Fanaticism, Extremism, and Politics–the Turmoil We Live With


We all recall the maxim, “sticks and stones…. but names will never harm me.” I have little interest in entering into the political fray; I see no point in penning denigrating comments, innuendos, or callous allegations against either candidate. Whoever eventually wins in November will become our president and thus, there seems little to gain by disparaging someone that may eventually have immense power over our country and the State of Israel. And to those who imagine that the truth must be expressed regardless of the ramifications, let me assure you that truth is subjective at best, and often the truth manages to morph into the antithesis of truth.    

Nor do I have much to add about the current turmoil facing our world, other than to express my shock, horror, and dismay at the daily barrage of terrorist activities. While we may have become desensitized to violence in the Middle East, we find it immeasurably more difficult to deal with the randomness of murder in Orlando, Nice, and Tokyo. These idyllic settings have sadly been transformed by the realities of our day and now leave the global citizen little respite from fear. Radical Islam may have opened the floodgates of terrorism, but nowadays heinous crimes are being committed even by those without any religious indoctrination.

While I am not interested in fomenting political debate, it seems that even within our borders nary a day goes by without reading a horrendous headline. I believe all people must be treated with dignity and respect (in contrast to the vehemently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel organization called Black Lives Matter for whom I have little respect and empathy). However, I unashamedly have deeper sympathies for the lives of our men and women in blue. In my humble opinion, those who put their lives on the line protecting others have to be assured that we will do our utmost to have their back. I am not oblivious to the fact that many in our country are biased against people of color and have anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim phobias. That being said, we cannot tolerate or accept any excuse for errant behavior by our police force. Certainly, all guilty parties should be held liable to the full extent of the law. Yet, society by nature is imperfect and this includes even subgroups such as law enforcement. (Sadly, we know all too well of abhorrent behaviors amongst rabbis, priests and imams.)

There is an interesting ruling in the Shulchan Aruch – the Jewish Codes of Law that reflects on the story of Pinchas. Zimri and Kazbi had publicly cohabited with each other.  Pinchas, in an act of fanatic extremism, unilaterally decided to kill them. Although he was widely criticized by the leaders of his generation, Hashem, in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, praises his actions and grants him the legacy of priesthood. The rabbis rule that although Pinchas may have acted within the confines of Jewish law, it is a halachic ruling that we do not promote or teach. Although his zealotry was lauded by God, we do not allow others to follow that ideal. One reason for this ruling is that it is impossible to ever know what is really in our heart and even if we believe that we are acting solely out of a deference of God, the possibility exists that our motivation may be self-serving. In other words, academically the concept of acting in a zealous manner for the sake of God may be valid, however, practically it can never be justified as acceptable behavior.

I imagine this to be true not only from a halachic perspective, but perhaps more so in the social setting that we abide in. Although our words often portray an idealistic purity and our actions are promoted as genuine concern for others, the possibility exists that we too are self-serving. Our abhorrence of candidate A may often be more about our support for candidate B. Our shock with the terrorist actions in Europe and around the world may actually be the fear of terrorism reaching our borders and impacting our lives. Although I state my sensitives for the lives of all people, it is possible that I am doing so only as a means of self-preservation.

I have no doubt that there are altruistic individuals that think only of others and pious individuals that seek only to protect the image of God. Indeed, I believe that it is incumbent upon mankind to see other people as selfless and noble when they are acting in a manner that promotes peace and tolerance. However, it is more important that we remain cautious and be heedful that our personal altruism may be less than pure. And remember, George Washington was the only president who did not blame the previous administration for his troubles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel


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