their kiddush cup or, in the case of some married women, cover their hair not once but twice.

No doubt there is room for stringencies within Jewish Law. (It may even be argued that it would be healthy and prudent if every human being would have his or her specific mitzvah to which he or she would give extra attention.) In earlier days, the Torah introduced the "nazir" law, which states that a person who feels the need to deny himself certain pleasures is permitted and even encouraged to do so. (See Bamidbar chapter 6.)

Sometimes people have to get their religious priorities straight, and they feel that they can only achieve that goal when they abstain from certain liberties, which otherwise would carry them beyond the border of the permissible.

What many religious people today seem to forget is the fact that this will not be achieved by excessive forms of abstinence but by modest behavioral changes accompanied by small portions of slight discomfort. The Torah suggests the abstinence of certain alcoholic drinks, leaving the hair untrimmed and leaving the beard unshaved. According to Talmudic tradition (Jerusalem Talmud, Nazir, chapter 1, halacha 3) this should not last longer than 30 days. It warns that longer periods of abstinence will be counter-productive.

Most interesting is the fact that at the end of this thirty-day period a sin offering has to be brought by the very person who took these stringencies on himself. Besides this, the nazirite is, at that time, COMMANDED to drink wine. THIS MEANS THAT THE ABSTINENCE FROM PERMITTED PLEASURES REQUIRES ATONEMENT BECAUSE SUCH STRINGENCIES ARE, IN FACT, PROHIBITED. The only reason why such restrictions are permitted for short periods is that the result will be the possibility to enjoy these pleasures at a later time in a way which is part of one's religious experience, i.e. as a human being who is able to enjoy the gifts of the Almighty. And this is the reason why the nazirite is told to drink wine. He must, after his period of abstinence, be able to drink wine in the proper, elevated way. It is not the abstinence of wine and other alcoholic drinks which is a major achievement, but the art of enjoying them in the right spirit and with the correct intentions. This is a much greater achievement (See also: Thoughts to Ponder 21.)

It should be clear that this is only true when the Torah permits the use of these delights. Today, drugs, such as marijuana and LSD would not be considered permitted pleasures, since the slightest use of these drugs may lead to a kind of addiction from which few, if any, are able to free themselves. They are detrimental to the mental and physical health of the human being. Ultimately they destroy the capacity to enjoy life in the higher sense of the word.

Still, sometimes certain stringencies are nothing less than escape and self-deception devices. They are used to hide a lack of proper observance in other religious matters and are often used to hide unethical behavior. When people misbehave in their relationship with their fellowman but hide behind their insistence on glatt kosher food, we are confronted with the deliberate and vulgar misuse of the concept of chumroth. (Asking for glatt kosher food while sitting in jail is similar to asking, after one has murdered both parents, for dispensation on the basis that one is an orphan.)

The Talmud (Baba Kama 59b) records the story of a scholar by the name of Eliezer Ze'era who wore "black shoes" (uncommon in those days) as a sign of mourning for the destruction of Yerushalayim. The sages considered this an act of arrogance. They felt that he was trying to show off, so they put him in jail!

On another occasion, they strongly opposed a "very religious" person who refused to use a lenient ruling which they had decided on and nearly excommunicated him. (Baba Kama 80b)

The story has been told that a rabbi once came to see the famous Jerusalem sage and halachic authority, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, z.l. He asked him if a certain chumra that was practiced in his community had any foundation in Halacha or belonged to the world of religious fancy. The sage responded that there was no foundation for such a stringency and advised the rabbi to tell his community to repeal this practice. Several weeks later, the Jerusalem sage met the rabbi and asked him if he had told his community to stop practicing this mistaken chumra. The rabbi turned to the sage and said, half jokingly, "No, it is a leniency which my congregation cannot live with…"

To be continued.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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