Several ideas came to mind as I read this engaging piece by Rabbi Allen S. Maller.
First, what constitutes taking God’s name in vain arguably is a matter or debate in itself. For instance, in a previous post were I relate that I occasionally talk to God in a humorous way about the beauty of women, some could see that as trivializing the gravity and importance of a deep relationship with God. I get that. I just disagree. If God is to be our friend, then we should behave like a true friend—total honesty and not pretending to be something we are not.
The other main point I am sure Rabbi Maller is aware of is that some people are simply insane. I’m not convinced that some individuals fully believe in their supposedly religious cause. If I remember right, one of the 9/11 terrorists spent the night with a prostitute before fulfilling his ‘holy’ duty. So much for teaching through example.
It is a mistake to attribute any kind of integrated rationality to insanity. And I believe God would take that insanity into account when judging such individuals. My guess is that some violent and conflicted individuals get off far more lightly in the next life than most of us would imagine. For only God knows someone perfectly and thus can be the perfect judge.
I could also talk about corruption within religion. But I’ve done that elsewhere and would like to keep this intro manageable.
Allow me to simply say that Rabbi Maller is right when he says all the human crud surrounding religion tends to do great harm. Hypocrisy can turn people off from even trying a given religion. This is unfortunate because I believe in many instances psychological conditions like so-called “depression” or “alienation” could be dramatically alleviated if viewed through the lens of religious practice. But many distressed individuals will not even consider this option. This is a collateral sin that religious hypocrites are guilty of. Most people see through a veneer of phony piety – or perhaps sense the toxic vibes – and simply stay away.
According to the writings of some Catholic mystical saints, God is hardest on priests and religious who knowingly abuse their sacred calling. I’m not sure if that is true but I wouldn’t be surprised.
DO NOT TAKE GOD’S NAME IN VAIN
“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. As St. Augustine observed, “To many, complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.” 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 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 trying).
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 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 it all, you don’t grasp anything at all.” 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:
‘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)
Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: http://www.rabbimaller.com. He blogs on the Times of Israel. Rabbi Maller has published 400+ articles in some two dozen different Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. He is the author of two recent books: “Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms’ and “Which Religion Is Right For You? A 21st Century Kuzari”.