The burning of witches, the Inquisition, and Jihad suicide bombers are horrible examples of religious extremism because, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully, as when they do it from religious conviction.” (Pascal)
All religions condemn hypocrisy. But condemnations of religious excesses of fanaticism and extremism as hypocrisies; are much less frequent. Since most people are underachievers rather than overachievers this is not surprising; although many in our generation need to relearn the virtue of religious moderation: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” Ecclesiastes 7:16
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 who 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).
A Hassidic story relates a good example of the sin of over-religious piety. A pious Hassidic Rabbi known as Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner. A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers.
His disciple, Rabbi Asher, wanted the bullet removed right away but Rabbi Shlomo refused and said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing, “Should we forget God the Creator of the universe for such a small thing?” After Shabbat was over, they went to a doctor but by then the leg was infected. The infection spread, and five days later, Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56.
Perhaps with this in mind, Hassidic Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt [good] people to sin, it tempts them to become super-righteous.”
As the Babylonian Talmud says: Those who deny themselves wine are sinners; how much more [sinful are] those who deny themselves too many [other] things; for the Talmud states: “Do not fast in excess.” Ta’anit 11a
But eating in excess is also bad, as the Talmud says, “One who eats to much of any kind of food invites sickness.”
For as a general religious principle: “It does not matter whether you do much or little, if you direct your heart to Heaven [God]” Talmud B’rakhot 17a
This applies not only to eating and praying; but even to Truth for: “When you add to the Truth you subtract from it.” Talmud Sanhedrin 29a
Even some Hassidic sages taught the potential counter-productivity of always adding or seeking perfection. Rabbi Abraham of Kalisk taught that: “Increasing the oil in the lamp may, God forbid, cause it to be extinguished.”
What about the Mitzvah of charity? The Talmud limits the percentage of one’s charity [why should you destroy yourself]?” but not its frequency; for you can give without loving but you cannot love without giving; so “Providing charity for poor and hungry people weighs as much as all the other commandments of the Torah combined.” Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 9a