Why do some Jews prefer a strict rather than lenient rabbinic opinion?

An Orthodox and a Progressive rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION: Watching series like Unorthodox and Shtisel during lockdown, I was puzzled why people choose to follow the strictest interpretations of Jewish law. Why don’;t they go for a lenient opinion?

Rabbi Brawer: Your question betrays a value judgment, that lenient is better or more sensible. But that very much depends on the metric one is using.

One can approach religious observance from several perspectives each presenting its own metric. Let’s evaluate your question from three perspectives: sociological, psychological, and spiritual.

From a sociological perspective, individuals who wish to belong to a particular group, tend to “signal” their belonging by adopting practices or dress codes that are unique to the group. A community’s resources (time, energy, money) are limited and so in sharing out these resources, it will prioritise its own. 

The more elaborate or costly the signal shared by community members, the greater chance it flushes out impostors or free-riders who seek the benefits of belonging, without contributing. In the fictional Shtisel family, Lipa represents this sociological phenomenon. He is not particularly spiritual and has a penchant for rule-breaking.

Yet, what keeps him in the fold are the support structures his family enjoys from belonging to his community.
From a psychological perspective, there are individuals who chafe under rules and there are those for whom rules and boundaries are important, conferring structure and routine.

Most of the characters in Shtisel, particularly Shulem, never question the rules and do not appear to find them oppressive. Nor, for that matter do many within the real-life Charedi community for whom rules scaffold their lives and constitute its meaning.   

From a spiritual perspective, the rules of halachah are nothing less than the will of God. In integrating these rules and practices into one’s life the halachic adherent is, so to speak, bound up with God, or in the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, clasped in a divine embrace.

This perspective presents halachah not so much as a list of cumbersome rules but rather as an extraordinary opportunity to live a life imbued with divine purpose. In the fictional world ofShtisel, Ruchami’s pious husband, Chanina, best represents this attunement to halachah. 

Everything can be taken to extremes and there are times when a more lenient approach is called for, particularly when a stricter interpretation would impose unnecessary hardship on a third party. But looking at Jewish law through these three perspectives should offer clarity as to why, for many, strict observance of halachah is not something to be evaded but rather positively embraced. 

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer executive director of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: It is certainly true that there is a tendency within some sections of Orthodoxy to adhere to the strictest version of everything, even when more flexible options are possible within Jewish law. I suspect it is due to two reasons:

The first is the assumption that the more rigid one is, the more pious one is. The British may suffer from “keeping up with the Joneses” but some Jews suffer from “outfrumming the Cohens”. Leniency is seen as lacking commitment.

However, one of the great aspects of the Talmud is that it always presents majority and minority opinions, rather than a single viewpoint. It declares that “all are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b) and it sanctions diversity. A lenient approach can be the more sensible one in various situations and just as religious.

The second reason, which can affect even middle-of-the-road Orthodoxy, is that there is a fear that any lessening of the regulations might be seen as imitating Reform Judaism and suggesting that change is possible.

It is curious how change has become identified with lack of authenticity, even though change has always been part of Judaism; initially, anyone could perform animal sacrifices at any altar anywhere, then this was limited to the Temple and only by the priests, then they were abolished completely.

In the Bible you were Jewish if you had a Jewish father (hence it mattered not that Joseph married an Egyptian or Moses a Midianite), but in rabbinic times it switched to going through the mother. How massive was that! (And now Reform has made it equilineal — whichever parent is Jewish).

Abraham would not recognise the Judaism practised by Hillel, while the latter would find Shtisel very strange. In fact, the Talmud itself admits this pace of change in the legend of Moses sitting in a class taken by Akiba and being totally perplexed by the Judaism he was teaching (Menachot 29b).

In Reform circles, therefore, the issue is not “strict” or “lenient”, but “appropriate”. For instance: is the concept of Shabbat appropriate? Yes. Is the ban on travelling in a car appropriate when it enables participation? No.

Being Jewish means constantly re-assessing, with tradition as the starting point, but with factors such as moral values or changing circumstances also coming into play. As a fictional grandmother might say: “lenient, shmenient, so long as you do the right thing”.

Rabbi Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

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