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Idealism Gone Bad
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Suicide bombers baffle.

They continue to take a terrible toll on Iraqi civilians and American servicemen alike. Israel, which has suffered repeatedly for years from such attacks, only recently intercepted several would-be suicide bombers before they were able to carry ou t their plans. And quite an assortment of other lands, including of course our own, have experienced the murder and maiming of civilians at the hands of people who chose to perish along with their victims.

For most civilized people, the idea of killing oneself just to kill others in the process is perplexing. To be sure, some Islamist terrorists may be motivated by titillating tales of a pornographic paradise. But there are considerably less deluded terrorists too, including many eyeing only the carrot of a posthumous political goal's advancement -- and they seem equally happy to dispatch themselves to what they believe to be oblivion.

A jarring thought, but one worth considering, is that such murderers are motivated by idealism. If the notion seems outrageous, it is only because we tend to believe, mistakenly, that all ideals are inherently good.

The Talmud tells of a renegade Cohein Gadol, or High Priest, in the Second Temple era, who confided to his father how he had managed to surreptitiously perform the most important priestly service of the Jewish year, the Yom Kippur offering of incense in the Holy of Holies, in the particular manner of the Sadducee sect, against the prescription of Jewish religious law. The Sadducees sought to change Jewish tradition and, of course, eventually failed; but the renegade had done what he could to advance the Sadducee cause. The father asked the son if he was not afraid of being discovered by the other, tradition-faithful, priests.

"All my life," the younger man responded, "I have been pained by the verse..." and he went on to quote the Biblical words with which the Sadducees sought to justify their practice. "And I wondered," the rebel continued, "when the opportunity [to fulfill it] might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

It would be hard to describe the depth of the sin that the Talmud perceives in the undermining of the Yom Kippur service's most momentous moment. Which makes it astounding to hear, in another Talmudic account, an eerie echo of the Sadducee's words. The account describes the Romans' execution of the renowned Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva, for his violation of an imperial edict against teaching Torah. As the great rabbi recited the Shema, the Jewish credo declaring G-d's sovereignty and unity, his students were incredulous at his presence of mind; he was being flayed alive by iron combs.

"All my life," the Jewish sage replied to his students, "I was pained by the verse '[and you shall love the L-rd your G-d] with all your soul'" [which implies that one must be ready to give up his very life if necessary for the glory of heaven]. "And I wondered when the opportunity might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill it?"

The implication of the identical wording is inescapable. The editors of the Talmud were subtly but powerfully imparting a life lesson: The Sadducee's conviction was no less sincere than Rabbi Akiva's, only misguided. The Sadducee was an idealist, too, but his ideals were wrong. And that makes all the difference.

Likewise the "martyrs" of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and of the insurgency in Iraq. They die convinced that they are heroes in the service of the sublime. And their sincerity does not mitigate their evil a whit.

In these relentlessly relativistic times, it is commonplace to hear how "all points of view" are equally valid; but they are not. Just because a particular culture or country or combatant is sincerely motivated doesn't make it or him laudable, or even tolerable.

There are ideologies - and their attendant idealists - that are good, and others that are evil.

It will be a wonderful day - may it come soon - when the Iraqi insurgency finally expires, and an even more wonderful day when terrorism altogether is decisively rejected by all human beings. But should those days be delayed, we would do well to ponder the subtext of every suicide bombing: It's not enough to be an idealist.

If we are not right, if we are not good, it means nothing at all.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]



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