Halachic issues fall into various categories. Some areas are very clearly black or white – permitted or forbidden. YES or NO. But most situations fall into a grey area where an unequivocal answer is difficult, if not impossible.
Over the course of time various experts on halachah have raised salient points, both for and against the question at hand. Because, as this is human nature, there were sages who saw things from a more lenient and others from a more stringent point of view.
In addition, circumstances and variables that surrounded the question at hand played pivotal roles in reaching a rabbinic ruling.
And so the grey area has become larger and larger. The questions of leniency or stringency have become rallying points for philosophies, political agendas, and have become a means of protection and differentiation.
Elu v’elu divrai Elokim chaim!
(BT Eruvin 13:b, Gitin 6b) Both the stringent (chumrah) and the lenient (kulah) points of view are valid.
The question one might ask is – which is better?
The parsha (portion) of the Torah dealing with a Nazir (Nazarite) states that certain stringencies are permitted – even encouraged. For example, abstaining from wine as a behavioral correction. It is a personal way of
reaching certain goals that individuals set for themselves. But the Gemara states (Jerusalem Talmud Nazir, Chap 1, Hal 3) that the period of abstinence /stringencies should not exceed 30 days. And two most interesting laws are commanded of the Nazir following the period of stringency – the Nazir has to bring a sin offering to the Temple in Jerusalem and he has to drink wine. The sin offering is because basically stringencies are prohibited and are only a means of attuning one to act normally later. And the commandment to drink wine afterwards is to show that the behavioral correction was successful.
From the above we see that chumrot have a place in Jewish life. But there is another side to the coin.
In the Talmud (Baba Kama 80b) the story is told of a very religious person who didn’t accept a lenient ruling by the Rabbis and was nearly excommunicated.
In another incident the Talmud tells us of a sage named Eliezer Zeera who wore black shoes, an uncommon shoe color at that point in history, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. While showing signs of mourning of the Temple is admirable, fellow scholars looked askance at his actions and considered it arrogant – he was placed in jail.
So we see an ambivalent attitude towards chumrot …and the same can be said about kulot.
Maturity also plays a role. As one develops and matures he evolves a personal approach to things, both in the world of Torah and the world he lives in. This describes the phrase ‘talmid shehigiah lehora’ah’ (a student who
reaches a level deemed by his teacher to render a decision in the teacher’s absence).
The key determining factor should be consistency. If you accept going the chumrah route then you must act stringently in all (or at least most) elements of your religious practice – or in other words – in virtually everything that you do.
Glatt kosher (very strictly supervised) food demanded by a prisoner in jail for embezzling from widows and orphans, or for that matter for any criminal, is an example of an inconsistent chumrah-follower gone wrong.
The story has been told that a rabbi once came to see the famous Jerusalem sage and halachic authority, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, z.l. He asked him if a certain chumrah that was practiced in his community had any foundation in halachah or belonged to the world of religious fancy. The sage responded that there was no foundation for such a stringency and advised the rabbi to tell his community to repeal this practice. Several weeks later, the Jerusalem sage met the rabbi and asked him if he had told his community to stop practicing this mistaken chumrah. The rabbi turned to the sage and said, half jokingly, “No, it is a leniency which my congregation cannot live with…”
DON’T FENCE ME IN
Let us compare a Torah prohibition to a pit in the field.
To prevent people from transgressing and ‘falling into the pit’ some rabbinic authorities could decide to construct a ‘fence’ around the pit. For fear that the fence may not be enough, over a period of time other rabbinic authorities may also put the field off-limits. This could continue so that others may build a wall around the field. While even others could prohibit their congregations from crossing the road that ran around that field.