Tuesday, September 08, 2015

When Chumros are Egocentric

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ZTL
Rabbi Shaya Karlinksy’s post on Cross Currents should be required reading for any Jew seeking the truth of the Torah. Especially during the season of repentance. No, I am not going to lash out with a ‘Fire and Brimstone’ admonition to ‘Do Teshuva or burn in Hell’! That is not my style. Nor is it what Rabbi Kalrlinsky is saying. It is about taking on Chumros (Halachic stringencies) for the wrong reasons

His post is a tour de force on what’s wrong with the right. Not that he put it that way. Nor would he necessarily like that I put it that way. But that is in fact what it is… an indictment of the right wing attitude that chases down every ritual Chumra it can find.

Now before anyone accuses me of painting all the Charedim with a broad brush, I am not. Of course many, probably even most Charedim do not necessarily do that. Certainly not the mainstream moderate Charedim that largely comprise the American mainstream. But on an increasingly communal level the move to the right in the Charedi world can best be described as a Chumra chase.

The move to the right is not a new phenomenon. There has been much written about it. But Rabbi Karlinsky has added some insight to this question that should be required reading for everyone.

The most recent manifestation of the Chumra chase is the erasure of women from the public square something I and others have written about.  Rabbi Adlerstein did so magnificently  in an earlier Cross Currents post.  And that generated  Rabbi Karlinsky’s  extraordinary post.

The obvious question is, Why is this happening? What is the motivation behind this Churma chase?

The question is addressed through the words of a man widely respected in the Charedi world - a Baal Teshuva, by the name of R’ Shlmo Wolbe in his magnum opus, Alei Shur.

Therein he wrote a famous piece entitled ‘Frumkeit’ - something upon which he frowns. Frumkeit is what happens when people take upon themselves Chumros for the wrong reasons. Even if one does it for their own spiritual elevation – that too is the wrong reason. Because that is a selfish motivaton.  It is egocentric.  Man’s purpose on earth is not to enhance his own welfare – even his own spiritual welfare. His purpose in this world is to serve God.

When one looks only at how adopting a Chumra will enhance his own welfare, he fails to see the impact it may have on others. Which ultimately has the opposite effect. Instead of enhancing one’s status with God, one diminishes it. It is – as Rabbi Karlinksy suggests, it is ‘bad for your Neshama’!

Personal consequences should never be the motivation for a Chumra. ‘What’s in it for me’ is not how to serve God. So what is proper service? Here are some excerpts from Rabbi Karlinsky’s post:
Proper service of G-d has to be built on “da’at” – an accurate, deep intelligent understanding of what G-d wants from us, acquired through clear thinking and a deep analysis of Torah. The Talmud (T. B. Sotah 21b; Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 3:4) illustrates the concept of “chasid shoteh” (a pious fool) … A woman is drowning, and a man with the ability to save her says to himself that it is not proper to look at women, and does not save her… 
Rav Wolbe (explains that the Chasid Shoteh), is following a spiritual instinct without da’at, that clear and intelligent analysis and understanding of what is required of a person in every specific situation. The result of actions rooted in instinct rather than da’at can be the source of distancing one from G-d, rather than bringing one closer to Him.
Becoming closer to G-d… requires clarity about what G-d demands of a person in every situation, having our feet planted firmly on the ground, operating in reality rather than in some self-generated fantasy world. A true relationship with G-d is rooted in proper actions in the real, physical world. The drive and excessive focus on “getting closer to G-d” (especially in our quick-fix, microwave society) emanates from “frumkeit .
Rabbi Karlinsky then adds his own insight. Among other things he says the following:
In Halacha we have a concept of “yesh al mi lismoch,” valid opinions which can serve as a basis for following a lenient approach. There is a concept of “hefsed merubeh,” great loss, which can be grounds to follow certain Halachic leniencies. Why is the embarrassment or discomfort of another Jew (which is a serious violation in one area of Halacha) considered so dispensable in order to follow a strict opinion in another area? While this doesn’t suggest eating something which is not Kosher simply to avoid embarrassing someone, finding a way to avoid the embarrassment has to be as high on our agenda as avoiding the un-Kosher food.
Da’at is necessary to know how to adjudicate between these conflicting values implement this balance. If there are accepted opinions on the lenient side of an issue, then “da’at,” a deep and proper understanding of the Halacha and the tradeoffs, may require relying on the more lenient opinion in those circumstances.
This leads us to a related issue. Chumrot that cause one-upmanship, strife, and social discomfort are likely being performed with a feeling of superiority. This takes us in the opposite direction of the road that brings us closer to G-d. Why do some people need to broadcast their own chumrot while constantly investigating those of their neighbors? 
Should chumras emanate from the motivation of love or the motivation of fear? “What does it hurt to be machmir” certainly sounds like it is motivated by fear, and if we are honest, we will find that this is motivation for many of our chumras. This isn’t the way it should be. 
As the culture of our community has moved in the direction of increased stringencies in the ritual aspects of Halacha, it is time to step back and examine whether this move is being driven by our instincts for spiritual inspiration – or by the true da’at Rav Wolbe writes is necessary for authentic spiritual growth.
The only thing I can add to this is Amen!