Nadav, Avihu, and the Dangers of Religious Excess

April 1, 2016 | Jonathan Sacks
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In what might be the book of Leviticus’ most memorable passage—included in this week’s Torah reading—Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring a “a strange fire before the Lord, that He had not commanded,” during the festivities surrounding the inauguration of the desert tabernacle. They are punished with instant incineration. Jonathan Sacks explains the startling severity of the punishment:

Nadav and Avihu were “enthusiasts,” not in the contemporary sense but in the sense in which the word was used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enthusiasts were people who, full of religious passion, believed that God was inspiring them to do deeds in defiance of law and convention. They were very holy but they were also potentially very dangerous. . . .

To bring unauthorized fire to the tabernacle might seem a small offense, but a single unauthorized act in the realm of the holy causes a breach in the laws around the sacred that can grow in time to a gaping hole. Enthusiasm, harmless though it might be in some of its manifestations, can quickly become extremism, fanaticism, and religiously motivated violence. That is what happened in Europe during the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it is happening in some religions today. . . .

Precisely because it gives rise to such intense passions, the religious life in particular needs the constraints of law and ritual, the entire intricate minuet of worship, so that the fire of faith is contained, giving light and a glimpse of the glory of God. Otherwise it can eventually become a raging inferno, spreading destruction and claiming lives.

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