Here’s one version of a story you’ve surely already heard:
One day in Eternity, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, late leader of the Shas Party, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the world’s Lubavitcher Chassidim (whether “late” or not remains subject to interpretation), find themselves elbow-to-elbow at a shalishudes buffet in the Heavenly Academy.
At the tish, divrei Torah flow faster than the l’chaims, as the likes of Moshe Rabbenu and King David seek to out-hiddush the talmidim of Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Even latter-day gedoylim, such as the mehaber, Rabbi Yosef Karo, and the venerable Mishnah Brurah, fall silent before the fountains of Torah gushing forth from the mouths of the Masters.
But as sweet as the Torah is, the buffet also holds its attractions.
Behold, fresh from the holy of holies of the Supernal Temple, the lechem hapanim (“shew-bread,” for those who read Shakespearian Bible translations)! Breathe deeply the aroma of the roasted meat from the Peace Offerings! Tired of herring and sardines? Feast upon bite-size fillets of Leviathan, salted away since the days of Creation, now spread out as an appetizer before the Messianic banquet!
Surveying the scene with a practiced halachic eye, the venerable Rabbi Shach nudges the Rebbe with a respectful elbow: “Nu? Do you know who is appointed to supervise the kashrus?”
Replies the Rebbe: “Haven’t you heard? Der Eybershter Himself, the Blessed Holy One, is catering the affair in honor of King Messiah!”
Rabbi Shach, absorbing this information, considers a moment and instructs his shammes: “Maybe I’ll have the salad. No dressing, please.”
And it’s a good thing, too, that this interchange happened in the timeless realm of Eternity in the Heavenly Academy. Because, given recent events transpiring in the sub-lunar community of the Mundane Academy, it’s not likely that Rabbi Shach would even have permitted himself the salad.
As Prof. Chaim Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University pointed out over a decade ago in his meditation on the “bookification” of Modern Orthodoxy, one of the surprising developments in contemporary Jewry is the spread among balebatim (“observant but relatively unlearned Jews”) of standards of observance once expected only of the rabbinical elites of Eastern Europe.
Among the Orthodox, the diligent search for humrahs (“strict constructions of halachah”) is notorious. To take a homey example: Many in today’s “Frum From Birth” Orthodox communities grew up preparing a cup of tea on Shabbos by dunking a teabag in a cup of hot water. Pouring the boiling water directly onto the teabag in its cup would raise the specter of “cooking.”
Nowadays, by contrast, producing a shabbosdik cup of tea is an elaborate ceremonial procedure like something out of Buddhism: One pours hot water from the kumkum into a cup, empties the first cup into a second, and, finally, adds a healthy splash of tea-essence prepared prior to Shabbos. Thus we avoid the twin dangers of “cooking” the tea leaves (in the first cup) and the temptation of squeezing the tea bag’s excess liquid into the second, which would be a sub-category of the prohibited labor of dishah (“threshing”).
Even Hollywood has picked up on the new humrah culture. The recent spoof of contemporary American Jewish life, When Do We Eat?, features a family seder with all the usual types, including a sourpuss son who “frums out,” and seems only to visit his family in order to ostentatiously refuse their hospitality.
From my little perch down here in Seward Park, this new dimension of halachic rigor is reflected in many ways, most disturbingly perhaps, in the divisive multiplication of Orthodox Day Schools. But, shy as I am of controversy, let me focus on the buzz that arose around the circulation of a certain memo from the Va’ad HaRabbanim several months ago.
In a detailed letter to the community, the Va’ad announced a new regime of rather laborious and, some hold, unfamiliar and unreasonable standards for ensuring the freedom of table greens from insect infestations. Not only would the average family have to invest more time and effort into the preparation of such notoriously “buggy” items as broccoli, asparagus, and berries, but restaurants and caterers carrying the Va’ad hechsher would incur new labor costs to hire checkers to meet the new standards.
Many of us, who for years have dutifully rinsed our lettuce leaf by leaf and considered ourselves observant, now wonder: “Do we really need to put broccoli through a strip search that would do credit to El Al’s counter-terrorism division?”
No one, I assume, really wants to eat bugs. But, in the same measure, how many miniscule arthropods have you seen poking their beady little multi-lensed eyes out of your broccoli crudités lately?
I think most observant Jews will agree that, when it comes to commandments bayn adam lamakom (between creatures and their Creator) we want to conduct our ritual obligations in accord with demanding standards as defined by the most qualified rabbinic authorities.
Our default mode is to accept the occasional humrah as halachic research catches up with new conditions, technologies, and unanticipated challenges. Especially where kashrut and Shabbos observance are concerned.
But, at the same time, the Jewish world is rocked by moral scandals such as those symbolized by the names Tendler, Spitzer, Rubashkin and, most recently, Madoff. Perhaps, in such days, when the drums of halachic stringency are beaten, their message might include a little less about the dangers lurking in broccoli or strawberries and a little more about the dangers to civil society when we fail in our obligations bayn adam lehavero — to inter-human relations.