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It took less than a day for the world’s first chumrah to appear on this earth. Just go back to the beginning of Genesis. God commands Adam: ‘You can eat from all the trees of the Garden of Eden but from the tree of knowledge you shall not eat.’ (Genesis 2:16)
A little later when Eve has her tete-a-tete with the snake she says that God commanded (Genesis 3:3): ‘We can eat from all of the trees in the Garden but from the tree that God specified we can not eat or touch”. The non-touching is Eve’s chumrah.
The sneaky snake realizing that that wasn’t quite God’s command, nudges her and she accidentally touches the tree. Since there was no command against touching the tree – nothing happened. The snake then said, ‘You see? The whole thing is a bluff. You touched the tree and are still alive. The same will be true if you eat the fruit.’ (Bereshit Raba)
We all know how the story continues. Eve takes the fruit, entices Adam to eat it. And since then we have to work by the sweat of our brow and endure hours of labor at childbirth (Genesis 3:16-19).
All because of a chumrah … that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Logic would have it that the further you are from the source the more lax and lenient enforcement of the law would be. The minutia of a decree passed in Washington seems to lose steam by the time it reaches Lower Creek, North Dakota.
Based on that way of thinking, 3500 years after receiving the, halachic rulings should be very lenient.
Yet, within the Orthodox community just the opposite is true. Today’s piskai halachah (Jewish legal decisions/rulings) are in most cases stricter than ever.
Particularly since the end of World War II there has been a trend towards the right. There may be multiple reasons for this. After WWII numerous Jews gave up on God and turned off religion as an integral, important element of their life. After all, where was God when all this was going on?
The destruction of thousands of closely knit Jewish communities. Family units were decimated. Role models disappeared. Displaced persons, those who survived, started life in areas with virtually no ties to the past. Therefore, many left religion because there were no family members or friends trying to dissuade them. Those who kept their religious observance did so without the wide support that they had prior to the war and so they circled the wagons and became even more religious.
Immigration to countries such as the US and Israel afforded shattered communities the opportunity to regroup. But these new small, reborn communities were miniscule islands in secular seas. To offset this perceived negative atmosphere, observant Jews moved more to the right as a protective measure. Insulate and isolate.
They turned to religion and God as being the force that saved them while so many others were murdered. Those who took the religious tack felt that the gratitude they owed God called for taking on more stringent stands and so became even more religious. Their leadership saw this as a means of rebuilding after the terrible decimation.
In America and in Europe competition for employment both after the mass immigration of 1890-1910 and after WWII was fierce. Other immigrants and returning soldiers competed for jobs and survival. With the six day work week, Monday through Saturday, working on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) became a requirement for finding a job. Sabbath observers had to take a stand.
Many observant Jews fell by the wayside and gave in to economic pressure and worked on the Sabbath. Others stood fast and refused to submit to outside pressures and refused to work on Shabbat. These people needed a support mechanism for assistance. For example, places of work that included schedules that permitted Sabbath observance. This led many Sabbath observers to establish their own businesses. This in turn facilitated observance of the Sabbath as well as all Torah commandments connected to dealings in business. Not only to observe them – but take on all the stringencies – because they were calling the shots.
The advantage of similarly religious orientated people living in proximity gave rise to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. For example, until about 1945 Crown Heights was a mixed neighborhood of mainly secular Jews and non-Jews living together. Over a period of some five years the community took on a strong Jewish tone and Lubavitch, which once was a minor player in the neighborhood, became a growing force with which to contend. Ten years later Crown Height became home to many Jews, Afro-Americans and Chassidim. By the 1980’s Lubavitch was a dominant factor in Crown Heights.
By living together in a single community, power was once more restored in its fullest to the Rabbi. Not unlike the situation that existed in Europe for centuries. Whole cities arose- Squaretown and Kiryat Yoel are two examples of towns in the USA where virtually the entire population is made up of OrthodoxJews. The town council and administration are functionaries of the Rebbe (Rabbi) – not unlike political bigwigs in any major urban city. And the laws follow the religious dictates of the Rebbe. In short they called the shots and require that you play with their ground rules.
GENERAL vs. SPECIFIC
The Torah is eternal. It’s for all times and all kinds of situations (social, economic etc.). For the past, present and future. But how can that be?
