“Fanatical religion driven to a certain point is almost as bad as none at all, but not quite.” -Will Rogers
My Talmud instructor (Rebbe) at Yeshiva University (YU), Rabbi Shimon Romm of blessed memory, had a lasting impact on me. Since his childhood he was considered a Torah prodigy. He was an alumnus of the famed Mir Yeshiva that escaped the Nazis and ended up for a time in Shanghai. After Shanghai, he spent a number of years in Israel and subsequently moved to New York. At YU he was one of the only Rabbis that gave his classes in Hebrew. He had a photographic memory and a sharp sense of humor.
A line I heard from him often was “don’t be too religious”. He was particularly acerbic against the growing movement of Jews who continually sought greater levels of strictures in the name of religion. In that sense, he mirrored the thoughts of the Netziv on the episode of Korach and his supporters.
In this week’s Torah reading, two hundred and fifty men of ostensibly high religious standing join Korach’s desert rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach and his supporters are killed by very clear divine intervention, with the two hundred and fifty men being burned by divine fire when they bring incense as part of their effort to reach an even higher level than what they were at.
The Netziv warns in Numbers 16:1 that an attempt to reach too high in ones holiness can actually lead a person to go against basic commandments that God does demand we perform. It becomes ironic that a person seeking to become holier ends up failing in basic principles. The Netziv claims that though the person may get some credit for good intentions, they are nonetheless punished by God for their wrong-headed, holier-than-thou, anti-Torah acts.
As something else that Rabbi Romm would say: “Be a mentsch (well-behaved man) before trying to be a tzaddik (a holy man).”
May we aim for high levels of holiness, without forgetting the more fundamental commandments that are the basis of good, proper human relationships.
To the safe and speedy return of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.
Mazal Tov to our Akiva on his graduation from high school.