DO NOT TAKE GOD’S NAME IN VAIN By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” I think of this statement whenever I hear of suicide bombers targeting another group of innocent civilians. I think, and I shudder, because I too am a religious person who values personal commitment and self sacrifice for a religious cause. I also value and honor those who like Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Jacob of Mainz
became religious martyrs in our tradition. Was Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher who I just quoted, thinking of people like me? Or was he thinking of people who, in their narrow-minded religious piety, ignore or trivialize the commandment, “Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain.” . This Mitsvah 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 included 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. The burning of witches, the Inquisition, the Crusades and Jihad suicide bombers are examples of the religious misuse of God’s name. This commandment warns religious people in general and religious leaders in particular that, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
All religions condemn hypocrisy. But condemnation of religious fanaticism and extremism as hypocrisies is much less frequent. Yet Rabbi Isaac 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?” A Muslim hadith tells us “Whenever Allah's Apostle was given the choice of one of two matters, he would choose the easier of the two, as long as it was not sinful to do so, but if it was sinful to do so, he would not approach it.” And Prophet Muhammad also 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 we have seen riots between Hindus and Muslims in India, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, the slaughter of innocent Muslims at prayer by an Orthodox Jew in Hebron, Muslim suicide bombers, and the molestation of young boys by Catholic Priests. These acts make religion seem valueless and bring disgrace upon organized religion’s reputation. A Hassidic Rabbi (Michael) 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 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, the two previous commandments.
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 to 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. It is
time to stress the importance of living according to this commandment and to translate it accurately:‘
DO NOT MAKE VALUELESS THE NAME OF THE LORD YOUR GOD, FOR THE LORD WILL NOT SANITIZE ONE WHO MAKES HIS NAME VALUELESS.’ Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 my translation.