If we were talking about specifics then the Torah would not only be a gigantic, unmanageable document but it would also be a book that deals with the future, including events that have not yet occurred.
Therefore, according to our Sages the Torah presented generalizations and then gave man the responsibility of deducing the particulars. This is found within the concepts of the Torah ‘not [being] in heaven’ and ‘the Torah was not given to Angels’ (Baba Metziah 59b).
The task of applying the infinite wisdom of the Torah to the practicalities of everyday life was given to man. Man with his weaknesses and his prejudices. Man who is subject to influences and pressures. Man with his human attributes of differing degrees of compassion, understanding and intelligence.
Even more specifically, the Torah directs us to inquire from the ‘Judges of your era’. Thus the door was opened for varying opinions at different times and we are blessed with a range of opinions and the probability of similar events being evaluated from different points of view.
The underlining principle in this magnanimous gesture to empower mere, mortal, fallible man is contained in the phrase ‘and you should do the right and the good in the eyes of God’. (Deuteronomy 6:18)
On this the Ramban comments: Initially God said to keep His statues and testimonies which He commanded. Now He adds elements that He didn’t command you as well. Do what is right and good in God’s eyes – because it is impossible to list every possible permutation of conduct between man and man. But from those specifics that are mentioned we should be able to figure out which is the proper path to follow.
The Maggid Mishnah (a commentary on Rambam) continues in this vein (Yad Hachazaka, Hilchot Shechainim 14:/5) The Torah is for all times and for all subjects. Since human conduct and qualities change with time, helpful principles are noted to form the basis of particular types of conduct.
The fact that man is in effect a ‘partner’ with God introduces the human and humane aspect to Torah law. This is not to say, God forbid, that the Torah’s laws are not humane, but rather that the interpersonal element between the party who poses a question and the Rabbi who is asked plays a role.
As with all responsibilities, there are those who sometimes exceed their authority and present ideas and practices that they feel is the direction that others should follow
as being the law. This is not really the law but the way this person chooses to think or act.
In many cases this more extreme step has not taken into account the human/humane element that is so important in halachah.
ALL ASPECTS OF LIFE
Jewish law prescribes the proper conduct for Jews in each and every aspect of their life. There are laws between man and God, man and man, man towards himself, his family, to the living and to the dead, man towards his community, towards strangers, towards his partners as well as his business competitors, towards other nations, man and animal and man towards his environment. In fact there is no area of life that does not fall within the precincts of Jewish law (halachah). Therefore, a Rabbi and/or communal leader has to be aware of all the factors involved before rendering decisions. He has to take into consideration what is happening within the family, the community, and where relevant, what affect such decisions will have vis-a-vis relationships with the gentiles.
At times the community was safe, respected and protected. At other times a community was in danger, denigrated and vulnerable. And so each rendering would require multi-level considerations.
Within a static world and environment this might be easy – but with an ever-changing world it is an awesome task.
FROM THE FIRST
The first commandment in the Bible is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. For thousands of years that simply meant to procreate. Today, however, with in vitro fertilization, cloning and surrogate mothering it is necessary for the rabbinical authorities to be up to date and understand both the latest medical procedures involved as well as being able to fathom the thousands of relevant halachic decisions handed down over the ages concerning this particular commandment.
If you ever sought an example of the great range and scope of how Jewish law is applied to state-of-the-art science and medicine as well as its flexibility and applicability, I suggest reading today’s rabbinic rulings on the scientific aspects on the first commandment
Halachah keeps up with the latest advances in science. A few hundred years ago – when tobacco first reached Europe – it was presented as an aid to digestion. And sure enough, you’ll find piskay halachah (halachic rulings) reflecting that specific use of tobacco.
As smoking tobacco became more popular you’ll find responsa discussing the pleasures of smoking. Can you smoke on Yom Tov (holidays)? On Tisha B’Av (a fast day)? Etc.
Today, when the dangers of smoking are known and accepted you will find many responsa prohibiting smoking. Period.
One still finds smokers among the yeshivah and Orthodox crowd. Rabbis have taken into account the fact that the addiction to tobacco prevents them from outlawing smoking completely. It falls under the section of ‘Just can’t do’.
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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