We're going to talk about chumrahs and how they turned me away from orthodoxy. [Clarification: Before I came back. Keep reading.]
Wikipedia (totally legit for citations, right? Right.) defines a chumrah as "a prohibition or obligation in Jewish practice that exceeds the bare requirements of Halakha." I have tried to cite a "neutral" source rather than give my own definition or that of another allegedly-biased voice. Before we go on, I also want you to read the rest of the entry for "chumrah." I promise it's short. Go now, I'll wait. Done? Good. Moving on now that you have a foundation...
Let me begin by saying that there is a time and a place for chumrahs. However, not all chumrahs are appropriate for all people at all times. Chumrahs should be adopted for the right reasons and when the person is ready to take them on. After all, they're a kind of vow, as far as I can tell. If you aren't ready to take it on, there is no sense in breaking a vow when you could satisfy the halacha without the chumrah.
When I first began exploring Judaism in 2004-2007, I was in an orthodox congregation though I was not observant. Because of what I had been told, I didn't believe it was possible that I could ever be observant. Someone taught me unusual chumrahs because of either a) wanting to discourage the potential convert; b) thinking it was funny to see what I'd believe; or c) not being a practicing orthodox Jew, leading to unintentionally passing on misinformation or the "strictest" answer they knew. I honestly have no idea where these ideas came from, and I'm glad I don't remember because I could be very bitter about it. I feel like I've lost years of my life thanks to this person or group of people. Of course, everything is part of the path you have to take, but this seems a particularly cruel thing to do to a potential convert.
These were not chumrahs present in my community, and honestly, they aren't present in many communities. However, I had less exposure to my community's practice because I was the only person in my age group. Therefore, I didn't have anyone who could model the observant lifestyle of a college student. There was a generation gap in the community from the age of 14 to the parents of the children, and all the families were in a satellite shul of the main shul. In the main shul itself were primarily retired people, visitors to the city, ...and me. I didn't have a role model, and certainly not one at the same stage of life, which I now believe is essential, especially for a conversion during the transition into adulthood.
So...I left the orthodox world, but couldn't leave Judaism. I moved to rural France, but still couldn't imagine living by any calendar other than the Jewish one. I dorkily read the Aish and Chabad websites every week. I didn't want to stop learning. (I'm sure you would all have something to say about chumrahs and those sites, but this probably isn't the place.) I came to law school, and I decided I needed to shake this "Jewish thing." I decided to date non-Jewishly for marriage (full disclosure: I did continue to date non-Jews while considering conversion while living in the orthodox community. After all, I was never going to be able to convert.). I decided that I should only date atheists because I couldn't bear the thought of raising my children as Christians or as any other religious group. I had at least narrowed down my options to A) Jewish or B) Nothing. (The Noachides are a story for a different day.) I discovered that in the atheist community, they have their own version of the shidduch crisis: Few openly-atheist women, and all atheist singles worry about the possibility of an ATM (atheist-till-marriage). Everyone had a friend who had married a staunch atheist, only to have the partner turn 180 degrees once children were born and insist on a traditional religious upbringing. (Somewhat counter-intuitively, it was usually the father.)
I had vowed to date non-Jewishly for one school year to see if I could live a non-Jewish life with a non-Jewish partner. In December, only halfway through the experiment, I realized that almost every atheist I had dated was Jewish. And that it wasn't for me. I was seeing a very nice Jewish boy at the time who is staunchly atheist, but I couldn't do it. I was unreasonably excited to have met a nice Jewish boy instead. So...I stopped dating. I said I would pursue a conversion at the end of the school year, as the first year of law school doesn't leave much time for anything else. And I almost made it too! As soon as classes were over, I thought attending one service at the conservative shul was manageable, even though it was finals. I was wrong. I went back every day. Exams be damned. I was like a person marooned in the desert who discovers an oasis. I converted conservative less than a year later. (One year minimum is standard in the movement and that community, but as you've figured out, I had a lot of prior Jewish learning.)
Why did I convert conservative? I'm not sure I have a good answer for that. Conversion is such a complicated decision that involves every aspect of your heart and mind. I do admit that I should have researched the conservative movement more. I didn't understand the movement as well as I should have. But that is another discussion for another day.
In short, my conservative conversion asked me to essentially be modern orthodox observant, but allowing electricity on Shabbat. After some initial angry emotional issues after the conversion (mostly unrelated to this discussion), I knew it was time to calm down and fulfill what I had agreed to. Thankfully, I had the knowledge to know what I had agreed to do and to make an informed decision at the time of the beit din. Because of that, while the beit din obviously didn't intend to ask me to stop driving on Shabbat, I knew that if I was going to agree to the halachic standards the beit din required, I was going to take on orthodox observance of the mitzvot. And that is what I agreed to do when I became Kochava.
While I would probably feel more conflicted about my Jewish status if I didn't believe there were procedural issues with it, I do feel that I did everything "right" for a halachic conversion. But in halachic conversion, there are two elements required (you know, besides the other ones): the convert and the beit din. Just because I fulfilled my side of the halachic deal doesn't foreclose the possibility that the beit din didn't. It takes two to tango, in other words. But I think I was the only person on the dance floor. I easily say that I'm not Jewish. (I prefer "not halachically Jewish.") If everything had been done "right," maybe I would feel more conflicted. Small blessings in a painful experience?
