Latest update: April 16th, 2013
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Over the past three thousand five hundred years, the Jewish people have gone through a tumultuous history and radical changes.
The Jews went from wanderers in the desert to an agricultural society. From a band of 12 tribes to a unified kingdom and then a divided country. From living in their own land to a dispersed nation to once again a nation living in their land. From a semi-literate population to world class geniuses.
The major thread found throughout this rollercoaster saga is the important role the Torah played in the lives of the Jews. No matter where or what their circumstances were – Torah was their master blue print, their day-to-day guide of every aspect of living.
At Mt. Sinai the Jews received the written Torah as well as parts of the Oral Law. The two form a single unit – because the written Torah can not possibly be understood or practiced correctly without the definitions and explanations found in the Oral Law.
While the written Torah always remained with the Jews, at various times parts of the Oral Law were lost and had to be retrieved. The discussions and arguments that led to its retrieval (as well as other material), were committed to writing and are found in the Talmud.
The laws given at Mount Sinai are the law – the practice and application is halachah. The laws don’t change-halachah can.
To remain viable in the varied history of the Jewish people, practices of Jewish law had to go through changes, adaptations and variations. These are reflected in the multitude of customs, practices and rabbinic decisions over the years.
Elements of the actual practice could be changed because of halachah’s (Jewish law’s) internal, built-in flexibility. While it is true that the actual practice might be flexible and that the ruling may be more stringent or more lenient, they all must fall within the framework and bounds of Torah.
Frequently the changes were introduced to protect Torah- (the Law) true Judaism. Other times to protect the population. Often to placate the surrounding non-Jewish population. And occasionally to protect Jews from other Jews.
The totally observant life of the Jews in the time of the Temples was not exactly the same as for those who lived in the shteitle (European Jewish villages). And the lives of Jews in the era of the Rishonim (Jewish scholars c.1000-1600) are not precisely like ours today.
This doesn’t refer to the march of time and science – but to actual practices – whether in the area of rearing children or observing the Shabbat – the matzah (unleavened bread) eaten on Pessach or the relationship between Jews and non-Jews.
Halachic decisions by both well-known and not so famous rabbis have been shown to vary from very strict to extremely lenient. And so the concept of not necessarily taking the stringent route is, and always has been, an integral and familiar facet of Jewish law.
Yet, when we look at so many of the practices and rulings of the current era we see that leniency (kulah) is out – stringency (chumrah) is in.
Elements of the practice have changed because of halachah’s internal, built-in flexibility. Halachah is flexible – but the Torah remains constant. In fact, the Torah’s diligence and eternity was made possible due to the elasticity and resiliency of halachah.
This book presents a series of ideas, thoughts, facts and ways of thinking that play an important role in Jewish life. It can be considered food for thought or ‘I never thought of it in this light’.
The book refers to stringencies in practices that various individuals or groups take upon themselves that exceed halachic requirements.
Today, the tendency is to go the chumrah route. Chumrah is a technical word with many legal implications. I use the word chumrah to specifically denote partaking in a more stringent practice.
The passionate desire to serve God represents a type of religious zeal. Its practice often includes acts which go above and beyond the demands of the law. While at first glance this might seem commendable, there is also a downside.
For some, this can lead to religious excess, fanaticism or elitism and thus on numerous occasions one will find in Talmudic literature that our sages strongly criticize these practices. (See: Quotes About Chumrot at end of book)
If one sees the Talmud as a source (or the source) for helping define how one should best serve God – then the current tendency to go to the more stringent and more ascetic routes would appear to be misdirected.
What is the intent (kavanah) of the person who practices stringencies above and beyond? And why was this specific stringency chosen? Is it to better serve God? Is it better to serve himself? How does this fit into the concept of Clal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people)? What about becoming an elitist?
If proper intent is a requisite for the fulfillment of certain laws (i.e., prayer, Shabbat), then improper intent (for example, one upsmanship) might invalidate any stringent act being practiced.
Stringencies can be admirable – IF one undertakes them in private. IF one doesn’t mention or point out his practice to others making himself a paragon of virtue. IF the chumrah is practiced out of deep commitment – not simply flowing with the local fashion – to be one of the ‘in’ crowd. IF practicing this chumrah is consistent with one’s total religious behavior – both in terms of fulfilling the commandments between man and God and man and man.
In today’s materialistic society there is a tendency not only to compensate but to overcompensate. I’m not referring to salary and perks but rather to the realm of relationships.
Today’s busy parents have found that it is easier and quicker to buy the child a toy than to spend an hour or two walking together in the park. Or to put it another way – there is a prevalent thought that you can ‘buy love’.
So it is in religion.
To reach a spiritual connection with God is both difficult and time consuming. But what if I do something else? What if I start to take upon myself a more stringent practice? Won’t that show God that I love Him and connect with Him.
Instead of delving more deeply into my true relationship with God, I take the easier, quicker way and forbid myself this, or lengthen the time for that.
Does a box of candy or a piece of jewelry given to your spouse really equal an honest declaration of ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’?
I have tried not to mention specific chumrot (plural of chumrah) that are being practiced. Rather I present the history, evolution and reasons for the phenomenal growth of this tendency – particularly in the past decade or two.
This book will deal with practices – not in debates over halachah where one rabbi is lenient and the other stringent. I will try to avoid taking stands on specific halachic decisions and treat the subject on a general level.
As you can see by the title of this book I spelled out the word God without the use of the almost ubiquitous hyphen in place of the ‘O’. It wasn’t to provoke anyone or heaven forbid to insult God’s name. Many people question writing our God’s name in full, in any form or language. I am simply following the precepts laid down by many Gedolim * (super sages) who say that the special treatment is exclusively for the Hebrew version of His name.
Others rule even further that this concept should be followed in pronunciation as well.
If this is carried to the extreme, one would limit the pronunciation of the name of the prophet Elijah (Eli-ya-hu) as Keli-ka-ku – because it involves verbalization of elements that form of God’s name.
About the Author: Chaim Burg was born in New York and was strongly influence by the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Z.D. Kanotopsky. A graduate of Cooper Union, Burg spent most of his active business career as a communications consultant for major U.S. and international corporations. A well regarded author and lecturer, he mainly deals with thought provoking views on the evolution of Halacha. Burg made aliya in 1975.
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