Terrorists in Heaven?

Some say that so much evil has been done in the name of religion, that religion is clearly dangerous to society. Looking back at history, one has to admit there is indeed a point in such criticism. Which begs the question: how is that possible? How can it be that any evil can come from religion, which ought to be about G-d and about morality?

In our times, people who murder in the name of religion are called terrorists, fanatics, and extremists. But these labels are misleading; using them confuses the discussion and will not help us get a handle on how to respond to the reality of their acts.

Is there really such a thing as a terrorist? Of course not, just ask around. Nobody will claim the name. Nobody raises their kid to be a terrorist; parents raise their children to believe and follow doctrine. It’s just that some grow up to be such fervent believers that they decide to use terror to “persuade” others of the truth of their faith. Their drive is their faith, the terrorism their tool.

Westerners, many of whom have only a superficial understanding of religion, seem completely baffled by such fervent belief. Extremists, they call them, as if to say, a small amount or a moderate amount of faith is acceptable, but believing too much, that’s extreme. Believe, but believe just a bit. More than that and you will come to evil. If we take moderation to mean restraint of passion, then the suggested standard is live a religious life that you don’t get so excited about. How tempting does that sound?

Does this make any sense? After all, what is wrong with being extreme? Nobody criticizes Mother Theresa for living her life the way she that did; her extreme example seems to be acceptable. A school fires a teacher because the teacher refused to call a little girl in the classroom by the boy’s name she had chosen and the same people who criticized religious extremism see nothing extreme about the firing. Clearly, one person’s extremism is to another nothing but the logical end of a cherished belief. After all, if one’s cause is just, why not be an extremist? If one knows something to be true and good, how can one have too much of it? How can good become too much good? On the other hand, a cause that is not just or true or good is not just or true or good even in moderation. A little bit of evil is still evil.

If someone’s beliefs lead him to commit evil acts, then there must be something in the belief that is itself false and the beginning of evil. This is true of communism, it’s true of criminal codes of behavior and it is also true of religious beliefs. In the case of religion, the most dangerous belief of all is, that if one is a truly devoted follower one will go to Heaven.

On the face of it, this sounds spiritual. It sounds noble. Truly religious. But really, it’s evil. At base, this belief belies the attitude that this world is not a great place to be, and that Heaven is going to be much better. So religions prescribe all manner of paths for escaping this world. Achieve nirvana, which is meditational escape. Choose a redemptive belief that will score you a good seat in Heaven. Or maybe, take down a large building and that will get you straight to Paradise.

It’s not that Jews don’t appreciate self-sacrifice; simply that our conception of it was never about spurning this world. The great examples of mesiras nefesh that we exalt are stories of people who clung to mitzvos, the fulfillment of which is only possible here in this world. Heaven is a great place, but there will be no opportunities there for the free choice to serve G-d by doing His mitzvos. From the Jews under Greek rule before the Chashmanayim revolt to the Jews in Soviet Russia, our history abounds with stories of heroic Jews who fearlessly kept the mitzvos and paid for it with their lives. However, all those heroes who died would have wanted to stay here, in this world, even for only more day, just to be able to do a few more mitzvos. They did not seek death or Heaven, what they sought was not to be divided from mitzvos. It was their enemies who sought their deaths.

When violence fell upon the shluchim in Mumbai, the whole world recognized the noble self-sacrifice of this young couple. But in case anyone misunderstands, the mesiras nefesh of the Holtzbergs was not that they were willing to go live in a dangerous place, but that they were going to do mitzvos in this place. Their mesiras nefesh was demonstrated over and over again before they lost their lives, by the chessed they did each day, the Torah they unceasingly taught, and the mitzvos they directed Jews in. They were vitally engaged in this world, not the next one. That was their mesiras nefesh.

Thank God, we are not called upon to make such sacrifices. But the good for which those people were willing to die, that we still have. And we have the ability and opportunity to be extremely devoted to that good. Fanatically. Passionately. Confidently. Joyfully.

Jews are to be a light unto the nations. In a time of darkness such as ours is now, we will not bring more light in the world by congratulating ourselves at how moderate we have remained. Moderation is not progress; instead progress is judged by how clearly people are able to see the difference between right and wrong, and how devotedly they choose to pursue it.

There is nothing wrong with being extremely devoted to good. The world needs more of that. There are enough people around who believe that this world is evil. The most effective antidote to this mistaken idea, its most compelling refutation, is the counter-belief that this world has much good in it and has the potential for much more.

Rambam says: It should not enter your mind that Moshiach will perform miracles or that nature will change when Moshaich comes. Miracles are necessary only when nature doesn’t cooperate with good and the G-dly. When Moshiach comes, nature itself will have become holy through our Torah study and performance of Mitzvot and the miracles will not be necessary. Let us seek to work here, to sacrifice our lives in making it a world of goodness and of light.


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