Rabbi Karlinsky: “Can Chumros Be Bad For Your Neshamah?”

Sep 07, 2015
Can Chumros Be Bad For Your Neshamah?

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

Originally published on www.cross-currents.com


In his recent post on the “disappearing woman”, Rabbi Adlerstein highlighted two important points in the discussion that have ramifications well beyond the specific topic of eliminating pictures of the female half of our community from most charedi publications. I would like to elaborate on the Torah sources to support Rabbi Adlerstein’s critique, as well as the negative impact on the fibre of our authentic quest for spiritual growth caused by this unfolding culture.

Rabbi Adlerstein writes:

  1. Another argument that I completely reject asks rhetorically, “What does it hurt to bemachmir?” This is a negation of so much that we know to be true from our mussar literature, that to hear the words is painful.
  2. … arguing that it is too difficult to make distinctions between pictures, so all should be banned, is the single most distasteful element of this discussion. It represents capitulation to the most dangerous thinking in our community today – our disbelief in our own common sense. 

The issue of chumrot – knowing when to take a more stringent approach in halakha — breeds much confusion as well as communal conflict. An examination of that topic will show the connection it has to what Rabbi Adlerstein terms “common sense”.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, in Alei Shur, Vol.2 in a chapter entitled “Frumkeit” (page 152), raises a number of points that serve as the basis for an informed discussion. A summary is presented below.

Frumkeit and Da’at

Rav Wolbe writes that “Frumkeit” (a Yiddish word implying a high level of religiosity) reflects an instinctive drive to relate to the Almighty Creator.  It is found in every living creature, even among animals (see Tehilim 104:21, 147:9). Instincts flow from a self-centered drive for self-perservation, and are rooted in egocentrism. Instinctual acts strive to attain a perceived personal benefit. Even when the desired benefits are very laudable ones, an act rooted in instinct is motivated by a quest for one’s personal welfare.

This egocentric quest, writes Rav Wolbe, cannot be the foundation for proper “bein adam l’chaveiro” (interpersonal mitzvot) nor for authentic “lishma,” doing the Mitzvah its own sake and for a transcendent purpose.

Our culture has perfected the attitude of always looking for the payoff: “What’s in it for me.”  Sometimes the payoff can be more money, sometimes it can be prestige, sometimes power or fame.  And we, as Torah Jews, recognize (hopefully) that there can be even bigger and better payoffs.  Better than winning the lottery or some worldly indulgence, there is Olam HaBah, with all the images we have absorbed of the absolutely most fantastic and pleasurable experience imaginable.  But if we are doing what we do – our mitzvot – motivated by the quest for the payoff, it is tainted by a dimension of egocentrism.  After all is said and done, we are still looking out for number one. Although we have a more elevated picture of what serves as a payoff compared to society at large, the ultimate motivation is self-centered, to attain that payoff.

True “lishma” means we are doing a mitzvah to serve the Creator, in fulfilment of the mission for which we were created, or at least in appreciation of what He has given us.  Actions which are truly lishma are done for the Almighty, motivated from within by the drive to fulfil His will, to fulfil the responsibilities for which He created us. The reward, Olam Habah, is a reality, and being aware of reality is always crucial (and frequently very difficult in our media-saturated culture of illusion), but it is not supposed to be the motivating factor.

This is exactly what the Rambam writes in Chapter 10, Hilchos Teshuva, Halacha 1-2. “A person should not say I am doing the Torah’s mitzvoth in order to receive the blessings written in the Torah, or to merit Olam HaBah, and I will avoid the Torah’s prohibitions to be saved from the curses or from being cut off from Olam HaBah…This is service out of fear… A person serving out of love involves himself in Torah and Mitzvoth… for no other reason than pursuing truth for its own sake, with the reward a natural consequence.” The