How does this backstory relate to chumrahs? Once I had vowed to be orthodox, I had a dilemma on my hands: I had left orthodoxy precisely because I had been convinced that it was impossible for me to be observant. So now, I was convinced that I could only be a bad Jew, but I had agreed to fulfill the mitzvot, so I was going to do it the best I knew how. No emotional difficulties there, right? And so I left the conservative movement and came back to orthodoxy, even though I didn't think I could ever measure up to the halacha.
But it wasn't like that. Amazingly, I became fully-observant in 3 months. It was intuitive and organic. It was almost easy. It helped that pre-Conversion 1.0 I was already dressing relatively tzniusly, mostly observing Shabbat, and paying attention to kosher issues before everything hit the fan.
The problem is that I didn't know I was already fully observant. I thought I was still a horrible Jew, violating halacha left and right. Due to unrelated circumstances, I didn't have any rabbinic guidance at the time and for a long time after.
However, the week of my conservative conversion was registration for Birthright, and I had registered. Completely unrelated to everything you've just read, I "accidentally" ended up on a modern orthodox-specific birthright trip. I wouldn't necessarily call our group modern orthodox, as we included MOs, Satmars, Lubavitch, and "just plain orthodox." The point is that it was a "religious" trip.
On Birthright, I discovered that I was already fully-observant. And on this trip was born "Spot Kochava's Chumrahs." My roommates discovered something was off when I apologized for breaking Shabbat in front of them by brushing my teeth. They looked at me like I was from Mars. Thankfully, they still love me.
When I returned to Sacramento, I felt more "ok" about life and Jewishness. I no longer suffered the guilt of being an apikores (heretic), but I suffered from confusion and frustration. What else do I do that looks crazy? This is still something that concerns me.
When my other close friend Ilan came to Sacramento, he very quickly joined the Spot the Chumrah club. Until I turn 120, this "game" will be associated with my friends Lily and Ilan. While I spent 10 days in 24 hour contact with Lily on Birthright and we continued talking all the time after returning to the US, Ilan saw me in Jewish contexts every week (and sometimes every day) for nine months. He was very knowledgeable Jewishly (and in everything else), so he was subjected to most of my questions. More often than I would like, and to my embarrassment, the response was a sad look and "Who taught you that??" I credit him (and Heshy Fried of Frum Satire) with most of my knowledge about orthodox societal norms. Ilan also taught me the variance in halacha. I knew it existed, but I didn't know many of the details. So many books and sources for baalei teshuva and conversion candidates only teach the machmir interpretation a) for fear of misleading someone into rejecting their community standard or b) in order to give the "acceptable to just about everyone" ruling. Remember that I managed to survive 7 years with essentially zero Hebrew knowledge. (Also a story for another day.) I am truly a credit to the availability of Jewish knowledge in English, but I am/was unprepared to study the originals.
I don't disagree with that approach for those who are new to orthodoxy, but for people in more isolated areas and/or without rabbinic guidance and "adoptive" orthodox family, those are the only answers they hear long after they've progressed beyond that early stage. Being steeped in "chumrahs-are-the-only-acceptable-answer" leads to that very annoying "flipping out" phenomenon that is characterized by self-righteousness at having discovered The Truth. Being a Southerner raised by atheists, I'm not a fan of people who have discovered The Truth and feel morally obliged to tell me how wrong I am.
So...now you've all been wondering what "crazy" things I was taught. Some have a stronger basis in halacha than others. Just to be clear, there's a basis for all of these, but they certainly aren't "the only answer" or even "the most common answer." I know there are others, but I can't remember them now. Quite honestly, I have tried to forget because of the embarrassment they've caused me.
- You've already heard not brushing teeth on Shabbat. This is probably the best-supported of the chumrahs here, but it's not common practice in most American communities. Thankfully, people seem pretty in favor of hygiene. I am morally opposed to the furry teeth feeling.
- Likewise, washing your hands on Shabbat with anything other than cold water. No handsoap for the reason above.
- Watches are per se muktzeh. (Per se means no exceptions.) Later, I began wearing a watch on Shabbat because I hated that I couldn't break the automatic negative snap-judgment I made of people who wore watches on Shabbat. I had learned this wasn't so, but the idea had become so engraved into my mind, it was hard to adjust my thinking any other way.
- You can't walk on grass on Shabbat. Yep, I believed you can only walk on concrete or other non-natural surface. After all, you might pull up/break some grass. I still double-take when I see people taking outdoor walks on Shabbat that aren't on a sidewalk. I'm not quite ready to do it myself. And yes, I will hop over that bit of grass in the sidewalk. Now, it's almost funny because of the obvious analogy to "step on a crack and break your mother's back." However, this makes me feel even stupider because this chumrah is almost like a superstition to me now.
I continue to watch my actions and wonder what other chumrahs I have. I have been trained to think that "everyone does it that way." And it's hard to break over 7 years' of thinking. Sometimes it leads to very embarrassing situations, though now I know better to be embarrassed in silence and ask a question later rather than air my ignorance in public. The beauty of having just enough knowledge to get yourself in trouble.
And in summary, this is the WRONG way to discourage a potential convert. I assure you that halacha is terrifying enough without pulling out every minority opinion back to the Mishnah.
Likewise, let's remember that discouraging the potential convert is the job of the rabbi. It is not in the province of a layperson. Discouragement is not required in all cases, and all the other halacha have to be followed when doing it. Discouragement is not an excuse for someone with a couple of years of Jewish education to throw out all the interpersonal halacha and treat another human being poorly, Jewish or not. Leave discouragement to the professionals.