Appropriate and Inappropriate Kulos, Good Chumros and Bad

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities [caused by the Holocaust and the subsequent displacement in geographic location] that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.

- R’ Dr Haym Solovetichik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994)

This is how R’ Dr Soloveitchik concludes an essay about a shift in the relationship to halakhah caused by the Holocaust. Before the war, he writes, halakhah contained a much stronger mimetic component, a notion of halakhah-as-lifestyle, seeing “what the people do”. Now, with the rupture in culture caused by the war and subsequent relocations, we rely less on mimeticism and more on textualism, referring back to the formal sources of halakhah, halakhah as a legal code.

Since the publication of that essay, they caused a bit of a backlash. By giving a motivation to the rise of chumros in post-WWII orthodox, he unintentionally gave a tool to people for implementing the equal and opposite reaction. Just one example:

It is true that in pre-war Lithuania, it was common for married women not to cover their hair. In the hands of some, this becomes “mimetic tradition”, following the culture of the observant community, and therefore an argument in favor of preserving that norm.

Interestingly, many of the same people argue in favor of ordaining women on textual grounds: Since semichah today has no real halachic significance, there is no reason that ordination be limited to men. Anyone with the skill to learn how to advise others ought be declared competent for “Yoreh Yoreh”. On the one hand, finding leniency despite the sources; on the other, finding it despite the leniency causing drastic change in Jewish lifestyle.

As I hope the reader can tell, I find both approaches problematic: Both the search for chumros and that for kulos.

I think both problems emerged from something overlooked in the essay. The fall of mimeticism was much earlier, back during the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The culture was lost, and Orthodoxy split into movements, each group seeking a rationale and motivation to continue keeping to the Sinaitic Covenant. What happened more recently, then, was not the loss of a mimetic tradition, a living Torah culture, but the loss of this ideological alternative. Whereas in the 19th century communities were built on ideologies, today all that is watered down. I discuss this two-stage shift in my entry “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road“.

(There was one special case, I didn’t discuss then, Hungarian Orthodoxy. The Chasam Sofer took the ruling banning new grain, “Chadash assur min haTorah — the new is prohibited by the Torah”, and turned it into a motto for tenaciously holding on not only to the halakhah, but the culture as it existed at the time the ghetto fell. They therefore rejected all of these up-and-coming Orthodox movements, writing polemics against both Chassidus and Mussar. However, it too was an innovation. There is a fundamental difference between unselfconsciously following a living and changing culture and deciding to set out to preserve a given snapshot of it.)

What I would seek is not a return to the pre-emancipation mimetic Orthodoxy, but the movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries. They provided not only a communal structure that supported observing halakhah, but also the tools to engage one’s mind and heart. That was my focus in the earlier entry; now I want to look at the halachic implications.

The rise of the “Chumrah of the Month Club” is a product of a number of factors. Today’s greater affluence and free time give more opportunity to follow new practices. However, one factor we ought to seek to change is living without a well-articulated basis.

Disconnecting our ideological basis from our mitzvah observance contributes to chumros in two ways:

First, it leads to a religious vacuum. Someone who hungers for a connection to the Creator will seek to do more of the one thing he associates with that connection — more mitzvos ma’asiyos, more actions. This doesn’t really address his need. Rare is the observant Jew whose religious need is caused by not spending enough of his day engaged in religious action. He is really seeking a connection between his soul and that action, but is unaware of the gap. So, misdiagnosed, he instead chooses more action. Which leaves him still hungering, so as soon as the newness wears off, he seeks the next practice and the next one…

Second, without being grounded in an ideology, our practice lacks a value system by which we can assess various positions. The “Brisker Chumrah” has gained such currency in the current generation. In it, one avoids a machloqes, a disagreement in halakhah, by “being chosheish (concerned) for” both opinions. In Brisker thought, halakhah is only based on halakhah. This is a stark contrast from innovative practices based on ideology. The Chassid who started wearing a gartel rather than relying on a belt when davening did so because the separation between upper and lower was more fundamental to his worldview than that of his father. The Mussarnik is more likely to accept a chumrah of avoiding something not required by the letter of the law, not to do something not really mandatory. But the same rationale applies: Every new chumrah adopted was done so because the effort was deemed to be outweighed by the payoff, the chance to further inculcate a value into oneself.

To me it would seem to be the only appropriate grounds for their adoption. Going lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the line of the law, can only be based on having a yardstick and knowing what is beyond the line, and which not.

I’m reminded of one of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits”. Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind. As he puts it, “Before you climb a ladder, make sure it is leaning against the right wall.” Start with deciding where you want to end up, and decide your actions based on where they fit in achieving that goal. Without a definition of your own personal role in avodas Hashem (serving G-d), there is little way to make choices about appropriate action.

Covey’s advice on how to reconnect your day-to-day activities with your greater goals gives us an interesting variation on the theme of contemplating the day of one’s death:

In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.

As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended – children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

And your thoughts...?