In many world religions, the monastic lifestyle so prevalent in the paradigm of aestheticism is perceived as optimal for acquiring a spiritual life. Judaism, on the other hand, finds itself somewhere between aestheticism and hedonism. Judaism believes in taking the mundanity of physical life and elevating it to holiness, thereby infusing the spiritual with the physical.
Since Judaism is in the middle of the two aforementioned extremes, one can correctly infer that Judaism has a degree of abstinence involved. G-d gave the Jewish people commandments to follow, and a majority of those commandments are negative. If a Jew is wanting to follow the "will of G-d," that Jew cannot treat their actions with a laissez-faire, "anything goes" mentality. There would have to be a degree of self-restraint.
To help further assure that the commandments, the Rabbis, in their wisdom, "built a fence around Torah (Pirke Avot 1:1)." These rabbinic enactments, called gezeirot, were considered to be of greater piety than simply follow the commandment itself because it shows that the individual wants to take the utmost care to avoid even the slightest potential danger of violating a mitzvah (Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on ibid). I can certainly understand the benefits of such a maxim. It helps distinguish between what one wants and what one truly needs. The fences can help avoid the violations of commandments, which can help foster a closer relationship with G-d. The discipline in being able to self-restrain, and thus abstain, give people a better grasp exercising free will.
In short, these rabbinic fences can help make one a well-balanced individual who is a productive member of society. As the adage goes, "there's always too much of a good thing." In the Talmud (Baba Kama 79B), it states that a restriction should not be imposed on a given community unless the majority is able to abide by it. Considering that about ninety percent of the Jewish community is considered non-observant (i.e., not Orthodox), I cannot help but discern that "a fence around the Torah" has backfired somewhere along the way.
The Orthodox are obsessed with the concept of "stringency for stringency's sake." [I would also like to add that when I comment on the Orthodox community, I always feel I need to invoke the principle of "the further to the Right you go, the more it is true] I have met some Orthodox Jews that get some sort of masochistic pleasure of enjoying strictures. For such an individual, strictures "bring them closer to G-d," and anybody who does not share their euphoric state are deemed to be lax and lack any sense of G-dliness in their life.
I find this mentality to be troubling. What should have remained a fence has become a fence, a moat, a slew of Rottweilers, security towers armed with automatic weapons at various points, lasers, land mines, and a glass dome surrounding the area to make sure that no one can enter.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in his book "Between G-d and Man" (p. 161):
"In their zeal to carry out the ancient injunction, "make a hedge about the Torah," many rabbis failed to heed the warning, 'Do not consider the hedge more important than the vineyard (Genesis Rabbah 19:3).' Excessive regard for the hedge may spell ruin for the vineyard [the Torah]. The vineyard is being trodden down. It is all but laid waste. Is this the time to insist upon the sanctity of the hedges?"
What good are the hedges if most Jews are not appreciating the vineyard? These stringencies (hedges) have become so numerous and nuanced that many Jews are unaware that there is a vineyard, let alone appreciate the beauty of Torah.
As Rabbi Barry Gelman illustrates, there is a value to lenient rulings. "Lenient" does not translate to indifference, disdain, or laxness. If the current state of the Jewish people and Jewishness denotes anything, it is that the stringencies have caused such sentiment.
It is not too late to change the trend of non-observance. If there is any hope of bringing more Jews to observing Judaism, as opposed to the disheartening status quo, nothing short of a re-examination and re-vamping of Jewish law will be required. This is a daunting task since a large majority of Jewish practice has become "d'rabbanan." But on the positive side, we can change anything "d'rabbanan" without a Sanhedrin if the reasons for the fence have become moot. It will be difficult to achieve, in light of Orthodoxy's trend towards reactionary tendencies, but my hope is that such realization will come, and enough even-keeled people within Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy will do something about it before the Haredim take a monopolistic grasp at claiming itself to being the sole, valid way to practice Judaism, thereby eroding the diversity and adaptability in Judaism as we know it.