Religious Fanatics

                               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 valorize those who

like Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Jacob of Mainz became religious martyrs. Was Pascal, the seventeenth century French philosopher

who I just quoted, thinking of people like me? Or was he thinking of people who, in narrow-minded religious piety, ignore or

trivialize the commandment,Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain.” . This commandment does not 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 not to take/make/use God's name in vain 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 because most people desire to do less not

more. Yet in each religious tradition there a few who see the danger of excessive piety

and fanatical commitment. In the Talmud 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 Apostlewas 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 trying). And St. Augustine adds the remarkable insight

that, “To many, complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.”

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, 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 superrighteous.”

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 worshiping 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. The

Talmud, in the section that deals with public fasts, says “A person is forbidden to torture

himself.” meaning that you should not impose on yourself excessive fasting i.e. a stricter

fast than what the public does..It is time to stress the importance of living according to

this commandment and to translate it accurately:


MAKES HIS NAME VALUELESS.’ Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11 my translation

St. Augustine observed, “To many, complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.”