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November 10, 2009

Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman

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Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman
What is the value of lenient Halachik decisions?
Issues of monetary expense, shalom bayit and kavod habriyot (human dignity) are well documented as factors in applying lenient halachik rulings. This blog entry begins a discussion on applying lenient Halachik decisions as a way to open the gates of observance to as many people as possible. I argue that once a person is shown that they can live a halachik lifestyle in certain areas where they may have been challenged, they will be more able to adopt halachik living in other areas. Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson stated that: “If the rabbis in America fifty years ago were as great as today’s halakhic authorities, able to see clearly and anticipate developments, they would have found ways to permit, on the basis of the Shulhan Arukh and the decisors…and we would not have come to the sorry situation that prevails today. “
In this passage Rabbi Hirschenson is pleading for Poskim to Halachikally ease the situation of those who find it difficult to observe Shabbat as it had been understood in his time. I understand this approach to be in the spirit of what Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot: Hillel says: “Be like the students of Aaron. Love peace and pursue peace. Love humanity and bring them close to Torah.”
One responsibility that religious leaders (but not exclusively religious leaders) have is to bring people closer to Torah. One way of doing that is by interpreting Halacha in a way that makes Halachik living accessible to as many people as possible.
Here is an example from my experience. A few years ago I met with a couple who were slowly but surely adopting an observant lifestyle. During the course of our conversation this couple mentioned that they had a set of china dishes that were a family heirloom. The dishes were given to them by a family member who did not keep kosher and were most probably used with either treif food or interchangeably for both dairy and meat. They then told me that they were under the impression that the dishes could not be “koshered.” They told me as well that the dishes had important sentimental value to them, and that they were saddened by the notion of not being able to use them. After seeing how difficult this decision was for them, I shared with them the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who allowed kashering china in circumstances very similar to theirs and told them that I thought that they too could kasher their dishes. At that moment the wife turned to her husband and said with a gleam in her eye, “See, I told you we could do it.” She went on to explain that they had been bombarded with so many strict interpretations of Orthodox Judaism that her husband began to doubt whether or not they could pull off a total assimilation into orthodoxy.
In hindsight, I could have tried to convince the couple that their attachment to the dishes should not serve as a barrier for further religious growth and counsel them how to best integrate themselves into orthodoxy –just without the dishes! –but instead, I simply removed the barrier. Removing barriers to religious growth can be a very effective tool towards increasing religious observance and we see that this method has, in fact, been used by great poskim. This is being a student of Aaron.
In the response that records Rabbi Feinstein’s permissive ruling about china he invokes the idea of takanat ha-shavim, regulations or enactments made in order to help those who wish to repent (literally: return). Rabbi Feinstein understood that the use of permissive rulings in cases such as this would make the road to observance easier to navigate for those who wish to embrace an orthodox style of religious observance.
A related phenomenon is the common occurrence that halacha guidebooks often offer the more stringent opinions as the only or highly preferred options. One example of this is the issue of making egg salad or tuna fish on Shabbat. There is an impressive list of poskim (Rav Shlommo Kluger, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Rav Avraham Borenstein, known as the Eglei Tal and Avnei Nezer), who rule that the prohibition of mixing substances into one mass only applies to items that grow from the ground, therefore excluding tuna fish and egg salad from the prohibition entirely. Notwithstanding this, the contemporary shabbat halacha guides reject such an option. This may seem like a small issue but it is precisely rulings like this that make observance very hard to accept. Marginalizing positions like these is an error that will ultimately lead to less observance.
When discussing leniencies and stringencies, we should not focus on the spectrum of less stringent or more stringent, but rather on the strategic use of leniency to encourage greater observance. Put differently, when rendering halakhic decisions, rabbis should not focus on whether or not a decision is in line with the most stringent approach or is in accord with as many opinions as possible, but rather on the long term affects the particular decision will have on an individual’s level of observance.

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