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‘Frumer’ than God?

Religious woman walking by a vandalized poster in Jerusalem

Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90

Summer should be a time of relaxation, of allowing your body to get the needed rest from the harsh winter and yearly toil. While the majority of the Jewish world works through the summer, I am sure that some sort of vacation or time off is on the agenda as we would literally fall to levels of fatigue and overwork, not to mention not taking advantage of the summer warmth and sunshine.

Therefore, when a student asked to see me a few days ago, I assumed that she was intending to thank me, perhaps give me a gift and ensure that my blood-pressure remain stable, as should be during the summer months.

As you can already imagine, the opposite happened.

This former student met with me and was very disturbed. Her quandary revolved around her work in the Maternity Ward of one of Jerusalem’s hospitals. A woman was admitted after her contractions had become increasingly close and, in the midst of the pain and breathing, her “water broke.” At that moment, a moment that she would not only be allowed to violate the holy Shabbat [Code of Jewish Law, OC, 330/1] but must if she didn’t invite it and it was a necessity [Tractate Shabbat 129a],  this women began to look behind her, as if someone was following her.  About a half an hour later, this woman was…gone. All attempts to locate her were unsuccessful. The police were called, and finally, after a (long) hour and a half, she returned. When the aghast staff asked where had she disappeared to, her answer was “The Mikvah. When asked why, she matter-of-factly answered that she would never consider giving birth to a baby without immersing in a Mikvah first, as a segula for an easy birth!

This story, to my dismay, was not the only one that gave my former student cause for concern. She went on to describe other such events, asking if this was a form of higher religious observance, a sort of a מידת חסידות [acts of the pious].

As my blood pressure levels began to rise, I looked out to see the beautiful summer skies, and recalled a forgotten experience I had many years ago, when spending the summer in the USA. As a day camp counselor, my nights were fairly free, and therefore I joined a typical “Daf-Yomi” class that would meet after Maariv each night. Like any Tractate of the Talmud, this one dealt with real-life scenarios, amongst them a known discussion about the punishment administered upon a violator of a sin in the realm of inappropriate sexual conduct. The “Magid-Shuir” [teacher of the class] was a very sweet and modest Chasidic Rebbe, who would teach each “daf” clearly [in a mixture of simple English and Yiddish idioms], and devotedly taught us each night, even in the so-called summer “vacation” months of July and August.

Thus, to my surprise, upon stumbling on this particular folio of Talmud, instead of explaining it, he said: “Look in the English,” waiting about two minutes till all the participants did so. Being a bit “Israeli,” just visiting for the summer, I admit that I didn’t own a translated Tractate and thus a chunk of that evening’s page was left unlearned. As the class continued, I found it rather strange that a part of God’s holy Torah was relegated to “the English” rather than be learned. As I was about 20 years younger than the rest of the assembled, I stayed quite; while another participant, apparently as agitated as me, decided to speak: “Rebbe, why don’t we learn it together, it’s the Torah, after all?

The kind Rebbe smiled, and answered as follows; “When I was a kid, I asked my “Tatte” why don’t we Chasidim learn Tanach like the Litvaken? He answered that we don’t learn it because there are immodest episodes in Tanach that would not be appropriate.” Being young, perhaps (too) cynical, and surely naïve, but having just completed high school saturated in the study of the Bible, I just couldn’t contain myself; “Rebbe,” I asked, “Are you saying that we are frumer than the Bible? Are you suggesting that we are too frum to learn what God said to the prophets?”

The hour was late, the Rebbe just shrugged his shoulders, and the class was dismissed.

Well, 17 years later, I am not shrugging my own shoulders.

Rather, I am deeply concerned that a new religion, though close to Judaism but is not part of it, is being formed based on so-called “frumkeit” that is not defined as a mere “Chumra” [stringency], but rather actually violating clear laws and regulations set down by God for the Jewish people to follow, as I will explain.

Chumra, or one being stringent upon himself/herself, is a known, well-established phenomenon that dates back in time to the first Mishna in Tractate Avot stating that the Rabbis should be ordaining a סייג לתורה [a safeguard around the Torah].  As explained by Rabeinu Yona [ad-loc]והסייג הוא דבר גדול ומשובח לעשות סייג וגדר למצות בל יוכל להכשל בהם הירא את דבר ה’ ["the safeguard is   great and praiseworthy, to create a safeguard to the commandments so that one won't stumble in them if one is God fearing."]! But let’s be clear; we are not speaking about being stringent with your standard of Kashrut in your home or the times you allow yourself to pray.

Rather, the above stories represent a new phenomenon in which we take the law, and after deciding that the law is X (which, in it of itself, can be a law incorporating a needed Chumra already), we go ahead and say: “But I’m frumer then the Halacha, I’m frumer then what the Torah says!”

These are not stringencies in Jewish law and lore, this is an outrage!

