On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Religious fanatics..​. When has one gone too far?

 I once heard that there's an easy way to tell when one has gone off the deep end and gone way too far in their religious observance... It's if they have one more stringency in Jewish law (called a chumra in Halacha) than I do.

The same is true to know when someone isn’t so religious... If they have one more leniency (called a kula in Halacha) than I do.

Isn't that how most of see things?  We know what we know and believe what we believe and judge everyone else accordingly.  If o hear that someone wakes up at 4:30am to start learning Torah, it sounds crazy to me.  It really does. When I tell someone that I typically get up at 5:00 am, to study Torah, it's normal to me, but it probably sounds crazy to them and it goes on and on.

This past Shabbas I listened to a d'var Torah from a Rabbi that I know, whom I also have a friendship and have what would be best described as a joking or playful relationship with often teasing each other about this or that.

When discussing one particular stringency (chumra) of a group of Chassidim, which he was not one of, stated that he believed their stringency had gone way too far.  He quoted R’Chaim of Volozhin, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, who said that the source of (these types of) stringencies were routed in the evil inclination (yeitzer harah.)

When he finished, I asked him “Do all chumras have their routes in the yeitzer harah or just the ones that he doesn’t have?” 

He had no answer.

This led me to think about when has one gone too far?  After all, should we adopt every possible stringency that we can or should we avoid them? 

It seems to me that this is a very subjective issue depending on the following factors:

  1. Does the stringency bring you closer to G-d or drive you farther away? 
Many years ago, I was with a very close friend of mine who had starting reconnecting with his Judaism around the same time I had.  It was around the high holidays and he confessed to me that he was O.J.’d.  (over Jew’d.) He had simply reached a point where he was burnt out, mainly because of a custom he picked up in the community where he lived of saying certain lengthy verses every day.  He told me that it had gotten so bad, that he missed davening the afternoon prayer (Mincha) the day before.  I advised him the immediately stop with his new chumra and his custom was leading him in the absolute wrong direction.  Taking on additional service of G-d, beyond the letter of the law, should inspire us… if it doesn’t, one should seriously question why they’re doing it.  Fitting in with one’s community, while important, should not be put above our relationship with our creator.
  1. What effect does this have on those around me?
Years ago, I used to daven at morning minyan that very often had exactly 10 men.  At the time, I was working on improving my concentration in prayer (davening).  The effect was that I would pray an exceptionally long Shemoneh Esrei.  The custom of this shul was that they would not start the repetition until every person was finished praying, so that there would be 10 men to answer Amen to each blessing in the repetition.  One particular day, while I was in the middle of my long davening, I overheard a situation where one of the men had to leave in the next 5 minutes.  I then witnessed one of the men tell the prayer leader (shilach tzibbur), who was his son, to start his repetition even though I was still davening so they could hear the repetition before the minyan broke up.  The son thought this was inappropriate and said no.  A slight argument broke out.  The son walked off the bimah and the father walked on to pray the repetition.  I felt horrible.  Praying with proper intention is a wonderful quality, but on this particular occasion, my desire to daven properly came at a very high price.  I never bothered to consider the effect this had on those around before that situation.  I continued to pray with that minyan for a long time, but I never extended my prayers past the rest of the group.  I focused more on quality rather then quantity with that group, or any other similar situation.  I’m not advocating that one not pray at length or with proper intention, G-d forbid.  I am saying that one should be conscious of those around them.  The effect that a chumra may have doesn’t just end with the congregation.  It can also have a significant affect our family.  Just like our chumra should bring us closer to G-d, it should also bring our family and those around us closer to G-d.  If our chumra is affecting them in a negative way, one should seriously consider whether the cost is worth it.

All of this being said, chumras are the spice of observance.  They’re the strength on our relationship with G-d.  There’s a beautiful idea in the Gemara Berachos, page 20 which states The Jewish People took upon themselves to recite Birkat HaMazon after eating even when they are not technically "full." They thus go beyond the letter of the law, and therefore they deserve to have Hashem treat them beyond the letter of the law.

We all must decide for ourselves what we should do in every particular situation.  When taking on any new chumra, I find it’s best to ask my Rebbe, my wife and pray to G-d for the proper answer. 

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