Drash on Parashat Pinchas 2018
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Zealotry is not justice
Parashah Pinchas continues the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. At the end of last week’s story, we read that Pinchas, upon witnessing an egregious act of apostasy between an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, takes immediate extrajudicial action, executing them on the spot. This week we hear God’s word in response to Pinchas’ deed, “[Pinchas] has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace.’” Both God and Pinchas are depicted as characters of zealotry and passion. Despite the Torah’s seeming endorsement of Pinchas’ act of zealotry, Jews throughout the centuries, sages and student alike, have questioned Pinchas’ act in particular and zealous behaviour as a Torah principle. Today, it is not just Judaism that struggles with what it means to be willing “to kill for God,” for all religious traditions have a text or tradition that endorses that type of killing.
Those who endorse Pinchas’ action and zealousness for God argue as the great 19th century Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch did: “anyone who wages war on the enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth even while engaged in war.” Of course, what is good and true is defined within the very scripture that allows one to kill in its pursuit. The commentary in the Etz Chayim Chumash points out that, “The tradition generally considers moral threats to be more dangerous for national survival than physical threats. Although the Egyptians and the Edomites threatened Israel’s physical existence, we are commanded not to hate them. We are told to wipe out the Midianites, however, for they tried to undermine Israel’s moral standing.” Thus, one sees justifications in the tradition for zealotry, including the execution of the other.
However, for others, upholding one’s moral standing by taking action that is either immoral, against the law, or both is problematic. Accordingly, an entire other tradition arose in Judaism, one that over time has become the preponderant position. Thousands of years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud established so many rules that a person ready to take zealous action had to follow that, for all intents and purposes, that one who claimed to kill for God was classified as a zealot. In addition to this restriction in Jewish law, they added the following homiletic teachings. The early rabbis noted that Pinchas’ name in the opening of this parashah is spelled in the Torah scroll with a small “yud”, the yud being the first letter of God’s name as well. From that they learned that one who commits violent acts, even for a “good cause”, has diminished his own Godly nature. Similarly, the “vav” in shalom, speaking of the covenant of peace promised Pesach, is written with a broken stem. This suggests that peace achieved through force is not complete or sustainable.
While the minority position endorsing zealotry in Judaism still exists (Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir have not been condemned outright by the tradition, the former having a grave visited by many as a shrine and the latter still considered as a hero by hundreds of thousands), the majority finds such action abhorrent. Pinchas’ actions are considered to be “of that time” and it is noted that he is assigned to the priesthood partly to disarm him.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow takes this limitation one step further, to the heavenly realm itself. This week’s parasha opens, “God spoke to Moes, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Eleazar son Aaron the priest, has turned back My warth from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion.” Commenting on the fact that God’s anger precedes Pinchas’s act of zealotry and that this week’s parasha clearly states that God’s plague ceased in response to Pinchas’s act, Waskow suggests that even God understood zealotry had no place in life’s drama. According to Waskow’s reading, God understood Pinchas’s extrajudicial execution as an act of “Imitation of God”. It was as if Pinchas held up a mirror to God, changing God’s own perspective on zealotry. God then stopped the plague and made a covenant of peace with Pinchas that bound each of them.
Pinchas is the ancestor of the priestly line, and his covenant of peace extends to us, for we Jews call ourselves “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. The acts of zealotry and violence still done in the name of God are the greatest desecrations of God’s name. We may challenge all the other extremists out there with righteous anger, but we should question why we still condone a shrine and heroic status to our own zealous murderers. Reading Parasha Pinchas during the period of the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av, a time of national introspection, we should recall the words of the prophet Zechariah, “With truth, justice and peace shall you judge in your gates.”