All rumors and actions to the contrary notwithstanding, Judaism abhors extremism. The great rabbis and teachers of Israel have always preached moderation and the golden mean of staying in the middle.
The Jerusalem Talmud compares human choices in life and behavior, attitudes and philosophy, to a person who has a choice between two roads. One road is sunlit but burning hot like a desert at high noon. The other is snow covered and freezing cold. If the person goes on the sunlit road, he may die of heat prostration and sunstroke. If the person goes on the snow-covered road, then frostbite and even death may eventually occur. What then should the person do? The person should carve out for himself a third road, one that is warm but not hot, moderate in temperature and condition and not extreme.
The Jerusalem Talmud uses this as a metaphor for life, particularly for Jewish life. Extremes of behavior and of religious fervor are ultimately negative and harmful. One may feel that one's extremism serves God's purposes here on earth. But the Torah teaches us that this is not true. The middle road in life and manners, character traits and lifestyle, is the preferred choice of the Torah and rabbinic tradition.
Maimonides called the middle way "the golden path" in life. Extremism, in his opinion, was allowed only to achieve a return to the golden middle way. Extremism negates tolerance, increases hatred and brings about verbal and physical abuse and inevitably violence as well. It is counterproductive to its own goals and eventually, usually after a heavy price is extracted in human feelings, reputations and even lives, it collapses of its own weight and misdeeds.
But instead of learning this clear lesson of history, extremism on many fronts remains alive and well in our Jewish world, not to mention society in general.
There is a great attraction to extremism. It provides certainty in a very uncertain world and gives one's hatreds, prejudices and frustrations a moral underpinning. Moderation is much more difficult to maintain and popularize, for it promises no certain, easy answers to the complexities of life that we face.
Extremism in religion is especially appealing, for then one is convinced that one is accomplishing God's purposes in life in a super fashion. Extremism in religion also breeds the rationale of exclusivity. Thus everyone else in the world is wrong, culpable and doomed except for the extremist, who knows exactly what God's will on this particular matter is. Anyone who sees things differently, even slightly differently, is a doomed heretic. And as the Muslim extremists prove to us daily, such doomed heretics are fair game to be maimed and murdered. Extremism allows for the worst crimes to be justified and exalted because it skews any sort of proportion in human life and subverts common sense, rational thought and acceptable behavior.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, in his acceptance speech of the presidential nomination at the Republican national convention in 1964, destroyed any hope of actually being elected when he stated that "extremism in the cause of democracy is a virtue." That statement sufficed to frighten away many a potential voter. The tragic truth is that extremism in defense of a just cause often causes unjust means to be employed.
This is the import of the rabbis' disapproval of mitzva haba b'aveira - a positive commandment of the Torah that was fulfilled through the commission of a sin or an immoral act. The Torah taught us that righteousness as an end goal is ultimately only achieved through righteous means. Zealots and extremists shun such Torah principles and thus poison the atmosphere of life for all of us. Witness the recent debacle of extremist Jews at the Teheran Holocaust denial conference.
Maimonides permits extremism in two areas of life. One is humility. There is no limit to humility, for arrogance and false pride create monstrous people and situations. Moses is complimented in the Torah not for his strength, intellect or even leadership abilities, only for his humility, for being a true servant of God.
And a second area where extremism is permitted is in control of anger. The rabbis taught us that when a person loses his temper and becomes raging angry, he "has no God." Words spoken and actions committed in anger are lethal to relationships, families, communities and even nations. Therefore one must be extreme in avoiding such angry outbursts. But otherwise one must be extreme in avoiding extremism.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.