Holier Than Thou

Just as it’s not considered as big of a deal for someone to keep Shabbat if they grew up keeping Shabbat (then it’s just following the example set from Mom and Dad and not following Gd’s commandments), I sometimes wonder if it’s considered meritorious to keep Shabbat and Kosher in Jerusalem.  You don’t have to worry very much about missing work obligations or forego a class or sports game held on a Saturday.  You can grab a bite to eat on the go or indulge at a fancy restaurant just about anywhere.  In other words, you don’t have to try very hard to make it happen and can just be “normal”.

That being the case, should one take on chumras, stringencies?  On the one hand, it seems that the answer should be “yes”.  Put forth an effort in service of Gd, show that you care.  On the other hand, this carries a lot of problems.  First of all, if everyone did this, and many sects of Jews do, then they raise the bar collectively.  Suddenly it’s no big deal to have separate microwaves for meat and dairy, because everyone does that.  You’re just doing what is “normal” and not above and beyond.  Suddenly a competition to see who is more religious than the next guy emergies.

Secondly, chumra, stringency, minhag, custom, and halacha, the law, get all jumbled up in people’s minds.  Many people fall into the pit of following a chumra at the expense of violating halacha (i.e. wasting food, bal tashchit, thinking that it’s not kosher, when really it’s okay to eat).

To return to my feminist rant, I find it peculiar that ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews, who as a whole take on the most chumras also voice the strongest opinions against things like women wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl.  The two reasons I hear most often are something along the lines of “Why be concerned about performing a mitzvah you’re not obligated to perform when there are hundreds of others you could focus on first?” or “She needs to ask her what her motivation is.  It’s probably not to serve Gd but rather her own ego or to try to be like a man”.  Who ever asks a man what his motivation is in performing a mitzvah?  Does he get the honor of saying a blessing over the Torah reading in order to fulfill a divine obligation or because he likes the ego boost?  Does he wear tzitzit with the fringes hanging out so that he’ll look really religious?  Furthermore, whether or not women are obligated, wearing a tallit is actually a mitzvah and it’s a violation of halacha to judge another unfavorably, especially without standing in their place and truly knowing their motivations.

One could easily question the motivation of those who wear suits in all kinds of weather and under all conditions (A Bar Mitzvah, a hike in the summer, doesn’t matter).  Is it because it’s what is fashionable in a given community or is it actually in service of Gd?  But that is the business of the individual, and I see no need to reason to ask someone to change his or her way of religious practice or fashion sense, and certainly not if they are not actually violating halacha.

A pretty fundamental reason for my chumra aversion is that Torah itself warns against unnecessary additions:

Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.

(Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2)

While the rabbis are to “build fences” around the commandments, lest they be violated, I get frustrated by what I perceive sometimes to be as electric fences around barbed wire around the fence.  You can get really distracted by the fence and forget what it’s actually protecting.  Is there any source for breaking down fences in order to act as a “fence” if you will to protect against using fences in the wrong way?

To return to the initial issue at hand about chumra in a Jewish country, why would I want to do something to unnecessarily set me apart from my fellow Jews, such as be so strict about my Kashrut that I wouldn’t eat in the home of someone else who keeps Kosher, albeit in a slightly different way.  So many of the mitzvot seem particularly designed at least in part to create community and unite the Jewish people (Kashrut is actually one of them, along with minyan and mishloach manot among many others) that it seems absolutely ridiculous if not actually objectively wrong to have it divide the Jewish people, especially after having all gathered together to form a country.

I wanted to find a good source to close with, and Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which many have the custom of reading between Passover and Shavuot, seemed like a good place to start.  But there is not just one good sound bite if you will.  In fact, nearly all of Chapter 4 warns against judging others and instead advocates respectfully learning from one another

I’ll end by saying that arguments over halachic technicalities end up being divisive, going against a whole body of Jewish teaching to embrace one another.  An effort to perform mitzvot between people and Gd should not be at the expense of how we act toward one another.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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