Avoid extremism in your own religion and politics

The FBI’s annual report on hate crimes shows 2019 was the deadliest year on record with 51 recorded hate crime murders: last year marked a 113% increase from 2018.

A PEW study in 2019 found that “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009” – those remaining “religious” also dropped by the same percent. So fewer people are religiously committed and more people are politically committed.

A striking 2016 public opinion survey emphatically highlights this when compared to a similar poll in 1958 regarding Americans who strongly identify as Democrat or Republican. In 1958, “18 percent said they would want their daughter to marry a Democrat and 10 percent a Republican, while an overwhelming 72 percent said they wouldn’t care.”

However, in 2016: “Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they wanted their son or daughter to marry a Democrat and 27 percent a Republican, leaving only 45 percent to say they didn’t care” (https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-interpolitical-marriage-increasingly-frowned-upon).

Humans are not only social animals, they are also “tribal”. Most humans prefer and seek out “like-minded” people to be with. In the past religion served that purpose, enabling political identification to be a non-existential identity, but something relegated to a specific area of life. Unfortunately, when religious identity wanes, another “strong affiliation” will take its place.

Most people whose knowledge of Islam is derived from the daily news would be shocked to learn that Muhammad told Muslims, “Religion (Islam) is very easy, whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So do not be extremists, just try to approach perfection, and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded (just for that).” Narrated by al-Bukhaari (39) and Muslim (2816).

I often think of this Hadith when I read or hear of terrible things being done in the name of God by pious people in my own religion as well as pious people in other religions.

Faithful believers, who worship the One and only God, and who sincerely follow the teachings of their religion, find it very hard to understand how other people who worship the same God and follow similar religious teachings, can engage in acts of corruption, coverup, and deliberate terrorism.

Perhaps we think that people of other religions can do such things; because we do not know in much detail what their religions actually teach them. But we do know our own religion, and we know that it does not permit the sexual exploitation or murder of women and children.

Yet we frequently read of such activities, not only being done by members of our own religion but condoned or covered up, by some leaders of our own religion. How can this be explained?

All religions condemn hypocrisy. Almost always this refers to those who claim to be believers and yet do less than they should. But what about those who do more than they should?

Examples of condemnation of religious fanaticism and extremism as hypocrisy within one’s own religion are much less frequent. It is not easy to tell your own pious followers that more isn’t always better, or that pious intentions do not justify evil deeds.

The Talmud records a good example of this rare type of criticism of the more is better philosophy. Rabbi Isaac condemned the extremism of some super pious Jews who advocated extra self-imposed abstinence saying, “Aren’t the things prohibited by the Torah enough for you, that you wish to prohibit yourself additional things?”

And as I said above. 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 and is one of the reasons that the percentage of people in the United States who have declared themselves to be without any religious identity has doubled in the last two decades.

In recent years religious riots between Muslims and Hindus in India, the slaughter of innocent Muslims at prayer by an Orthodox Jew in Hebron, Muslim suicide bombers throughout the Middle East and in Pakistan, and the cover-up by Bishops of molestation of young boys by some Catholic Priests in the U.S. and Europe, brought terrible disgrace upon organized religion’s reputation; and a recent rise in the number of atheists in the USA and Canada.

One way to understand these terrible events is in the light of a saying by a Hassidic Rabbi (Michael) who taught, “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”

 God tells us that such activity must not be covered up or sanitized by religious believers.

It must be vigorously and publicly condemned since it undermines the very ability of God’s religion to influence people to live according to God’s directives. We all know that religious people are human and 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. Religious piety that does not require morality and kindness is valueless and hypocritical, and thus as serious a sin as worshiping other Gods or idols, the first two of the Ten Commandments.

The third commandment applies to pious religious hypocrites ‘DO NOT MAKE VALUELESS THE NAME OF ADONAI YOUR GOD, FOR ADONAI WILL NOT SANITIZE ONE WHO MAKES HIS NAME VALUELESS.’ Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 (My translation)

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 and/or religious leaders try to cover up or sanitize the sins of religious people to preserve the institution’s name.

The burning of witches, the Inquisition, and suicide bombers in mosques and restaurants, are examples of the misuse of God’s name by some segments of organized religion.

This commandment warns religious people and their leaders that, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” (Pascal)

Fanatics believe the ends justify the means, thus subordinating God’s goal to their personal or political goal. Extremists believe that more is always better. To them the Talmud says, “If you (try to) grasp it all, you don’t grasp it at all.”

The 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.

How much the more so if extremists judge others by their own perfectionist standards?

Religious people should not misuse their piety by going beyond normal community limits, and then try to justify it in God’s name. This is a religious principle that Islam, Judaism and Christianity apply to both excessive personal, as well as political behavior.

As the Bible says, “Do not be overly righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 7:17); and as 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).” Narrated by al-Bukhaari (39) and Muslim (2816)

And Ibn al-Muneer said: This hadeeth is one of the signs of Prophethood. We have seen, and the people before us saw, that everyone who goes to extremes in religious matters will be cut off and doomed.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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