Thursday, March 04, 2010

For God's Sake

For God’s Sake: You don't have to be "right" to be correct by Chaim Burg

Reviewed by Shmuel Sofer

This book, written by American-Israeli Chaim Burg, deals with a very important and controversial topic. It is his polemic about the trend towards increasingly strict observance of halacha and why the phenomenon seems to be so prevalent and increasing. The author is American educated and raised but has lived in Israel for the last several decades. Having been born in 1938, he has witnessed first-hand how both American and Israeli Orthodoxy has evolved. The book’s dust jacket describes him as a “writer-lecturer and communications innovator involved in children’s and adult education.”

This book is not a scientific study aimed at better understanding an observed trend in Jewish ritual/legal observance. Nor is it an historical study per se but it does contain elements of both. The author discusses the various approaches to religious observance by referencing a number of different traditional and contemporary sources and recording how they dealt with issues that arose in their time and critically contrasts them with the contemporary state of affairs.

Click here to read moreSummary

The author begins his book with a discussion of halachic development over the ages and from there segues into a discussion of why people adopt strictures -- chumrot. There are several reasons proffered as to why people adopt chumrot: 1) Uncertainty and fear of doing the wrong thing, 2) a desire to enhance one’s personal commitment, 3) and herd mentality. Of these three rationales, Burg argues that the while the second one is the most appropriate it is in reality the least common.

In the past, Burg argues, poskim would take under consideration not just the relevant source material as related in the Talmud, codes and precedent responsa but they would also deal with questions on an individual basis as necessary for the individual questioner. Religious decisions were individualized. In part, this was because the local rabbi was the primary local authority, knew his community and their needs well. At the same time, the community was relatively uneducated and dependant on their family as the conveyors of traditional practice and their rabbi as their source of knowledge. Today, we live in a shrinking world where communication is rapid, the average observant Jew has a much more extensive education both Jewishly and secularly than prior generations and there has been a proliferation of written material which is easily accessible. Basic questions are often not posed to the rabbi since information is readily accessible from one of several printed texts. He argues that this has ultimately led to the loss of authority of the local rav and the rise of the role of the gadol-posek and rosh yeshiva in his place. The latter two are simply viewed as being more knowledgeable than the local rabbi of the past and with modern day communication they are easily accessible as well. Of course, this comes at the cost of the decisors not being as intimately familiar with the people who come to them for rulings. As a consequence, rulings are often issued to avoid uncertainty and as a matter of communal precaution and protection.

Burg correctly notes that sometimes people will accept upon themselves stringent practices in an effort to enhance their own personal commitment. He argues that this is and should be an individual choice and not a communal practice. He cites several examples of great rabbinic leaders of the past that adopted a stricter standard for themselves but not for their community or followers. He argues that those who do adopt such stringencies are obligated to be even more scrupulous than others in their general comportment and behavior to avoid hypocrisy and Chillul Hashem. An unfortunate consequence, he argues, is that the scrupulous behavior of the few becomes the norm of the many, who develop a herd mentality and inappropriately feel a need to follow suit. The book is filled with numerous examples of the latter and the obvious criticisms thereof.


The author is obviously a sincere and committed Modern Orthodox – Religious Zionist. He quotes widely from various segments of Orthodoxy, he buttresses his points mostly by referencing some of the paragons of modern Orthodoxy and contemporary scholarship. I would argue with his statement that “Torah doesn’t change but halacha does.” A better and less controversial formulation would have been that Torah doesn’t change but the practical application of halacha does. (I believe Rabbi Hershel Schachter has said the halacha has always been that under circumstances X we should do A and under circumstances Y we should do B. Of course X,Y, A and B may be subject to dispute.)

In truth many of the points he raises are widely recognized and echoed in many segments of Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, he fails to provide any solutions to the present state of affairs. It is doubtful that he would advocate a society where the general population was less educated or the exchange of information was more limited. Likewise, there are several communities (both Charedi and Modern Orthodox) that have strong local rabbinic authorities both in Israel and abroad, who rule for their community on most issues.

Burg seems to be disturbed by stringencies that have proliferated during the last 50 years, such as the widespread preference for glatt kosher, chalav Yisroel, wearing tzitzis out, “yeshivishe dress” etc. He seems to confuse things which are stringencies based on halacha and custom. Issues of glatt, milk etc. are clearly issues of law while wearing dark pants and white shirts is a function of custom and identification. In regard to issues of law, one man’s stricture may be another’s basic law. Burg clearly recognizes that halacha may have different application at different times and locations so that the leniencies which applied in the past regarding kosher meat may have been limited to that locale and socioeconomic condition and therefore a stricter interpretation may, in fact, be more appropriate for a contemporary, more affluent society.
He correctly points out that we all accept certain stringencies and reject others. No one would argue that men wearing head covering (be it a knit kippah, a black yarmulke, or anything else) is a universally accepted stringency that has been accepted by virtually all Orthodox Jewish men. The same can be said of wearing a tallis (kotton). Those who choose to not wear these items are not violating any basic halacha but are clearly not in step with the community as a whole. Burg would not likely limit these strictures to the select few but takes issue with other more recently disseminated stringencies.

Regarding accepting chumrot as a personal expression of enhanced religious commitment, the author argues that this should be limited to the select few and that the wider proliferation of strictures seen today is more often due either to “one-upsmanship” or “herd mentality”. He also seemingly criticizes the punctilious attention to minutiae of halachic detail at the expense of the essence and core rationale of the mitzvah. These criticisms may resonate with the reader at first yet a bit more thought will put them in perspective.

No less than Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z’l has written repeatedly how halacha is suspicious of emphasizing the feeling and sense that a mitzvah is said to generate at the expense of the meticulous execution of the law. It is not sufficient to have your heart in the right place but one’s actions must conform to the halacha and then the feelings must follow. Likewise in his recently translated work “uvikashtem misham” “And From There you Shall Seek”, Rabbi Soloveitchik describes how the goal of a religious life is that we develop a personal and close relationship with God -- deveikut. He notes that the person who comes to desire such a relationship inevitably looks to the Torah leaders and emulates their thoughts and actions. Through the observance of halacha and the study of Torah, the individual hopes to elevate himself spiritually. Clearly, many of those who accept upon themselves chumrot feel that if they walk the walk and talk the talk, eventually they too will think the thought.

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