The Sins Of Both Religious And Political Leadership – OpEd


The Talmud (Temurah 16a) says that the sage Yaʿabetz, who is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 4:10), invoked the God of Israel saying: “‘Bless me’—with Torah; ‘enlarge my territory’—with many students; ‘may Your hand be with me’—lest I forget what I have learnt; ‘spare me from harm’—provide me with compatible friends; ‘let me not suffer travail’—let not the Yetzer HaRa, the evil inclination prevent me from studying.” 

How does the Yetzer HaRa, the evil inclination, prevent religious and political leaders from studying?

By encouraging Catholic Bishops to rationalize covering up the sins of predatory priests in order to protect the Church from scandal, which would reduce the Church’s ability to help people. By encouraging Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis in Israel to suck as much money from the government in order to ‘enlarge my territory’—with as many full time Yeshivah  students as possible. And by encouraging many Imams to ‘spare me from harm’—provide me with compatible friends who want to keep females veiled up or uneducated. 

All these rationalizations are the results of Yetzer Hara arrogance, self-righteousness and super piety extremism. As Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist, and Catholic writer stated: “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?” And 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 is 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 religious riots in India, the slaughter of innocent Muslims at prayer by an Orthodox Jew, Muslim suicide bombers, and the molestation of young boys by Catholic Priests have all made religion seem valueless and brought disgrace upon organized religion’s reputation. A Hassidic Rabbi (Michael) taught, “When the Yetzer Hara 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 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 too 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.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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