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An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

God's commandment
against religious extremism

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I am sure most religious people shudder when they hear terrorists who are religious fanatics using Scripture to support their violent actions. For several years I have sought texts that condemn extremism and the arrogant assertion of personal judgment.

I gradually realized that the condemnation was staring at me from within the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 (my translation):

"DO NOT MAKE VALUELESS THE NAME OF ADONAI YOUR GOD, FOR ADONAI WILL NOT SANITIZE ONE WHO MAKES GOD’S NAME VALUELESS." *

This commandment doesn’t refer to the important issue of perjury, or to the trivial issue of profanity. Perjury is prohibited in the ninth Commandment and profanity by itself isn’t serious enough to be placed in the Ten Commandments.

This commandment refers to the great harm done to religion, and to God’s reputation, when religious people do despicable deeds in God’s name.

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The burning of witches, the Inquisition, and Jihad suicide bombers are examples of the misuse of God’s name in religion. This commandment warns religious people that:

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” (Blaise Pascal)

All religions condemn hypocrisy. But condemnation of religious fanaticism and extremism as hypocrisies is much less frequent. Since most people are underachievers rather than overachievers this is not surprising.

Almost all religious leaders think most people need to be more devoted and committed, and this is true. But our generation also needs to stress the teaching of Rabbi Isaac. He condemned the extremism of self-imposed abstinence saying:

“Aren’t the things prohibited by the Torah enough for you, that you wish to prohibit yourself additional things?”

Or as a Muslim Hadith reports: Muhammad told Muslims:

"Religion is very easy, whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So do not be extremists, but try (only) to approach perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded (just for that).

If self-imposed extremism is condemned, how much more the extremism that hurts others. Indeed, all disgraceful activities by religious people reflect negatively on their religion and on God.

In Judaism this is called "Hillul Hashem" -- profaning God’s name/reputation. In recent years religious riots in India, the slaughter of innocent Muslims at prayer by an Orthodox Jew, Muslim suicide bombers, and the cover up of molestation of young boys by Catholic priests have all made religion seem valueless and brought disgrace upon organized religion’s reputation.

God tells us that such activity must not be covered up or sanitized by believers. It must be vigorously and publicly condemned since it undermines the very ability of religion to influence people to live according to God’s directives. People know that sometimes religious people can do dastardly things.

But when piety influences religious leaders to attempt to rationalize, sanitize, or cover up, rather than to publicly condemn these activities, people will increasingly reject organized religion and God. A religious piety that does not require morality and kindness is valueless and hypocritical, and thus as serious a sin as worshipping other Gods or idols.

A Hassidic Rabbi (Michael) taught:

“When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super-righteous.”

Fanatics believe the ends justify the means, thus subordinating God’s goal to their goal.

Extremists believe that more is always better. To them the Talmud says:

“If you grasp too much, you don’t grasp anything.”

Our Rabbinic sages extended the prohibition of misusing God’s name even to taking unnecessary oaths i.e. not required by a court, and making unnecessary blessings i.e. not required by Jewish law.

Personal piety and sincerity do not justify excessive behavior even if self-limited. People should not misuse their piety by going beyond normal community limits and justify it in God’s name. The Talmud says,

“One who eats to much of any kind of food invites sickness.”

This applies just as much to spiritual food as it does to material food. Humility should prevent religious people from the arrogance of deciding that a small number of dedicated extremists can act as God’s fist.

Religious people must be the first to speak out to condemn fanaticism as making valueless the name of God. If we don’t; then we too transgress this commandment.

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* Note:

Exodus 20:7 is translated in some popular English translations of the Bible as:

  • King James Version: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

  • New International Version: "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

  • New Revised Standard Version: "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name."

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Rabbi Maller's web site is at http://www.rabbimaller.com.

Links to many of his donated essays can be found in our Judaism menu.

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Originally posted: 2014-MAY-18
Latest update: 2014-MAY-18
Author: Rabbi Allen S. Maller

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