Rav Wolbe continues: Proper service of G-d has to be built on “da’at” – an accurate, deep intelligent understanding of what G-d wants from us, acquired through clear thinking and a deep analysis of Torah.  The Talmud (T.B. Sotah 21b; Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 3:4) illustrates the concept of “chasid shoteh” (a pious fool) with two examples. (It is truly ironic that one of them is an extreme example of what seems to be taking place in front of our eyes, no pun intended.) A woman is drowning, and a man with the ability to save her says to himself that it is not proper to look at women, and does not save her. A child is drowning and a person delays saving him until he removes his tefillin (since jumping into the water while wearing tefillin is  disrespectful for them). By the time he has removed the tefillin, the baby has drowned.  The common denominator of these examples, explains Rav Wolbe, is following a spiritual instinct without da’at, that clear and intelligent analysis and understanding of what is required of a person in every specific situation.  The result of actions rooted in instinct rather than da’at can be the source of distancing one from G-d, rather than bringing one closer to Him.  Becoming closer to G-d must be based on a deep understanding of the process of connection to Him, rather than imaginary notions of spiritual accomplishments.  This requires clarity about what G-d demands of a person in every situation, having our feet planted firmly on the ground, operating in reality rather than in some self-generated fantasy world. A true relationship with G-d is rooted in proper actions in the real, physical world.  The drive and excessive focus on “getting closer to G-d” (especially in our quick-fix, microwave society) emanates from “frumkeit,” that instinctual desire to reach spiritual heights, with the yetzer hara seducing us to find ways to get there without the requisite time and effort necessary.

Egocentric motivations based on the drive to be “frum” can be especially misleading and destructive.  Rav Wolbe quotes the famous story of Reb Yisrael Salanter who didn’t show up one Yom Kippur night for Kol Nidrei.  On the way home, the people found him in a house rocking a crying baby – whose mother had gone to Kol Nidrei, rather than staying home to take care of her infant.  She was in search of her personal feelings of spiritual elevation, rather than focusing on doing what G-d wanted her to do at that moment and under those circumstances.  Reb Yisrael couldn’t pass by the crying baby, even to go to Kol Nidrei.  He was sending a message to the mother that our spiritual priorities are determined by responsibilities of service – which is a mitzvah – rather than by what makes us “feel frum” – which can very well be an aveirah.

True closeness to G-d is attained by honest submission and deference to the will of G-d, based on a clarity and deep understanding of his Torah and its priorities.

What are our motivations?  

This is the gist of the chapter in Alei Shur.  I would add a couple of personal insights.

If the goal of chumrot is viewed as a way to earn more reward, then it isn’t really service, but becomes another way for me to fulfil my personal goals, as lofty as they may be. One of the ways I heard used to explain the value of chumrot to children is that while a certain activity or stringency isn’t required, and people who don’t fulfil it are not transgressing anything, “G-d will like us better if we do it this way.”  This attitude contains an undertone of being motivated by personal gain, making myself a more likeable person, and trying to overcome my own insecurities.  A superior presentation would be “G-d expects this level of observance/service from us.”

If we adopt a chumra in order to provide G-d with the highest level of service we can give, we must  ask ourselves why He would only expect that premium level of service in our chalav Yisrael milk, glatt Kosher  meat, or erasing women’s faces from our magazines, 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, critical standards in determining what are necessities and what are luxuries, or in the commitment to the quantity and quality of our Torah study.

Honest examination of our motives is necessary.  Why do we want to avoid relying on (possibly lenient) opinions that served the Jewish community well for decades?  Is it because we want to be “frummer” than our neighbors?  Are we looking for social acceptance? Or is it because we realize that G-d has given us more resources with which to serve Him than He gave our grandparents, and as such the level of our ability and responsibility to serve Him has also increased?  If it is truly the latter (as I would like to hope) then how hard are we working to identify, to clarify, to understand the scope of those responsibilities.  How careful are we about discharging all of them, not just the relatively easy or highly visible ones?  Is there a consistency in our level of chumrot?  Rav Wolbe makes the point very sharply: Chumrot, stringencies, are not a “risk free” endeavor. A chumra in one area of our observance has the very strong potential to enable us to rationalize laxity in another area.

