Thursday, February 16, 2023

What Is a Chumrah and What Is Halacha

If you haven't discovered it already, 2 Jews equals 3 opinions! And it is entirely possible for all of those opinions to be correct. How is that possible?? I'm Jewish, so I could give you 18 answers to that question.

The best answer I can give you is that Judaism is not only NOT a monolith - Judaism isn't intended to be a monolith. "There is no Jewish Pope," as people like to say. (Not anymore that is - that would be the Kohen Gadol in the destroyed Beit Hamikdash and presumably again when the Temple is rebuilt.)


In Judiasm, multiple answers can and are valid. We have a strong tradition of different communities having different rulings, and this is codified in the Talmud/Gemara. Much of the Talmud, written down approximately 1,500 years ago, consists of "Rabbi A says X, Rabbi B says Y, they debate, and either no answer is given or both are declared valid." 

So in a nutshell, those positions from the Written and Oral Torah are the "halacha" and there can be multiple "correct answers" to any halachic question. "The halacha" - the "minimum standard" - is rarely clear-cut, often has multiple answers, and often depends heavily on the context of the question and the person asking.


So if multiple positions can be valid, what is a chumrah?

A chumrah is going "beyond the letter of the law." One example is the idea of hiddur mitzvah - going above and beyond to make a mitzvah beautiful, like buying the most beautiful menorah or etrog.

All agree that it is generally an admirable thing to go above and beyond the halacha (generally, so long as it is done with the right intention but even that is up for debate). However, a chumrah is by definition *not* required by the halacha. It is a voluntary assumption of something *beyond* the halacha. Anyone who tries to tell you that a chumrah is the minimum standard is wrong by definition.

But on the other hand, a "chumrah" can become "the halacha" if it becomes pervasive community practice for a very long time. That is discussed widely in the Talmud, where the rabbis note the basic halacha, but that the community usually went above and beyond (especially in kashrut/kosher food issues), so that that position then became the "minimal halachic standard" because the entire community had accepted the stringency as the minimum. Most chumrot began life as a minhag/local custom.

So let's look at a common example conversion candidates run into. This is why you find (so so so many) rabbis saying that "the halacha" is that women must wear stockings on their legs, because in many chareidi and chassidic communities, those communities have accepted stockings for well over a century as a minimum standard to fulfill the mitzvah of tznius ("modesty," for lack of a better English translation). But of course, each community argues over what color those stockings must be, whether they must have a visible seam, etc. That debate is a discussion for another day.

But even if a chumrah is binding on one community, it is not binding on communities who did not accept that as common practice. No matter how much some YouTube rabbi tries to tell you otherwise.

So what does this mean for you? Always take any statement of "the halacha" with a grain of salt. Says who? Is that halacha or is that a minhag or is that a chumrah? Is it d'oraita or d'rabbanan? Does your halachic authority hold by this? Does your community hold this way, or is this another community's position? What does your community actually do, regardless of what they may say?

I don't mean to sway you from what you are doing if you want to take on a chumrah. I just want you to understand the definitions we're dealing with so that you can make informed decisions (and I want you to not force your chumrahs on other people).

Just because someone tells you something is "halacha" doesn't mean it is "the halacha" you personally are obligated to do. And if you're a nerd fascinated by every detail of Judaism, which I've found most conversion candidates are, it's just dang interesting to know and understand what the basic halacha of a question is, and what chumrahs and minhagim exist for that same question. And it makes you a better Jew! After all, that's almost entirely what the Gemara is - debating what's the rule for a specific situation and why.

On any specific question, check with your rabbi, but you should also develop a feel for how your rabbi deals with chumrot and minhagim - many rabbis play fast and loose with the distinctions between halacha, chumrah, and minhag and don't really seem to care about the distinction. And some react poorly to being asked what kind of position X is. 

If it's important to you to know the difference, make sure you say so. But if you're still in the conversion process, that may not be the wisest question to ask because some say it suggests insubordination and a lack of respect for authority, which they may also call halacha shopping (#NoNotBitterWhyDoYouAsk). This can be true even with non-orthodox rabbis, so don't assume this is an orthodox-only problem. 


Ideally, find a rabbi who will take your questions positively and with the respect they deserve. But that's not always possible. If your local/sponsoring rabbi isn't that kind of person, then it's perfectly okay to have a second person for these kinds of questions, and that may be a friend or mentor rather than a rabbi (even better if your friend or mentor also happens to be a rabbi!). And I'll let you in on a secret - your rabbi doesn't have to know you have this other person. Because just having more than one person to ask about halacha could also be seen as insubordination, lack of respect for authority, and halacha shopping. For example, I've always advised that a pet owner get a rabbi specific for pet issues who is also a pet owner - but that doesn't mean you have to tell your rabbi that you have a "pet rabbi." After all, no one wants to be made to feel like you don't trust them with a question they feel capable of answering, even though my experience personally and professionally in the conversion space has taught me that most rabbis are completely unqualified to answer pet questions. They don't know how much they don't know.

Don't be afraid to ask questions, but use good judgment about who you ask those questions to and how you phrase it. The situation for the inherently curious conversion candidate has gotten even more toxic in the years since my own conversion. Keep being curious, even if it scares people who want you to shut up and not ask questions. This is your one, beautiful life. Learn everything!

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