If I could ask one question of a religious person — of any faith — it would be, “What is the worst sin in your religion?”
The answer to this question can often tell you more than that of any other question about that person’s religion, or at least about that person’s own religious values. If someone were to respond, for example, “non-marital sex” or “atheism,” that would be, most of us would agree, unimpressive. These are sins in every monotheistic religion, but they are hardly the worst sins. Most of us would surely deem murder, or torture, or any serious act of immoral violence as a far worse sin.
The answer to this question is one of the few issues about which most religious Jews agree. When it comes to naming the worst sin in Judaism, they would respond “chillul haShem,” desecrating God’s name. This means doing evil while acting religious — or, to put it more simply, doing evil in God’s name.
From a Jewish perspective, as horrific as murder is, murder committed by an atheist individual or government is not as damaging as murder by a religious individual or government. From the victim’s perspective, of course, there is no difference.
Why is murder committed in the name of God worse? Because it ruins God’s name. And belief in a morally demanding and morally judging God as the only means to a better world is at the heart of the Jewish message. When God is rendered the source of evil rather than the source of good, hope for a good world is shattered.
That is why the evil committed in our time by Muslims in the name of God and of religion has had a particularly negative effect on this generation’s faith in God. Never has atheism been as robust as it has been in the last few decades.
It cannot be a coincidence that this period has also seen more evil done in God’s name than any time since the Middle Ages. And while religious spokespeople have, of course, condemned Islamic terrorism, few Jewish or Christian — not to mention Muslim — clergy have regularly spoken out against all this evil in God’s name. Instead, far more Jewish and Christian clergy have devoted considerable time to speaking out against “Islamophobia.” They have inferred from all the murder and maiming done in the name of Allah that it is not God’s name that most needs defending, but Islam’s. In so doing, these Christians and Jews have damaged religion and the essential religious message that God is good and demands good.
One might add that the Roman Catholic priests who molested young boys — and sometimes, but much more rarely, young girls — also not only horrifically harmed their victims but God’s name as well.
Exactly 40 years ago, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and I wrote our book “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” One of the nine questions was, “If Judaism Is Supposed to Make People Better, How Do You Account for Unethical Religious Jews?”
We ended our answer to that question with an appeal to observant Jews who were known to be dishonest in their business affairs: If you are known for keeping kosher and also known for shady business practices, we wrote, please stop those practices. But if you do not stop those practices, please stop keeping kosher.
If Jews and Christians better understood the commandment against “taking God’s name in vain,” perhaps the greatest sin would have been more obvious to them.
“Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” is how the King James Version translates what Jews call the third commandment (Jews and Christians number the Ten Commandments somewhat differently). This translation is understandable, but it is a serious mistranslation.
Literally translated, what the commandment states is: “Do not carry [or “lift”] the Lord your God’s name in vain.”
And who is it that carries God’s name in vain? The person who commits evil in God’s name. The proof that this is the correct translation is not only linguistic. The very fact that God says that this is the one commandment whose violation He will not forgive makes it clear that this is the worst sin, and that it cannot possibly mean one who says “God” in a non-religious context — such as saying, “God, that was a terrific movie.”
If religious Jews and Christians want to make a moral dent in the world, there is no greater place to start than by announcing loudly and clearly what the greatest sin is. Until then, atheism will only increase. No atheist arguments alienate people from God as much as bad religious people do.
And when the religious world is largely silent about the religious evil that permeates our world, it reconfirms the irrelevance of God and religion to making a good world. As I said, the problem is not protecting Islam’s reputation — that is the job of Muslims — it is protecting God’s reputation.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).