Sunday, May 18, 2008

Table Talk – Bechukotai 5768 - A Danger of Chumrah

When is being machmir (stringent) not ideal? According to the Ohr Hachayyim, stringency is not appropriate when the chumrah (stringency) comes without Torah learning and knowledge.
I once knew a couple in Connecticut distant from a Torah way of life. Yet, despite the fact that they observed neither Shabbat nor kashrut nor many of the other “major” mitzvot, when their son was born, they decided not to cut his hair until he reached the age of three. When I questioned the boy’s mother about the practice, she expressed her opinion about the value of the practice as part of his religious development. I always got the feeling that she considered this minhag as an important religious practice, which in some way absolved her of the need to delve deeper into other mitzvos that the Torah actually obligated her to do.
Commenting on the connection between the first and second phrases of the parshah which state, אם בחקותי תלכו – “if you walk in my statutes”, ואת מצותי תשמרו – “and you guard my commandments”, ועשיתם אותם – “and you do them”. Why the apparent repetition? What’s the difference between walking in statutes and performing commandments?
Ohr Hachayim answers these questions based upon the advice of Rabban Gamliel found in Pirkei Avot which states that an Am Ha’aretz should not be a Chassid, meaning that someone unschooled in the intricacies of Jewish law should not try to be an overly righteous person, “to perform stringencies and maintain boundaries like the practices of the righteous.” This is because a person might, in his desire to be more strict, actually violate principles of the Torah. For this reason the Torah tells us, אם בחקותי תלכו – “if you walk in my statutes,” meaning that you delve and immerse yourself in knowledge of Torah, only then, ואת מצותי תשמרו – “and you guard my commandments” by observing chumrot that strengthen and heighten one’s observance of Torah.
I think that there’s a different danger in adhering to chumrot not required by the Torah. Sometimes people – like my friends from Connecticut - pick chumrot in an area that appeals to them in an effort to avoid – or at least emotionally absolve themselves from observing halachot they want to avoid. The value of chumrah (stringency) in Jewish law – and there is great value in maintaining stringency – comes only when that strictness stems from a deep knowledge of the halachah and a desire to use greater observance to come closer to God.
Question for discussion: Can you think of another way that one’s Chumrah might unintentionally lead him or her to violate the Torah?