When Extremism Is Sin, When It’s a Virtue
Nov. 2, 1984
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
From the teachings of the ancients and from our own experience, we know that the middle of the road is generally the better course for a human to follow. We call it the golden mean. One should avoid extremes. Too much of anything is usually harmful.
However, Maimonides recommended that occasionally one ought to practice going to one extreme if that will help one from going to the opposite extreme. In this way one may be restored to the middle of the road again. (Holchot Eb ct 14) The Bible provides a simple illustration. (Numbers 6:1-21)
From the Bible it appears that he who vows not to drink alcoholic beverages is a sinner. Certainly the Bible did not mean to encourage the use of wine and liquor. What the Bible wanted is that, as with most beverages, both should be used in moderation. And the average person should not require a vow of total abstinence to prevent intoxication and the ugly behavior that follows.
The sin, therefore, is that the vower feels constrained to resort to a vow to control himself and thus he adds a prohibition on himself when he should be able to manage without it. He should not have to prohibit what the Bible permits. Yet, if the same person knows that his use of wine may lead him to sexual promiscuity, then he should make the vow. Under such circumstances, making the vow and its fulfillment are encouraged.
Alcoholics Anonymous teaches the same lesson. When one wants to overcome the disease of alcoholism and a disease it is one must resolve totally to avoid liquor. Going to an extreme is the corrective for a failure to adhere to the middle of the road the golden mean.
By now readers must know that I subscribe to the wisdom of the ancients. I am allergic to extremism and extremists. However, the insight that Maimonides expounded can help us understand why we are encountering so much extremism in our day. In many instances, people are embracing extreme positions and adopting extreme measures as a reaction to, or preventive of, the opposite extreme.
One notices, for example, that among the Jews who are returning to the fold those who never were a part of it, and those who are being “reborn” there is a great deal of extremism. Frequently, the “returnees” take on disciplines and commitments which are not expected of even the most pious among us. Sometimes it is their ignorance of our tradition that makes it difficult for them to discern what is really important and what is peripheral. However, more often it is their Firm resolve to get as far away from their earlier life patterns as they can. To avoid reversion to what they have rejected, they go to the opposite extreme. This may disturb those who were always committed and observant Jews.
But it should be understood and not resented.
I find a similar situation prevailing with regard to the status of women in Orthodox Jewish circles. At one time separate seating in synagogues was the norm to be conserved. Now it is also separate seating at all functions, separate beaches, no mixed swimming in pools, no mixed choral groups, etc.
Much that involves women’s attire has also changed. Orthodox mothers are being outdone by their daughters in the modesty of their appearance covered heads, long sleeves, etc. Yet, if in the last few decades the environment in which we live has so changed that stimuli to sexual thought and fantasy are omnipresent virtually nothing can be sold today without seductive, sexually suggestive ads then one should have expected a reaction from some quarters.
It is not Khomeniism, as in Iran. No one is coercing the Jewish woman to resist the trend to permissiveness. Those who do so are acting of their own free will. But the trend to one extreme has evoked a reaction to the opposite extreme. And this too should be understood and not resented.
One might here add with appreciation the fact that so many young Orthodox Jewish women do not mind being pregnant for so much of their lives and bearing 10 or 12 children. They are compensating for the opposite extreme the minus-zero population growth of most Jewish families.
Especially in the sphere of Jewish education, there is movement away from the middle of the road.
Only 30 years ago one of Israel’s most learned rabbis and a highly respected member of the chief rabbi s council gave a course to high school students in one of Israel’s most prestigious secondary schools. In it he taught with considerable detail the so-called “Higher Criticism’’ of the Bible which is still the greatest challenge to the creed of Orthodox Jews. He did not fear to cope with the challenge of heretical views. At the present time he and his colleagues would probably oppose giving such a course, even to university students. Why?
Again it is a deliberate movement to an extreme to avoid the opposite extreme. In Israeli universities it was difficult to be hired as a Bible teacher unless one accepted “Higher Criticism’’ as truth. Israel’s most beloved teacher of Bible, Nehama Leibowitz, experienced this difficulty. When her worldwide popularity reached its zenith, she was given the position to teach not Bible but biblical commentaries.
Thus in so many areas, we find the middle of the road abandoned. Instead there is movement in the direction of one extreme or another only to prevent movement in the opposite direction.
Yet that does not mean that the middle of the road should be surrendered as an ideal and extremism substituted for it. In individual situations as with the alcoholic it may be necessary to take extreme positions or measures.
Alas, what is happening in Israel is that in almost every area there is only polarization and a reluctance to steer a middle course, with respectful accommodations between polarized views.