Taking Jewish Law Too Far

At Passover, innovations of Jewish law abound, but if we take halakha seriously, then we must apply it to our world – to our context.

There is a joke about a man who comes into synagogue with a big smile on his face. His friends look at each other, and then walk over to ask him what he is so happy about. The man looks around the synagogue to see who is listening and says proudly, “I’ve got a new chumra (strict observance), and I’m not telling anyone about it!”

There is a tendency in the observant Jewish world today to accept the strictest interpretation of Jewish law. Despite precedent and rational thinking, both of which have factored into halakhic decision-making for centuries, recent rulings by some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have added stricture upon stricture. Example abound. One rabbi in Bnei Brak recently declared the use of water faucets as forbidden on Shabbat. A few years ago, while I was living in New York, the tap water was declared unkosher due to the possibility of microbes floating within. And of course there are the unnecessarily strict rulings about the requirements for conversions and the restriction placed on woman in public ceremonies and spaces in Israel.

A customer checks dairy products on display at a Kaiser's Tengelmann supermarket - Bloomberg

These strict rulings are most problematic for the Jewish world when they infringe on the practices and interpretations of other Jews. But they are also problematic because they make Torah seem unfeeling and insensitive to the concerns of today.

Even with all of these strict rulings during the year, the strictest opinions come out during Passover. It seems like kosher for Passover certifications appear on everything – no matter how unnecessary. Last year, during Passover, I was in a supermarket in Minneapolis and found a nectarine with a “Kosher for Passover” certification on it. A better example of innovation in Jewish law I have yet to see.

Let me be clear. I don’t mean to say that observing the laws of Passover, or the details of halakha in general, is wrong. On the contrary, taking halakha seriously is important. But, if we truly take halakha seriously, then we must apply it to our world – to our context. Too often, in matters of halakha, we lose the forest from the trees. When paranoia dominates practice, and we are so absorbed with the minutia of the law we forget why we are following it in the first place.

I recently heard one story of how this can happen. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the great 20th century rabbi, ethicist, and halakhic decisor who was also known as the Chofetz Chaim, had a Kiddush cup. It was passed down in his family, and is now in the possession of one of his grandchildren. I’m told that today, his family refuses to use Rabbi Kagan’s Kiddush cup because it is not considered large enough to hold the required amount of wine for Kiddush. Apparently, if it was good enough for the Chofetz Chaim, it is not good enough for his grandchildren.

To me, letting a new opinion on the amount of wine required for Kiddush supersede the connection that one can create with a revered family member misses the point. And this is the risk we take when we let strict opinions rule in our halakhic discourse.

As our tradition teaches, keeping Passover means not only ridding our homes of chametz but our hearts as well. Too often strict religious observance brings with it an attitude exemplified by the smiling man in shul. Our goal in our observance is not to be holier then everyone else, but to strive to be holy like G-d. It is only through approaching G-d with humility this can be achieved.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.