Many people are of the opinion that increasing chumrot is an easy way to avoid the need to really know and understand Halacha — “When in doubt, do without.”  The combination of a community keeping many chumrot along with pervasive ignorance of Halacha and an intelleigent understanding of Torah would lend credence to this observation. But it would not be very encouraging in assessing the true spiritual level of our communities. Besides making us vulnerable to rationalizations described by Rav Wolbe, being stringent in one area of Halacha while being lax in another area indicates confusion about how to properly apply Torah in man’s fulfilment of his responsibilities in serving G-d.

In Halacha we have a concept of “yesh al mi lismoch,” valid opinions which can serve as a basis for following a lenient approach.  There is a concept of “hefsed merubeh,” great loss, which can be grounds to follow certain Halachic leniencies. Why is the embarrassment or discomfort of another Jew (which is a serious violation in one area of Halacha) considered so dispensable in order to follow a strict opinion in another area?  While this doesn’t suggest eating something which is not Kosher simply to avoid embarrassing someone, finding a way to avoid the embarrassment has to be as high on our agenda as avoiding the un-Kosher food. Da’at is necessary to know how to adjudicate between these conflicting values implement this balance. If there are accepted opinions on the lenient side of an issue, then “da’at,” a deep and proper understanding of the Halacha and the tradeoffs, may require relying on the more lenient opinion in those circumstances. This is not a psak for any situation, and not every novice is qualified to render decisions which can be “beyond their pay-grade.”  But a decision based on “consumer demand” is certainly not applying da’at or Halacha.

This leads us to a related issue.  Chumrot that cause one-upmanship, strife, and social discomfort are likely being performed with a feeling of superiority.  This takes us in the opposite direction of the road that brings us closer to G-d.  Why do some people need to broadcast their own chumrot while constantly investigating those of their neighbors?

There are two motivations for serving G-d, to which the Rambam cited above is referring: Yira’ah (fear) and ahavah (love).  One can serve G-d out fear, afraid of the negative consequences of violating His will and seeking to obtain personal benefits.  Or one can serve G-d motivated by pure love, with the simple desire to do the will of the Creator, thereby drawing closer to him, rather than any personal benefit from this service. Fear is always inwardly directed, while love is always outwardly directed.

In Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Hashem, at the end of Ch. 2, the Maharal quotes the Gemara in Avoda Zara (19a) and the Mishna from Ch. 1 of Pirkei Avot “Don’t be like servants who serve in order to get reward, but be like servants who serve with no intention of getting reward.”  Why are we admonished not to serve with the intention of getting reward?  Isn’t the natural motivation of anyone who works for someone else to get some kind of benefit or compensation?  Yes, says the Maharal, this is the normal way of a service relationship between human beings.  But one who serves in order to get reward is not committed to truly serving another; rather he is doing work for someone else in order to get a payoff for himself.  This is legitimate when serving a human “master” says the Maharal, because no human servant is created for the purpose of serving his owner, and he has no inherent responsibility for service to any other person.  Man, however, was created for the purpose of serving G-d, and as such, his service should reflect pure service, being performed for no other reason than a fulfilment of this intrinsic purpose (“avodah b’etzem” is the language used by the Maharal). So the service, in order to conform with the concept of pure service, should be with no intention of receiving any “payoff.”

This is true “avodah m’ahava,” service out of love. It emanates completely from within us, and is independent of anything outside of us.  It is up to us, and depends on our attitude, as well as our sense and recognition of responsibility.  Love is built on the motivation to give, to share our resources, to imitate the Almighty, as the purpose of our existence. This attitude manifests itself in our marriages and interpersonal relationships as well. Being a loving person, committed to giving and serving resides within each of us, and is independent of any individual recipient.  True giving starts by making oneself a loving, giving person.  Then one can love others, and will give to them as a result of recognizing the giving as part of the proper service of G-d for one was created.

Should chumras emanate from the motivation of love or the motivation of fear? “What does it hurt to be machmir” certainly sounds like it is motivated by fear, and if we are honest, we will find that this is motivation for many of our chumras. This isn’t the way it should be.

As the culture of our community has moved in the direction of increased stringencies in the ritual aspects of Halacha, it is time to step back and examine whether this move is being driven by our instincts for spiritual inspiration – or by the true da’at Rav Wolbe writes is necessary for authentic spiritual growth.


Click below to share!