Where in the Torah does it say that when you are in danger, you can decide that you are “frumer” than it and allow yourself to go to a Mikvah (which is not an obligation, nor Mitzva by any account) rather then receive medical care?!

But the list goes on:

–Does it make sense to refuse to print the first-name of women in newspaper articles as a “Chumra” when endless Parshas of the Torah have the first names of Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah?

–How can endless stands in life take on the category of ייהרג ואל יעבור [you shall die rather than violate], as the Talmud [Tractate Sanhedrin 74a] establishes three, while today the list seems to include going to the army, listening to a women sing, and more.

–How can a pregnant woman, with strict orders to remain on “bed-rest” (at risk of going into labor after just 28 weeks of her pregnancy) “insist” that no Doctor/Nurse/Rabbi can tell her not to stand for the “Amida” each morning – despite almost an entire chapter in the Code of Jewish Law [OC, Chapter 94] elaborating when it is permissible to say the “Amida” sitting down [from driving on a donkey/boat/wagon and obviously when there is danger to the fetus] – as ” it was a segula for children because Chana davened standing up at the Mishkan in Shiloh”??!

–How can a woman in labor – who was just told by doctors that she must have an emergency Cesarean Section and that she must not to eat for fear that she would choke under general anesthesia – go and eat an “Etrog dish,” since this is far more important than the doctor’s orders because “it was a segula for righteous children”? Does putting your life in danger [i.e. risk of choking] not take precedence over the Etrog dish?

–Is it even possible that a woman in advanced labor refuses to be admitted (at risk of her baby not being born), since only male doctors were on call?

–Is there any “Heter” [leniency] for a women to outright “lie” about having two former cesareans (which, according to common medical procedures, does not allow you to have a natural birth any more, due to complications that can danger the mother) as she was set on having a natural birth, because after all, she slept for the last 9 months with the Noam Elimelech book under her pillow, which would help overcome all challenges?

–And finally, is there anyone of stature in the Rabbinic world, who would sanction a woman’s refusal to remove her clothing to a sterile hospital gown before surgery, while already bleeding, in front of only women doctors and staff, as it was not “modest” enough in her eyes?

The above is a sad and yet real description of Jews who do not listen to the dictates of Jewish law, and – I’m sure – did not consult Rabbis of stature; their behavior runs counter to the dictates of Halacha is such scenarios.  And yet, when reading the above, my assumption would be that a typical reader would assume that this is “frumkeit, a high-level of Jewish religious observance!

The clear words of the Rambam reverberate in my ears when the above anecdotes continues to occur, to my utter disbelief and dismay [Laws of Deot 3/1]: “Said our sages- the Nazarite, that only forbade wine on himself, needs atonement. How much more so one that prevents himself/herself from everything. Therefore, our sages commanded that one shall not prevent himself except from that which the Torah forbade….and the sages stated; Is it not enough that which the Torah forbade, you go ahead and forbid yourself from other things…!

We are commanded to be steadfast Jews, adhering to the laws of the Torah, be they logical laws, incomprehensible ones, convenient laws or inconvenient laws. Some are biblical, other rabbinic, and yes – some are pure stringencies needed and warranted in certain situations. While keeping such a lifestyle is far from easy, we dare not create a new religion in which we turn to be more “frum” than the Torah demanded. But even more so, we dare not create a lifestyle, like the women above, which runs counter to the Torah itself! Let us never forget the confession many say on the eve of Yom-Kippur, moments before the onset of “Kol Nidrei” fills the air, as part of the famous תפילה זכה:

How can I come before you and what remedy can I ask for?

I was life a rebellious son, like a slave rebelling against his teacher.

That which you have purified I have deemed impure, and that which is impure I deemed pure.

That which you have allowed I have forbidden, and that which you have forbidden I have allowed.

That which you loved I hated and that which you hated I loved.

That which you have been lenient on I have been stringent, and that which you have been stringent I have been lenient…

and with utter audacity I come before you to ask to atonement. 

About the Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is Director of training and placement at The Straus-Amiel Institute at Ohr Torah Stone.


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4 Responses to “‘Frumer’ than God?”

  1. Chaiya Eitan says:

    Very disturbing to read this….and even more disturbing to know that children are being raised in these non-Jewish ideas.

  2. exactly -knowing children are being raised w/these false ideas is terrifying.

  3. Sam Benson says:

    And to not accept a chumra is to be an apikorus. Ahh, to live in a world of black & white with no grey: no thought, no decisions, no individuation–one halacha fits all! And that halacha is no longer based in Torah or Shulchan Aruch but whatever stringency one can find (e.g. the moslims cover their women with a chador, now we should, too!)

  4. Anonymous says:

    This author cites examples of Segulos and calls them chumros, thus throwing anyone who won't listen to a woman sing under the bus with Esrog-eating-women-in-labor. Nice way out of dealing with the breaches of halacha in your own community.

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