Saturday, November 13, 2010

Do We Really Appreciate What We Have?

Judaism is full of rules and regulations. Often enough, we may be confronted with a halacha that we come to view as a stricture, as in "If only I wasn't prohibited to do X, then life would be that much more fun/interesting/care free/insert-other-adjective-here." But do we really appreciate what having some guidelines for life really does for us?

I just read an article about a rapper who converted to Judaism on the New York Times website (thanks to Hirhurim for the link) that is simply inspiring in my mind. Maybe it's just my background as a ba'al teshuva, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone in any of these sorts of articles (which seem become more and more common place - maybe the geulah is coming soon after all J) really talk about how Judaism provides a productive structure for living. Most of the time, the convert talks about find spiritual fulfillment, meaning in general, but not in the fact that Judaism places stringencies on your everyday conduct.

In high school, I saw many good, Jewish kids, who excelled in their Judaic and secular studies at our day school, veer off into paths of indulgence, partying, and involvement in things like underage drinking, smoking, and drugs. Thankfully, none (that I am aware of, though I know of other similar kids who attended my high school after I graduated) degenerated to the level that they needed to spend time in a rehab center or were arrested. One of the key things my parents noticed most about my transformation into a pretty straight-laced ba'al teshuva was that I never got into the trouble that many of my peers did (not that I want to be boastful about my behavior at all, I simply have my then-newfound devotion to learning and observance to thank for keeping me out of trouble). Because I knew being involved in a number of the activities my peers chose to partake of were problematic halachically, I avoided the greater conflicts that were present in doing what they did with their lives.

Anyway, I want to quote a few sections from the article that really emphasize this point, which I think many FFB people simply have no understanding of - not because they intellectually can't, but because their background doesn't provide the framework to wrap their minds around it.

“What are the laws?” he said, explaining his decision to adhere to the Orthodox level of observance. “I want to know the laws. I don’t want to know the leniencies. I never look for the leniencies because of all of the terrible things I’ve done in my life, all of the mistakes I’ve made.”

As one of my rabbeim once told me, we live in a chumra-obsessed society. People want to take on every chumra (stringency) to be frummer than the next guy - it's nothing but a competition lacking the soul. Do people honestly take on chumros for the purpose of having greater order in their life - to prevent the chance of making a mistake, because being lenient might give them, personally, a greater leeway to commit an aveirah?

“What I do get is boundaries,” he said. “Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself.

“All these rules, rules, rules,” he said with his hand on an open page of the Talmud. “But you know what you have if you don’t have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don’t know when to say when and no one tells you no, you go off the deep.”

It's so true, so very, very true, at least from what I've seen with friends and acquaintances. Good, decent kids, who lacked a continuing adherance to even the more minimal observance of Judaism which they had pre-high school just go totally off, not off the derech, but off the entire map altogether, ending up who knows where with a boatload of problems. It's very true that a major part of all this was a laxity in parenting that didn't encourage rules in general, but kal v'chomer who didn't encourage their children to continue to find meaning within the bounds of Torah study and mitzvah observance. I know of a few very good kids who have since gone off and intermarried because of this sort of free-for-all with regard to rules.

Everyone, on their own level, needs to come to terms with what it means to live a Torah-observant lifestyle, and find meaning in the "do nots" and "shall nots." Hopefully, it won't take a prison sentence to open our eyes to the Emes of the gift that has been given to us by birth - or the gift we recognized as True and chose to accept - in our Jewishness. If so many people, including those from not-so-great backgrounds, can discover real meaning, not just in the spiritual highs, but the seemingly "monotonous" rules as well - then maybe we can bring the geulah that much closer to fruition.

*As a caveat, I do not necessarily agree with Shyne/Moses Levi's hashkafic views that since there's nothing mentioned in the Chumash about driving fancy cars or living "the lifestyle that I live," that it's okay to be totally extravagant. The second bit may be slightly out of context, considering the article doesn't really depict him as living the gangsta rapper lifestyle anymore. We should still live modestly, comfortably, but not necessarily with total indulgence just because we have boatloads of money. If you're able to live very confortably, why not put the extra money to better uses like philanthropy or visiting Israel? But that's just my short critique.

Additionally, I am not in any way in favor of super-observance to the point of driving kids off the derech. Mindless observance without meaning gets you nowhere good. Finding the depth of meaning, and applying it to our lives is the key.


  1. Very fascinating, thanks for sharing the article. You make a good point about how people just take on chumras. I had a Rabbi who once said that people take on chumras because it is easier to be stringent if you don't know the Halacha- it is the lazy move, and it takes effort to look up and figure out that maybe something is really OK. I agree with your point that people just take on chumras to be frummer than the next guy, but I think unfortunately many FFBs are the opposite and do feel the way you said- that Judaism is just a bunch of rules and restrictions- and so they look for every way out and every way that they can get around keeping halacha. There are both approaches. Whether someone is trying to keep as much as possible, or trying to keep as little as possible, I very much agree with your statement that "Mindless observance without meaning gets you nowhere good."

  2. SternGrad - interesting point about people taking on stringencies because they don't know the halacha. Of course the goal should also be to learn what the halacha truly is or ask trusted Rabbi/teacher. However if someone truly doesn't know the halacha and doesn't have an immediate way of finding it out, I think being stringent rather than lenient shows that you care more rather than less and is admirable. Of course you need to make sure that you later find out the true halacha, and don't come to be overburdened by or resentful of your chumras.

  3. girl123- I completely agree, it is better to be stringent rather than lenient if you are unsure, because, as you said, if Halacha is really important to you then you want to be as careful as possible not to sin. Sometimes, though, people have the wrong motivations for taking on extra chumras.


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