Passion and Fanaticism

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Richard A. Block

This Shabbat's Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, begins by referring to an event that occurred at the end of the prior one, when Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, killed Zimri, a scion of the Simeonite ancestral house, and Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain. As the Torah recounts the episode, the Midianites, having failed to thwart the Israelites by means of a curse, turned to a more insidious tactic, seducing the Israelite men with Midianite women, who then led them into idolatry and apostasy, resulting in a punishing plague. Thereupon, God commanded Moses to publicly execute "the ringleaders" and Moses, in turn, instructed Israel's officials to slay those among the people who have been drawn into pagan worship. "Just then," Zimri and Cozbi flaunted their relationship "in the sight of . . . the whole Israelite community" (Numbers 25:6) and Pinchas "took impassioned action for his God" by killing them, thus checking the raging plague (25:11-13).

Parashat Pinchas tells us what happened next. God is said to have granted Pinchas a "pact of friendship" ensuring that he and his descendants would serve as priests "for all time" (25:12-13).

In her commentary on Numbers, Nehama Leibowitz described Pinchas's violent deed as having been "on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all of the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in the Torah" ( Studies in Bamidbar, p. 329). This act of "summary justice," she observed, "taking the law into his own hands, constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angles" (ibid., Leibowitz).How, then, could God have rewarded Pinchas, when condemnation would seem the more appropriate response?

We are not the first to ask this question. Although Pinchas receives high praise in the Tanach, we find several implicit criticisms of his violent deed in Rabbinic literature. Talmud Y'rushalmi 9.7 states that Pinchas acted "against the will of the Sages," who would have excommunicated him, but for God's intervention. And the Babylonian Talmud cites Rabbi Hisda as teaching that should a zealous person ask whether to slay someone who cohabits with a heathen, emulating Pinchas, "we do not instruct him to do so." Moreover, if Zimri had left his Midianite mistress and Pinchas had killed him thereafter, Pinchas would have been liable to execution, and if Zimri had turned upon Pinchas and killed him under those circumstances, it would have been a legitimate act of self-defense (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a).

In mitigation of Pinchas's actions (and God's!) — though not necessarily in exoneration — chaos and anarchy constantly threatened to overturn God's plan for the Jewish people throughout their desert sojourn. The people had not yet formed into a cohesive religious, national, or civil community, nor had they adjusted to freedom and self-rule or internalized the monotheistic values of the covenant with God that had been revealed at Mount Sinai. The sexual promiscuity described in the portion was not principally a moral issue. Rather, the Israelites were in spiritual and existential peril as a consequence of their apostasy and in the throws of a leadership vacuum as well. Had the Moabites succeeded in seducing them away from God, Judaism and the Jewish People would have died in infancy. Seen in that light, Pinchas's actions may be seen as somewhat less bloodthirsty and impulsive.

The concerns Leibowitz expressed and those implicit in the Talmudic passages ring true in our own day. Undoubtedly, Baruch Goldstein, the American-born, ultra-Orthodox Jewish physician who murdered twenty-nine and injured one hundred and fifty Arabs on Purim in 1994 in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs; the as-yet unidentified Palestinian terrorist who massacred an Israeli family in the Itamar settlement recently; Osama bin Laden and his homicidal sycophants; Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin; and Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions; all thought they were taking impassioned action for God. Yet these barbarous acts shock the conscience of all but the most heartless and morally obtuse, and cannot be condoned by any legitimate religious authority.

In a period when so many profess to have divine sanction for violence against others, it is more essential than ever to differentiate between passionate religious commitment and fanaticism. The former is profoundly necessary and laudable, but the latter is dangerous, destructive, and despicable. Much of the turmoil in the world, historically and presently, is attributable to religious extremism, to the belief on the part of some that they have an exclusive understanding of God's will and are entitled to oppress, harm, or even kill others in God's name. While this phenomenon is most pronounced today in radical Islam, no religion, including Judaism, is free of carriers of this deadly virus. If the "impassioned" deeds of Pinchas make us uneasy, despite the Torah's insistence on the purity of his motives, it is for good reason. Such unease bespeaks ethical sensitivity and a becoming humility.

Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. 

The Sanctity of Human Life

Daver Acher By: Elizabeth S. Wood

Having myself been in Washington, D.C. at the Religious Action Center's Consultation on Conscience when the news broke of the death of Osama bin Laden, I am so appreciative of Rabbi Block's understanding of the complex emotions present within us when our enemy dies. Some friends and I sat, glued to our television screens, to watch the news unfold, while another friend grabbed his wife and headed down to the White House to join in the festivities of celebration. There were those who absorbed the news, those who were relieved by it, and those who rejoiced in it.

Our textual tradition, as Rabbi Block mentions, is full of conflicting source material about how one should act or feel about the actions that Pinchas took. Similarly, there are conflicting messages about how we should act or feel upon hearing the news of any enemy's demise. In the Book of Proverbs, we have two positions juxtaposed within relative proximity to one another: "When the wicked perish there is glad song" (Proverbs 11:10) and "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (24:17). Though these concepts appear to conflict, I believe the wording is clear: It is good when there are no more of the wicked, but one should not rejoice or celebrate in the destruction of human life — no matter how evil it was.

Human life is sacred. Our Jewish tradition is very clear on this. When God created us, God gave us both yetzer hatov (a good inclination) and yetzer hara (an evil inclination). While most of us find a balance between the two, there are those whose evils far outweigh their good deeds. But their choices and their lives, however evil or wicked, are still sacred. While we need not mourn the loss of our enemies, we would be turning our back on God and the holiness of life to rejoice in their death.

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood is associate rabbi educator at Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, New York.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568

Originally published: