Chumrah Done Wrong


She’s no Deborah Feldman. That makes her story so much more valuable to us.

Writing in Tablet, the literary cynosure of every young Jewish iconoclast these days, Avital Chizhik lets us know that she is no dropout, and very much an eager participant in halachic life.

I don’t want to be that girl: the aspiring writer who has broken free of the tightly knit Orthodox community or school system and then proceeds to write about her love-hate relationship with said background. Because the truth is, I’m not that girl who’s broken away. I pray daily, recite benedictions before and after food, study Torah (but not Talmud). I still feel uncomfortable reading Aramaic texts traditionally limited to men. Friday afternoons find me running around the house, covering bathroom lights with special Shabbat covers, choosing tablecloths, filling the hot-water urn. And if it matters, which I suppose it does these days, I dress the part, too, despite being taught otherwise by secular grandparents: I wear modest skirts that reach my knees, sleeves that cover my elbows, and I refrain from any physical contact with males.

I hope that readers will find her tale a success story, rather than the opposite. After graduating high school, she found a community in which she can maintain halachic practice while slaking her thirst for literature and art. We understand that living in two worlds that often clash is fraught, but so is living in a fortress. Especially the way her younger sisters describe it when they get together:

One sister began to cry as told me how her rabbi had told the class that one who transgresses the boundaries of forbidden physical contact, even in the most casual and unaffectionate of manners, a mere handshake, is considered adulterous and thus is deserving of death, according to biblical law. “That just makes me want to go to the Gap and buy a pair of skinny jeans,” she told me, pulling her denim skirt to cover her knees as she sat down.

Another teacher announced proudly that the walls of her house have never seen her hair, just like the righteous mothers of the Talmud. “I sleep with my head covered, girls. Always.” Yet another teacher brought in an article from the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. The story followed a Jew in 1950s Soviet Russia who expressed an interest in studying Judaism but never did so because of the danger involved. The teacher explained: “Girls, what do we learn from this? That this man clearly sinned! One should always follow through with one’s intentions!”

We must hope that something has been lost in the transmission. People often hear things not intended by a speaker; teens are no exception. We cannot rule out the possibility that the actual statements were somewhat different from what was reported. At the same time, it is quite possible that people said something close enough to those statements that they could be confused with the more off-putting version. Teachers (and we are all teachers) might be well served to pause and think whether in the process of inspiring some people, they are turning others off. While it is sometimes impossible to please everyone, some damage can be controlled by being more nuanced.

I don’t believe for a moment that “chumrah” is a dirty word. Being machmir is a legitimate way of expressing love for Hashem and His Torah. Seforim going back hundreds of years have written about the apparent trend to greater and greater chumrah in halachah – and spoken approvingly of the phenomenon.
What is an exercise in ahavas Hashem for one person, however, can be suffocating to another. Both ought to be accomodated. Chumrah should be voluntary, not forced upon a person by social convention or pressure. At that point it really isn’t an expression of greater enthusiasm for halachah, is it? It should never be confused with halacha itself, which always should remain clear, if only so that people will not look down upon others who are good, faithful Jews by obeying the letter of the law and nothing more – or falling back upon it themselves, in times of lesser inspiration. (Chava didn’t fare too well after confusing the chumrah of not touching the tree with the halacha of not eating from it, did she?) Chumrah can be followed for decidedly unspiritual purposes: as a way of outdoing the other, of egocentric competitiveness, and of putting down others. (See the Sfas Emes in Vayakhel תרל”ה, explaining the atmosphere of urgency surrounding the finding that the people were bringing too many donations for the Mishkan. Why did everyone get so exercised about this, necessitating Moshe to call a quick halt to the process? Sfas Emes explains that donations to the Mishkan had to be entirely lishmah. When people kept on offering more and more, Moshe realized that at some point other intentions of less than stellar purpose would intrude. He had to keep the process within the ability of the people to offer their donations entirely as an expression of their love for Hashem. He mentions, in the name of the Besht, that pride in particular can be an unwelcome concomitant of “doing” for Hashem.)

There are people who believe that shaking hands with those of the opposite gender is not only assur, but yehareg v’al ya’avor. Teachers should not be muzzled into not relating this. At the same time, with what we know of what is going on in the minds of so many of our teens (and their parents!), a good teacher ought to be able to relate the difference between committing adultery and abizrayu of ervah. He/she ought to also explain that such a position is hardly unanimous: that frum, pious German Jews shook hands for hundreds of years; that some major figures in the previous generation held that it was mutar, at least in trying circumstances; that R. Chaim Berlin wrote a teshuvah explaining why it is mutar. The teacher ought to be able to adequately explain the position that he/she does not practice, even while promoting the other.

Our Kimchis wannabee might indeed inspire some of her charges by her commitment to tzniyus. But she should be aware of the frightening cost to others. She should anticipate that by lovingly explaining how precious in the eyes of Hashem it is to follow the minimum requirements of the law of covering hair.

The teacher pointing to the Mishpacha article might have achieved far better things in the classroom by talking about inner struggle. Knowing how much of that we all go through, she might have empowered her girls much more importantly by validating the struggle, rather than pointing to someone’s supposed “mistake.”

I imagine that it is hopelessly naïve to think of Avital Chizhik entering the classroom of a charedi school, armed with her experience and with her openness, and transmitting some of it to the next generation.

But we are allowed to dream, I suppose.

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3 years 5 months ago

In response to Doron Beckerman:

Both your notes a) and b) are important. I don’t know the solution to a). I think the easy prescription to avoid b) is to avoid “calling people” on things, whether it’s “frumkeit” or anything else.

Doron Beckerman
3 years 6 months ago

Regarding Rav Wolbe’s piece on frumkeit:

He begins the second paragraph of that piece with the following – “Frumkeit is a natural, instinctive urge, to draw close to the Creator.” and later – “.. the approach of frumkeit, is to constantly feel the spiritual pulse, whether it is in a status of closeness or distance, and to force himself to closeness.”

It is an undeveloped, unrefined, natural urge to draw close to Hashem. The classic frumkeitniks are the seven listed in Sotah 22b – the people who bump into walls because they closes their eyes to avoid looking at women etc., the people who shuckle really hard in Shemoneh Esrei, the people who measure how long their own Shemoneh Esrei took – compared to the other bum who finished 30 seconds sooner, the people who grow the thickest payos they can, and so on. There’s no shikkul hadaas, just spiritual wildness. He’ll shove to get on the bus going to do Bircas HaIlanos on two trees, when there is an Almanah who has one tree right down the block, who loves when people come to her garden to make the Berachah. The shoving Shoteh thinks the people who don’t go on the bus to the two trees are feinschmeckers who don’t really understand what it means to be “frum.”

A person can, must, develop a sense of caring about the will of Hashem and drawing close by fulfilling it – guided by Daas. When the Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 13) talks about Perishus, he writes that it is for “Hachafeitzim Lizkos Lekirvaso Yisbarach.” IOW, it is the same basic instinct as frumkeit, but it has to be guided by Daas, taken beyond the base, instinctive, selfish ground-level. What Daas dictates as to “what do I want to achieve here” is an important question in terms of application of Daas, but not the definitional demarcation point between “frumkeit” and true striving for Kirvas Hashem.

It is important to note:
a) That one can sublimate or ignore even that basic instinct, and not channel it at all. Kirvas Elokim is just not a significant part of such a person’s calculus. For example, one who does not seek to improve his Shemoneh Esrei concentration in any serious way is not utilizing that natural instinct. Most people would probably occasionally stumble over the frumkeit michshol if they were serious about their Avodah, just as most people occasionally fail to apply their Daas in other areas of life. Complaining about “frumkeit” can sometimes come from being a step behind it, not ahead of it. It is from not being a serious mevakesh, as opposed to being a balanced mevakesh.

b) In other instances, calling people on their “frumkeit” is simply another manifestation of the same “frumkeit”. It is a unbridled expression of a feeling of being close to Hashem because one is beyond all that “frumkeit”, because he is very machmir on not being too “frum” (or frum).

