Just a thought: On stringencies

Israel provides the perfect backdrop for explorations of Judaism, as it serves as a open classroom for “everything Jewish.”

Masada 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Masada 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have the privilege of teaching Jewish college freshmen who come to Israel to spend a year exploring the country and their Judaism. Israel provides the perfect backdrop for such explorations, as it serves as a open classroom for “everything Jewish.” The students, away from their parents for the first time for anything more than a summer, use the time to experiment in finding their unique identities as both people and as Jews.
Judaism – a religion of deed, not creed – defines itself by the observance of the mitzvot.
A good Jew is rarely described as a “believer” but rather as a shomer mitzvot, a keeper of the commandments.
Many of the students come from homes in which the commandments are kept as a matter of culture, and not because they seek to live in consonance with the covenant or God.
In fact, one of the fears parents have in sending their children to Israel for the year is that they “frum out” – which is defined as the student taking seriously the more than 13 years of formal Jewish education, and taking on any observance in which the parent themselves are negligent.
Yet, away from their parents and communal norms, many of these students try on various observances “for size” and take upon themselves various mitzvot they are drawn to.
Some choose mitzvot that reflect a growing relationship with God, others choose mitzvot that are more representative of their relationship with the community. All of them, though, have this sense that the more stringent the observance, the better it is.
While why this is so deserves to be studied and explored, I would like to entertain the argument that religious stringencies can be a good thing, if they are few in number and are born out of an understanding that this is a stringency and not a norm.
I try to explain to my students that stringency is almost always good with regard to how careful you are with other human beings. What I mean by that is not that you should be strict with other people, but you should be strict in your relationship with other people.
This translates into: Be as cautious not to hurt another person as those Jews who sit for hours examining lulavim.
Be careful when it comes to financial matters, and make sure you are never in a position to profit from others unfairly. I remind my students that kosher money is usually more difficult to find than kosher food.
Be strict in not saying anything about another person that lowers them in the eyes of others.
Be diligent in honoring one’s parents and looking for ways to help them.
One’s stringencies, however, should never infringe upon another person. The great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes is attributed with stating: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” I explain to my students that their right to be stringent ends where other people’s lives begin. It is very easy for stringent religious behavior to be the result of narcissism, as opposed to genuine spirituality.
One’s observance of a stringent position in Halacha should never put someone else out.
I think that in some respects, it shouldn’t put you out either. In other words, there is no value in a stringent position just because it is hard. God does not award extra points for choosing a harder opinion. Your job is to keep the mitzvot and yes, according to the pain, so is the reward. But that is not a license to choose a difficult opinion when there is a perfectly acceptable lenient opinion.
Your choice of a stringent position, therefore, should only be the result of a relentless study that leads you to that opinion. In other words, you have studied the issue enough to be aware of the lenient opinions out there, and when you choose the strict opinion it is because it coincides with your intellectually honest opinion.
My teacher, commenting about the growth of religious stringencies, once shared an interesting insight that has put me in good stead. He said that if you are stringent, you will get olam haba (the world to come, or heaven) , but if you are lenient you get olam haba and olam hazeh – you’ll still get to heaven, but you’ll also get to enjoy this world! What my teacher was saying was that observing the commandments less stringently is just as valid and equal in value to observing a stringent opinion. They are, as the Talmud put it, both the words of Living God. One who waits six hours between milk and meat should do so because they really believe that six hours is a fulfillment of the divine mandate of separating dairy from meat. They can also do it because it is a family custom. But one thing is clear: They do not get double the “reward” of those who wait only three.
Prof. Haym Soloveitchik explained: “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” Religious stringencies are an expression of trying to find God and build a relationship with Him. My students, therefore, are trying to make things harder on themselves in an attempt to find a God that was pretty much absent from the last 18 years of their lives.
Let’s hope they learn more productive ways of finding Him.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.