Pinchas: No Country for Old Zealots — By Ben

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The Torah has no shortage of troubling passages. But few are as disturbing as the actions of Pinchas and the Torah’s opinion about them. If you’re unfamiliar with it I’ll give a brief summary.  The story actually beings in last week’s Torah portion, parshas Balak.

The prophet Bilaam, finding himself unable to curse the Jewish people, devises a devious plot.  He has the women of Moab and Midian (these nations are worried the Jews are going to conquer them soon, so they’re desperate to destroy Bnei Yisrael) seduce the Jewish men, getting them to engage in some not so G rated fare, then eventually convincing them to worship idols. 

The plan goes so well, that one of the Jewish princes, Zimri, engages in the depravity not only in front of Moses, but in front the whole nation. Immediately after, Pinchas charges in with his spear and makes a kabob of Zimri and the Moabite woman. Then in this week’s parsha Pinchas is rewarded for his violent deeds with the covenant of peace and he and his descendants are made Kohanim (Priests of the Temple). 

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate.. to suffering”

Violence and death in the name of religion is repugnant in our world today. And rightly so. Ideas and beliefs should be communicated with inspiration and dialogue, not by fear or force. But clearly we see Pinchas not only celebrated for this, but given a blessing of peace! Is the Torah endorsing such acts as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and Jihad?

One might think so. But to truly understand what’s going on, the situation needs some context. For one thing, the transgression wasn’t just some schmo indulging in a little fun. Zibill-nye-tyson-planetary-societymri was a prince of the whole tribe of Shimon breaking two of the three cardinal Torah sins. And he did so in public. What Zimri did would be like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy at a science convention saying that climate change isn’t real. Then they both turn around and we can see they’re wearing leather jackets with the BP logos on the back and they each get into shiny new Lamborghinis.

Now that we understand the magnitude of the crime, let’s look at the other side. What does it mean to be a zealot? The Hebrew word is kana’i and is defined as “someone who passionately cares about doing the right thing, regardless of its consequences” (as per Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s definition.) You see, Pinchas had no plan to survive his stunt. He expected the followers of Zimri to kill him immediately. But not only that, in order for Pinchas to get close enough to Zimri, he had to pretend to be a vocal supporter of the movement. Only by miracle did he survive and only by miracle did the moment become spectacle. For all Pinchas knew, he could have been remembered as a sinner who went crazy. But he was willing to go down in infamy for what he knew was right.

Living in a Torah Society

Let’s be clear here. The Torah does say things like one should be stoned to death for breaking Shabbos. But a death penalty can only be pronounced by a Jewish supreme court (known as the Sanhedrin). In order for a Sanhedrin to exist, a Torah society must exist. What’s a Torah society? A society where the people live Torah and have such clarity in God that members of said society have encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and its commentaries in the way you and I know the pledge of allegiance.

So for a people living a life being cared for by the miracles of God in the desert, where food is waiting for you when you wake up, where the plagues of Egypt you or your parents lived through, where your nation personally heard God speak, for those people to wantonly transgress Torah sins in public, violent retribution can be understood. But in today’s world, Pinchas’s act would be considered a Chilul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name.)

Living in Today’s Society

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To live in a society where said society’s values and ethics are being desecrated and ridiculed, firm action must be taken to prevent an erosion of those values. But when the values are no longer widely held, firm action only creates fear and division. Lambasting people and telling them they’re wrong isn’t the way to get though to anyone (see previous blog post.) So should we think that nothing about what Pinchas did is at all acceptable in our modern world?

I have been told that the appropriate parallel to Pinchas’s zeal for today would simply be to talk about God publicly. Now if you’re thinking about the religious fanatics yelling scripture on college campuses or holding signs at the entrances of Planned Parenthoods, that’s not the zeal we’re talking about. Pinchas surrounded himself among the people he was trying to change. He appeared to be part of them. Possibly even reached out to them before acting upon what needed to be done.

If you ever honestly want to change or influence those around you it must be done through love and understanding. Only once that is accomplished can you calmly and rationally discuss things like reproach, constructive criticism, and God. To do otherwise with non-observant or non-religious friends, co-workers, or family would be tantamount to suicide. That type of martyrdom even Pinchas would steer clear of. But once that authentic connection is made, to talk of wisdom and Torah values, and of God Himself… it’s risky… but that’s what being a Jewish zealot, a kana’i, is really about.

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