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Carried to the Extreme

When Jews do things, for better or for worse, they do them in a big way


Many people are familiar with the statement of Chazal (Sanhedrin 63b) that the Jews of earlier generations in history “knew that there is no substance to idol worship, and they engaged in it only in order to give themselves license for openly immoral behavior.” It is, in a certain sense, a comforting idea, as it conveys that we Jews weren’t intellectually drawn toward nonsense, and even when it seemed that we were, it was only a portal to satisfy physical drives.

But what is less known is that the Gemara doesn’t conclude there. It goes on to ask a series of questions from sources indicating that over the course of history, Jews indeed became very, very drawn to idolatry. They were “all in,” to the point of willingness to die for their beloved deities.

In one episode related by the Gemara, a tzaddik named Eliyahu was searching for starving Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the first Churban when he came upon a Jewish boy lying in a trash heap, his stomach bloated from hunger. He was the sole surviving member of a family of three thousand. Eliyahu asked the boy if he wanted to learn something that would help him merit to stay alive, and he agreed.

When Eliyahu told him, “Say each day, ‘Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad,’” the child snapped at him, “Be quiet!” He didn’t want to even hear the mention of Hashem’s name, something his parents had never taught him. And at that, he removed an icon from his clothing, hugging and kissing it until his abdomen burst. The statue fell to the ground and he fell dead upon it. He had literally loved his god to death.

How does this reconcile with the teaching that Jews only worshipped foreign gods cynically, for their own immoral purposes? The Gemara answers that once they became attached to their idols, Jews became true believers, pining for them the way a father longs for his son. The Gemara explains that this is what the pasuk means when it says, “Vayitzamed Yisrael l’Baal Pe’or — and the Jews became tightly fastened to the worship of Baal Pe’or” (the idol worship the Jews engaged in at the end of their desert sojourn after Bilaam failed to curse them) which involved practices of extreme self degradation.

To Chazal, that tragic Jerusalem child was no outlier. He represented a tendency we have as Jews to become fiercely attached, both intellectually and emotionally, to the most bizarre beliefs and deluded causes, to the point that no amount of reasoning or evidence is able to sway us. Indeed, although Chazal enjoin us, “Dah mah shetashiv l’apikores — know how to respond to a heretic,” they qualify that as referring only to a non-Jew. As for a Jewish apikorus, however, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 38b) concludes that one is not to engage him in debate because doing so will only lead him to become even more entrenched in his (dis)belief.

When Jews do things, for better or for worse, they do them in a big way. From the earliest years of the modern era until the events in today’s headlines, Jewish masses, ranging across the religious spectrum, have often outdone even their non-Jewish neighbors in society in their religious-like zeal for ideological movements and slavish devotion to cultish figures.

But this isn’t only a lesson about the Jewish relationship to idolatry and heresy; it’s representative of the idea that whether for the good or the bad, Jews live life at the extremes. That’s a natural outgrowth of the Jewish view on life: We’re in This World for a very short time, there’s a great deal to accomplish, the obstacles we face are legion and the stakes couldn’t be higher, nothing less than eternity. When a Jew acts on that worldview, the greatest things can be achieved; but when the lower self prevails, the fall is even greater.

In parshas Bechukosai, the Torah guarantees that if the Jewish people toils in Torah and observes the mitzvos, every manner of blessing will follow. There will be material plenitude, peace and security and military victory, a burgeoning population, and above all, Hashem’s presence will rest within the people. And what if the nation doesn’t toil in Torah and observe the mitzvos? Chazal tell us that the failure will lead to an inexorable moral and spiritual descent consisting of seven stages. Each leads ineluctably to the one below it until, ultimately, they are kofer b’ikar, denying G-d’s existence — and it all starts not with the initial sins, but when the enthusiasm for Torah learning stops. And then reaching rock-bottom, the terrifying curses of the Tochachah enumerated in Bechukosai then descend.

What a study in the starkest contrasts: promises of the greatest blessings if the Jewish nation toils in Torah, on the one hand, but frightful imprecations for failing to do so, on the other. But that is us, a nation of extremes. We are the azin sheb’umos, the fiercest, most invincible of nations, and only Torah tempers that potentially dangerous character (Beitzah 25b). When we rise high, there’s no nation higher than us, and when we sink, no one sinks lower (Kesubos 66b).

In a well-known letter (Kovetz Igros 3:61), the Chazon Ish writes: “Just as we don’t find lovers of wisdom who love wisdom only a bit but hate it in abundance, so too in regard to those who love Torah and mitzvos, there cannot be love of moderation and hatred of extremism… The kind of moderation that’s acceptable is for those who are moderates to love extremism, longing for it with their whole selves and educating their families to aim for the heights of extremism. How pathetic, however, is the moderation that despises extremism.”

The great conundrum is, of course, that in our individual spiritual lives, we must employ moderation and incrementalism. To bound up the ladder stretching heavenward poses the grave risk of tumbling down many rungs or even falling entirely off, because in our personal avodah, extreme measures rarely make for healthy, lasting personal progress. We must cultivate tolerance for others’ failings and an acceptance of our own, even as we continue to work on ourselves. In refining our character traits too, the way to succeed is by adopting the golden mean that shuns extremes.

But the overall goals toward which we strive and what we see as our highest ideals, the Chazon Ish teaches, must be maximal. To compromise on the level of values and ideas, and certainly to loathe or even condescend to those who are extreme in their principles and actions, he teaches, is not the Jewish way.

And if we become the wannabe zealots that the Chazon Ish says we ought to be, we won’t have an underlying sense of guilt or feel psychologically threatened in the presence of actual ones. —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 920. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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