2/08/2005

On Chumra

"Kol She-eino metzuveh de-davar ve-oseihu nikra hedyot"

"Anyone not commanded to do something, yet does it, is called an idiot"

--Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:1

Dem's fightin' words!
But they follow a pretty solid logic. If one assumes that the content of a mitzvah is determined exclusively by God's commandment, then the act is rendered meaningless in the absence of command. It is presumtuous - idiotic, in fact - for humans to think that they can autonomously chart a new path to God, that they can invent new ways to bridge the gap between the infinite and the finite. Certainly, there are types of supererogatory behavior that resonate as silly - sitting in the Sukkah in the pouring rain (see Rama on 'the OC' 639:7), or shaking a lulav on Pesach - these are about as purposeful as lips on a chicken or a hole in my head.

The Bavli (Kiddushin 31a) is softer: "Gadol metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh" - one who performs out of command is greater than one who performs uncommanded. This statement maintains the primacy of commandedness, but allows for some value for uncommanded performance. It's an open question whether the value is in the actual performance (a class B mitzva) or in the intent (A for effort), but there's value nonetheless. Again, there are certain mitzvot which seem like a good thing to do even if I'm not commanded. Witness the contemporary translation of 'mitzvah' as 'good deed' - it's a mistranslation but not altogether meaningless (unless you use it to contend - which i've actually seen done, in children's literature, no less - that, say, a seeing-eye-dog does a mitzvah by helping a blind person cross the street. Dogs don't do mitzvot.)

Rather than assume that these two statements are at odds, many (incl. Ramban quoted in Ritva on Kiddushin ad. loc., Gr"a in Shnot Eliyahu on mBrachot 1:3) attempt to resolve them by limiting or contextualizing them. Both impulses intuitively seem correct, and it's the job of the commentator to describe the different applications of each. It's not easy to explain why it's religiously significant for a Jewish woman to sit in a Sukkah but not for a non-Jew. Neither is specifically 'commanded'.

My point is not to get into a whole discussion on the issue of chumrah. I'll point out a few other worthwhile mekorot, and then get to the meat of the issue - bashing contemporary understandings of chumra:
1) Chapter in Mesillat Yesharim entitled "Be-mishkal ha-chasidut" - adresses the different factors, internal and external, that must be addressed when deciding whether or not to undertake a chumra. Special attention given to the way one would be perceived by those around him.
2) Rambam Hilchot De'ot
3) R' Gustman's Shiurim on Kiddushin, section 20. In addition to being an excellent analysis of the topic, it's got some nice surprises waiting at the end - OK, I'll spill the beans - he suggests that a woman who undertakes a commitment to a time-bound positive commandment would be akin, at the very least, to the status of a man vis-a-vis Ma'ariv - i.e., option that has become full-fledged obligation.
4) Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's essay "Rupture and Reconstruction" in Tradition, 1994.
5) The machloket between the Issur Ve-Heter and the Torat Ha-Asham, found in the Pitchei Teshuva to YD 116:7. (The TH actually refers to some forms of chumra as 'close to apikorsus) - howdya like THEM apples!
6) the book 'All for the Boss' by Ruchama Shain. Compare to Mesillat Yesharim cited above. Beautifully describes the interface between Judaism and OCD, the physical and ideological origins of the Mattersdorf community, and the beauty of an integrated, balanced attitude toward supererogatory behavior.

beyond this discussion of the characterization of true chumra, there's a broader issue that i think is far more disturbing, namely, that there are different types of behavior that masquerade as chumra but are really very different. i'll address some of those areas:

1) indecision and religious paralysis- when i learned the sugya of tochein, it was pretty clear to me that mashing a banana with a fork doesn't fit the bill. there's no pulverization going on, it's for immediate consumption, it's edible wo/ mashing, and other reasons (it's been a while). in fact, R' Moshe Feinstein, R' SZ Aurbach, and ylch"t R' Ovadia Yosef all agree that there's no problem. The Chazon Ish only permits w/ a shinui, and his logic, esp. his understanding of the responsum of the Rashba concerning immediate consumption, is very innovative. nevertheless, the CI's position is the one you'll find in most contemporary halacha books. why? because it's really not a big deal to mash the banana w/ the back of the fork, so let's be chosheish for the CI. i'm bugged by that impulse. if a poseik learns the sugya and concludes that the CI makes the most sense, by all means, pasken like the CI. but if the poseik learns the sugya and concludes otherwise, and that conclusion concurs w/ major positions amongst contemporary authorities, go with it. a poseik should have confidence in his psak. this impulse toward compliance with more stringent positions is not necessarily problematic in and of itself, but when it betrays a complete lack of confidence in our ability to really understand a halakhic issue, to really move through a sugya, or find someone who has, and arrive at a conclusion. that's the job of a poseik. today, it's chumras on the page, kulas in the footnotes, and no attempt whatsoever made to really engage in the process of psikat halacha. it's a very pessimistic attitude toward our own abilities and responsibilities, and it's repercussions are a greater impulse toward restriction as the tolerance for it increases. however, it's not to be confused with chumra. refusal to submit halakhic positions to the test of logical analysis is cowardice, and not a positive religious impulse.
Ein le-dayan ella mah she-einav ro'os.
Yiftach be-doro ke-Shmuel be-doro.

