‘Do not be overly righteous’

One of the most divisive issues facing the Jewish world today is the place of humrot (“religious stringencies”) in our daily lives.

Jewish woman in burka 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Jewish woman in burka 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
One of the most divisive issues facing the Jewish world today is the place of humrot (“religious stringencies”) in our daily lives. This issue most recently surfaced during the riot in the city of Beit Shemesh over the lack of gender segregation on Egged buses in the area.
On the one hand it is undeniably accepted and proper to create a “fence” around the commandments, as did our Sages in times of old so that a person should not fall prey to sin, as is written in Ethics of our Fathers, “and make a safety fence around the Torah” (Chapter 1:1).
On the other hand, the Torah clearly states, “The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it” (Deuteronomy 13:1). Additionally it is written, “Do not be overly righteous” (Ecclesiastes 7:16.).
How are we supposed to reconcile these two conflicting interpretations? Maimonides writes in The Laws of the Rebellious Ones, “A court has the authority to issue a decree to forbid something which is permitted and have its decree perpetuated for generations to come.” However, he then writes that while this holds true, if the Sages declare that their rabbinic enactment is to be considered equal to a Torah prohibition, then they are transgressing the verse “...you shall not add to it.”
This explanation from Maimonides helps us to reconcile our question above in regards to how one must balance humrot. It is permitted and commendable to enact stringencies, but it must be clear and known at all times that they are stringencies and not the law itself. Unfortunately, the failure to comprehend this distinction can lead to devastating results.
While very much a contemporary issue, much has been written and said on this topic by leading Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. Over 20 years ago, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik commented on this phenomenon of adding stringencies and in (“Al Ahavat HaTorah“) On the Love of Torah writes: “On the one hand the young talmidei hachamim [“Torah scholars”] of America occasionally tend toward exaggerated extremism which is frightening in its arrogance; frequently, they move in the opposite direction and agree to concessions and the path of least resistance. In a word, they are perplexed in the pathways of Judaism, and this perplexity is the product of an imperfect grasp and experience of the world.”
Sadly, this trend is not limited to the United States and has not slowed down with the passage of time, but rather has intensified on both ends. The exaggerated extremism Rav Soloveitchik decries, expressed in the stringencies that are now passed as law, has today surpassed even the wildest of imaginations. And the path of least resistance as referred to above can easily be applied to modern rabbinic leaders who at times fail to combat this growing trend with a strong voice.
Furthermore, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (d. 1893) writes that there can be dangerous consequences when practicing stringencies which fall beyond the letter of the law. He writes quite clearly that in some cases a person’s intense desire to draw close to God through enacting stringencies can lead to behavior that is against halacha (“Jewish law”).
Rav Shlomo Aviner provides a rubric which I believe if followed correctly will ensure that going beyond the letter of the law will not impinge upon the law itself.
First and foremost, he writes, a person must follow the letter of the law and do all that is required, avoiding the negative commandments and observing the positive ones. Only after fulfilling these baseline requirements, a task which is no simple matter, should a person begin to accept stringiness upon themselves.
With that in place, even once the decision is made to accept a stringency there are still two more conditions that must be taken into account.
Rav Aviner writes that a person must consider whether or not the stringency in one matter will lead to a leniency in another. He explains that if a person is stringent and meticulous to perform the command of rebuking one’s fellow, even to the point where he embarrasses him publicly, this is no longer stringency but rather a leniency in “loving thy neighbor.”
The Talmud illustrates the concept of “a pious fool” with the following two examples: A woman is drowning, and a man with the ability to save her does not do so because it is improper to look at a woman. Similarly, a small child is drowning and a person delays saving him until he removes his tefillin (since jumping into the water while wearing tefillin is disrespectful toward them). By the time he has removed the tefillin, the child has drowned (Sotah 21b).
The common denominator in these examples is a lack clear understanding of what is actually required of a person in a given situation, and the fallacy of inappropriate stringencies leading into horrendous miscarriages of action.
The second condition, according to Rav Aviner, is that if a person wishes to practice beyond the letter of the law they must first make sure that they are doing it with the pure motivation of drawing close to God and not for any egocentric reasons.
Rav Shlomo Volbe in his work Alei Shur asks if our motivation to go beyond the letter of law has pure motivations, then why is it that the vast majority of stringencies are between man and God and not also between man and his fellow? He writes, “We must ask ourselves why He would only expect that premium level of service in our halav Yisrael milk, and glatt kosher meat, and not expect the same level of premium service in our level of charitable giving, true love and support of other Jews even those with views that differ from ours, meticulous care to go beyond the letter of the law in our business dealings and monetary interactions.”
A true desire to cleave close to God would reflect itself in all dimensions of spiritual service, both between man and his Creator – and no less important – between man and his fellow.
And with this we should merit to “walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:33).
The writer serves as the Jerusalem Campus Rabbi for the Aardvark Israel Immersion Program.