Chana Luntz
3 years 6 months ago

It is all very well to talk about not creating a wedge between children and their rabbaim (or their morot), but the issue is far more complex (and to my mind fundamental) than that. Let me use some examples which might be perhaps a bit less emotive (but thus more easily seen to be wrong).
A few weeks ago my five year old daughter came home with her weekly dvar torah, which she is instructed to read at the shabbas table. It went something along the lines of “When we finish a book of the Torah in shul, we stand up and say chazak, chazak, chazak” and then proceeded to learn some moral message from this. She indeed read it very nicely. When I managed to haul my husband down from the ceiling, we then had a debate about how and to what extent we needed to tell my daughter’s kodesh teacher that Sephardim neither stand up nor say chazak, chazak, chazak. Now, maybe my husband wouldn’t mind so much, if it were not for the fact that we deliberately sent our children to a Sephardi school !!! The problem being that it may be nominally a Sephardi school, but the available pool of Sem graduates to teach kodesh here in England are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi – which means we have this problem every single year, in every single class, and time after time (eg both my children keep lapsing into some garbled half and half version of the asher yatza brocha, because they have been inconsistently taught the Sephardi and Ashkenazi version). Another example, I have had to deal with a boy who refused to have his hair cut during the three weeks, because his teacher only taught him the Ashkenazi customs (again in a Sephardi school) and even once we pursuaded him (with great difficulty, and only after he saw it in black and white in a Sephardi halacha book) that maybe this was only an Ashkenazi custom, he still refused, because what would his peers say (peer pressure being everything)?
So if you average rebbe or Sem graduate is completely incapable of boning up on and teaching multiple halachos, when those relate merely to two recognised and clearly defined sets of minhagim, in circumstances where they take a position in an officially Sephardi school (albeit one where children in the school are demographically around 40% Ashkenazi) – and where they get it wrong so often, clearly and completely and utterly wrong for the majority demographic they are teaching, I am highly sceptical that you are going to get a greater level of complexity or accuracy on matters that are far more emotionally charged, and where the various positions are much more difficult to access. There is a fundamental inability to deal with multiplicity at large in the teaching community that on some level is extraordinary, and it comes across in all aspects of the kodesh teaching available today. So if you are going to advocate suggesting to children the existence of multiplicity, you are by definition driving a wedge between children and their rabbaim or teachers. And you need a root and branch change to kodesh teaching if anything approaching the mindset you are advocating is to be introduced.

[YA – Excellent points, as frustrating as they are. I would not give up the ship so easily. I have witnessed changes accomplished simply by an administration explaining to faculty the toll that the teaching you describe takes on children and their parents. By instructing faculty to be mindful of the nuances that get covered over, and by ensuring that there are Sephardic faculty on hand who have both unabashed pride in Sephardi minhagim as well as significant background in learning (and can therefore serve as a halachic resource), other faculty gradually can get the message. I’ve seen it work.]

Evan Steele
3 years 6 months ago

By missing the point, David F. draws out an important distinction in the discussion. The issue isn’t difference. Indeed, the idea that difference can somehow be avoided amongst Jews is laughable at best. It’s about how difference is communicated and addressed. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person who is tolerant of any genuine Torah hashkafa. I therefore have no problem with my children’s Rabbeim having a different hashkafa from my own. I am not disturbed nor threatened by other Jews making different choices than I do. My problem begins when others, i,e. Rabbeim do not afford me the same respect, and insist that their’s is the only way. As I mentioned in my post, I do not belittle or denigrade others’ opinions or choices. All I ask is the same treatment from others.

Truthfully, in terms of the comment that “If you choose to send a child to “right-of-center” school, you have no right to complain when the views espoused by their rebbeim reflect that hashkafah,” I might say the same about the Rabbeim, namely that if you choose to work in a yeshiva where you know the parent body is not very right-of-center, then you have no right to strong arm children and families into changing.

Sadly, at the end of the day, what draws parents and rabbeim to be in this situation is, I believe, really one and the same goal. Parents would like their children to maybe be a little frumer than they are, and rabbeim would like to influence children to be frumer as well. If we all have a similar goal, why are we acting like we’re in a battle against each other for our childeren’s neshamos?

Bob Miller
3 years 6 months ago

Originally, the responsibility to educate fell on Jewish parents. That is still the basic halacha. Then, for reasons of expertise and/or time, teaching duties were delegated to tutors or schools, acting as agents of the parents. We have now progressed to the point that the major educational burden now falls on the schools. Question: If the parent has to pay due respect to the teacher’s point of view, to what extent does the teacher, the parent’s agent, have to pay respect to the parent’s point of view?