2) mistrust of instincts - a personal anecdote: a number of years ago, i spent a shabbat in Kiryat Sefer (i wrote a song that shabbat. i'll post the lyrics at the end of this essay). like this week, there was a 2 day Rosh Chodesh on wednesday and thursday. motza"sh was the 4th of the month. after maariv, a number of us instinctively began saying kiddush levana. then some farchnyukte yungerman comes over and says 'Rabboysay, ehhhh, i'm not so sure it's been 72 hours since the moylud'. everyone stopped saying kiddush levana. everyone. i couldn't believe it. i finished up, and then started thinking about it. the molad is the point during the moon's revolution around the earth that it's closest to the sun. the moon is invisible during the molad. the new moon can be seen right after sunset for a few minutes only about 1/2 day after the molad. the first of the month is, by definition, after the molad, and the 4th of the month is, by definition, more than 72 hours after the molad. there are some instances where there's confusion. the 3rd of the month sometimes can qualify, if there was a 2-day RC, whatever - acamo"l. the point is, i was correct on instinct, and later validated it by resorting to analysis. many others there had the same instinct that i had, but when questioned on it, didn't trust their instincts. it's wasn't like the chnyuk had a position, or a good svara. he had an 'i'm not sure...". "i'm not sure if..." isn't chumra. it's ignorance. and the worst thing was that nobody trusted their gut. i grew up in this system, and even though i don't know how everything works, and what every position is, i trust what i grew up with. and i think it's dangerous to start calling it into question unnecessarily. i know that my family doesn't lay tfillin on chol ha-mo'ed, so why would i accept the Mishna Brurah's compromise of Safeik? I know where I stand. hiding behind the path of least resistance rather than confidently continuing to walk the path of mesorah is very dangerous. it's almost Big Brother-ish in its encouragement to students to undermine the traditions of their parents. again, this impulse is not chumra. it's mistrust. it's ignorance.

3) counterpressure - R' Chaim once said that he's not meikil on Yom Kippur, he's Machmir on Pikuach Nefesh. He's pointing to the reality that life is complicated, and many different factors go into our decisions, much like what the Mesilat Yesharim contends in the above-cited chapter. often, people will choose not to recognize some of the other factors involved. one can also say 'i'm not meikil in niddah, i'm machmir on shalom bayis', 'i'm not meikil on talmud torah, i'm machmir on yishuv eretz yisrael'. the issue is not so much failure to recognize other factors, as much as it's failure to see observance in a broader context. think of all of the bozos making minyanim on airplanes and waking up half of the passengers. here, it may be an issue of real chumra, but one whose cost outweighs its benefits. people approach these issues as individuals, neglecting the communal and national repercussions. rationalizations for draft-dodging come to mind as s/t which is widely perceived as 'chumra' but whose cost is, unfortunately, astronoomical. or organ donation - where being 'machmir' on retzicha of an individual entails being 'meikil' on 'lo ta'amod' of many people. very scarywhen the big picture is ignored.

based on the Shnot Eliyahu cited above and some writings of R' Kook, i think chumra reflects a situation where one's religious consciousness demands a standard that is beyond the formal requirements of halacha. a faked chumra is no chumra at all. there are certain standards of behavior which the Torah may tolerate but not necessarily encourage - polygamy for example. as history and society and economy liberate us from ancient constraints, institutions that he Torah itself may have tolerated in other contexts naturally become repulsive - rape, slavery, etc. are, thank God, no longer part of our halakhic universe, though they once were. what's true on a historical level can be true of an individual as well. i think that certain forms of vegetarianism might be a good example. or copyright infringement, which many find morally repugnant though it's very difficult to base intellectual property rights in halacha.

the quintessential 'chumra' from the time of the Mishna was Chullin al taharat ha-kodesh - treated everyday food as though it's a sacrifice. this practice was a result of a consciouness which refuses to recognize that there's really profanity out there, that something is devoid of the potential for holiness. the food we eat every day can be part of avodat Hashem just as a korban is. it's a higher way of looking at the world, which results in more restricted practice. even those who wouldn't normally eat chullin be-tahara, would do so during the 10 days between RH and YK. not in order to display their chazer fisalach and show God how frum they are. please. rather, that the opportunity generated by the Yamim Nora'im, the process of tshuvah and introspection, is expected to bring one into a context of greater God-consciousness - God is 'closer' during these days, His presence more palpable and inescapable, and this should naturally manifest itself in our behavior. it's real chumra. otherwise, it's presumptuous, like the hedyot we started with. (see Maharsha on the story of R' Safra at the end of Kiddushin).
Chodesh Tov.

this is my 2nd write-up of this. the first was better and sharper, but was erased accidentally. oh, well.

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