Foolish Piety: Chassid Shoteh
Chassid shoteh is the term used to describe a person who is foolish in his supposed acts of piety. As the Talmud explains, "What is an example of a chassid shoteh? When he sees a woman drowning in the river, he turns away rather than save her, so he will not be forced to look at [or touch] a woman." It goes without saying that not only should one save a person of the opposite gender who is drowning, but in fact, one is obligated by Torah law to do so. With only few exceptions, all mitzvot of the Torah are suspended in order to save a life.
Another example of a chassid shoteh is a person who sees a baby drowning in the river. In this instance, however, the individual is wearing tefillin. Instead of immediately jumping into the water to save the baby, the individual reckons to himself that he should first remove his tefillin so that they don’t get ruined by the water, and then proceed to save the baby. However, by the time he removes his tefillin, the baby has drowned.
In the two illustrations above, it should be obvious that saving a life comes before all other halachic considerations. More importantly, we also see that there is a fine line between piety and neurotic, misguided observance. In fact, the chassid shoteh designation is not limited to life-threatening situations. Other authorities include one who whose lifestyle is so restrictive that it is burdensome, to be a chassid shoteh. In many cases, taking chumrot upon oneself that are essentially uncalled for, or inconsistent with one's spiritual standing, is considered to be foolish piety, as well. Similarly, one who donates all his money to charity is also deemed to be a chassid shoteh as it is an act of “piety” that will force the donor into poverty. Indeed, giving too much to charity at any time is often included in this designation, as well.
Even when more stringent observance or extra piety might be called for, one should forgo it in the event that its observance will cause oneself or others any type of harm, damage, and sometimes even inconvenience. For example, it is told that Rav Yisrael Salanter would wash his hands only with a small amount of water before eating bread, even though the Talmud urges us to use generous amounts of water when washing our hands. He explained that the reason for his conduct was that his water was supplied by an elderly maid who carried water on her back. So too, it is told that the Chafetz Chaim once hosted guests for the Friday night meal who appeared to be hungry. He began reciting Kiddush as soon as he returned from the synagogue, without singing the customary “Shalom Aleichem.” The Chafetz Chaim explained that his guests need to eat as soon as possible; the angels, however, who aren’t hungry and don’t eat, can wait a little while longer for “Shalom Aleichem” to be sung. This is a perspective that must be kept in mind at all times.
There are many modern-day applications of the chassid shoteh. For example, there are a growing number of individuals who refuse to allow their children to receive routine inoculations, claiming that God will protect them if they get sick. Similarly, there are people who prefer to visit a saintly rabbi or mekubal rather than go to a doctor for treatment of serious ailments. Others are so "careful" in their Shabbat observance that they might deny themselves lifesaving treatment on Shabbat, or refuse to take non-kosher medicines, when such measures are needed.
A wise person will thoughtfully balance his observance and piety.
 Sota 21b.
 Tosfot, Sota 21b.
 Yerushalmi, Sota 3:4; Rambam, Pirush Hamishnayot Sota 3:4.
 Rambam, Hilchot Erchin V’charamin 8:18.
 Meiri, Sotah 20a. See also Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 20.
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 92:1.