Avoiding the comforts of extremism

May 3, 2011

Sometimes the middle path is perceived as that which is noncommittal and lacking passion.   But in the realm of religion the opposite is true.  It is moderate positions that require more passion and commitment because they tend to be less black and white and thus harder to balance.  Extreme ideas in contrast are easy to grasp and hold onto.

Within Judaism, especially within more traditional arenas, there is disagreement regarding to what extent one should put up isolationist walls as a bulwark against western culture for fear of it compromising one’s religious values, or be open to outside people and ideas.

Sometimes those who form more extreme insular communities are seen as more pious.   In truth though, every stricture, every religious piety comes with an equal and opposite religious compromise not as readily apparent.  For instance, the more isolated and protected a community is the more they may retain their exclusive religious values, but at the same time their religious values will be less able to impact the outside world and thus less able to render them a “Light unto the nations” or as God put the Jewish mission to Abraham in the book of Genesis, “A blessing to all the families of the earth.”

Rabbi Marc Angel makes this point well in a recent article about Passover in the Jerusalem post http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=217325 in which he writes that true religious life is balanced, not veering to the side of “ice” or skepticism and hedonism, nor toward the side of “fire” or religious passion that expresses itself as fanaticism and isolationism.

Yet it is hard to stand for moderation and balance, it is much easier, and I would add more sexy, to take extreme positions.   The extremes of “ice” or of “fire” are less complex and at the extremes we are prone to see ourselves as self righteous, a position that, while locking out others, usually makes us feel pretty good.