On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Bridging The Divide - Parashat Pinchas

What happens when zealotry is mistaken for passion? How do we measure our responses and find the humanity in each other during tense times? Rabbi Rick Jacobs delves into the unexpected lessons found in this week’s Parashah, Pinchas, through a Torah lens as well as how that applies to modern-day Israeli politics.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Pinchas. And he asks what it really means to be a zealot.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Pinchas from the Book of Numbers. Pinchas-- you just say the name and in Jewish tradition, a Pinchas is what we would call a zealot. He's one of these people who probably froths at the mouth when facing or talking about the other. And for him, in the Torah portion, the other was the Israelite who was caught in an intimate relationship with a Midianite. And this was so anathema to Pinchas that he didn't warn them, he didn't wag his finger, he didn't scream. He killed them.

Zealots don't simply object to things. They are quick to denounce and even incite to violence. Now, there are such people in the history of the world for sure. But in our parashah, it seems as if Pinchas is kind of given a righteous platform and is applauded and celebrated for the zealotry that he expresses. We're living at a moment in time when the danger of zealotry is not rhetorical. It's not theoretical. It is real. And I want to focus this week's podcast particularly on two very, very key people and very much the struggle against zealotry.

In Israel, we've lost one of our greatest, most brilliant writers this year-- the great Amos Oz. Amos Oz was arguably one of the great writers of contemporary Jewish life and certainly those who've written in the Hebrew language. His last book is called "Dear Zealots-- Letters From A Divided Land." And he characterizes all kinds of ways in which frankly zealots have gained the upper hand not only in many places in Israel and the Middle East, but really around the world. And so I'd like to just zero in on some of the things that he teaches. And one of the things that he teaches is that one of the great antidotes to zealotry, zealots speak with exclamation points. He said, people with a more whole and holy view speak with question marks. They wonder. They have curiosity. They don't have a point of view that is so rigid, and absolute, and righteous-- that they could not only degrade others, but they could even attack and call for their murder. So he also points out that all of the great religions of the world have had their zealots. It comes with being sometimes a religious person that you get so passionate about your own commitments that you think they're the only ones. And he's trying to give a counterbalance. He also asked the question, have you ever met a zealot with a sense of humor? He says, I haven't. And having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at oneself and sometimes some of the tough issues around is also one of those characteristics that does help to lessen. He also says, several years ago, there was a pot shard found at an archeological site. And it said, "plead for the infant. Plead for the poor and the widow. Support the stranger." He said this is antithetical to the fanatic. And Oz is someone who really has made a career in his writing out of humanizing and doing it from the best of Jewish history, the best of Jewish tradition.

I would juxtapose Amos Oz's writing and his life example with a dramatic development earlier this year when a political party in Israel called Otzma Yehudit-- literally Jewish Power-- was embraced by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a welcome member of his right-wing coalition. This wasn't simply a conservative party. This was a party who has celebrated incitement to violence against Arabs. That is the inspiration of the founder of the earlier Jewish Power party called Kach and that rabbi, Rabbi Meir Kahane. And this development, I said earlier this year, was like welcoming Louis Farrakhan, or the head of the Ku Klux Klan, into the United States Cabinet, the Congress, or the Senate. It would be unthinkable to us, and it was green-lighted by Israel's prime minister. Well, that set off a response that I'm so unbelievably proud of our movement, and particularly our Israel Religious Action Center, and our lead attorney, Orly Erez-Likhovski, who argued in the Knesset that this party should not have an honored seat or any seat in the 120 member parliament in Israel. It turned out that the Knesset committee heard her arguments, heard the members of Otzma Yehudit Party. And they said, no, it was OK. Our movement then took the case to the Supreme Court. And I'm proud to say, our Rabbinic Leader of our Israel Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv-- who's also a brilliant attorney-- actually argued the case in the Supreme Court. And he won. And it was determined not that the whole party, but that one particular member of that party, was someone who could not be seated in any government. And that was Michael Ben-Ari. And it's clear that his views weren't simply conservative. His views weren't simply ones where he disagreed with Palestinian citizens of Israel. He and others within their circle have called for violence against Arab citizens of Israel. That is where the line was crossed. Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit-- who I've had the privilege of working closely with in negotiating the Kotel Agreement several years ago-- he is pretty clear, and loud, and said that in his mind, this was an egregious violation. This is a party that celebrates the horrific murder that one of their most proud teachers Baruch Goldstein back in 1994 went into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and opened fire, and murdered 29 Muslim worshipers, wounded another 125 people. That was horrific. But the most to me disquieting thing is that they celebrate this individual every year on his yahrzeit at his grave site.

So I think it's a victory of those of us who stand against zealotry, inspired by people like Amos Oz, and by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, and by Orly Erez-Likhovski-- brilliant lawyers who really stand up and raise a voice against zealotry, and say it's not inevitable. And they do not speak in our name, in the Jewish traditions' name. And I think the victory in the Supreme Court is a victory of our most profound Jewish values. I think, this is an example of the greatness of the modern state of Israel's democracy. It worked beautifully. Here you have a political party, Otzma Yehudit. And you have a Supreme Court. And you have the Rule of Law. And you have reason over racism. This is an amazing testament to what I love most about Israel and what gives me such unbelievable pride.

So it is a podcast today about zealotry. But it's also about the forces against zealotry, the forces like the teachings and writings of Amos Oz, like the Supreme Court, which reflects the diversity of Israeli society. And I'm proud of this example. I'm proud of how we respond. When we see racism that is not confronted, when we see governments that are not willing to call it out and to stand against it, that's the most dangerous place. This is actually an example of democracy working, working courageously, and working brilliantly.

So this parashah that talks about Pinchas, that talks about a zealot who lived in the time of our ancestors, and to who not only incited violence, but actually committed violence in the name of God, in the name of this holy tradition, I think we have a text that we have to argue against. We have a figure who is venerated in this section of the Torah. We have to make sure that that's not an inspiration for people to follow in his example today. We were able to defeat that in the Supreme Court in Israel. But the big court of public opinion is wider. And I think, all of us who have both expressions of Judaism and commitments to diversity of opinion, that there are many right ways to practice Judaism. And Israel is a state for all of its citizens-- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim-- and that we need to argue policy. But we cannot incite violence against even people who have very harsh views of us.

We can argue with them. We can defeat them in political debates and in vote-taking in the parliament. But we may not argue for their murder. That is racism. It is unacceptable. It is unacceptable in the Bible. It's unacceptable in any of our modern states. So I know this is rather intense podcast. You're thinking, whoa, Jacobs, what did you have for breakfast today? I really got fired up. This is a subject that's got to fire us up. Racism has no place in the Jewish tradition, has no place in the Jewish state, no place in the United States of America. These are issues that we're facing in North America. We're facing them around the globe. And I think, for us, particularly when we read Parashat Pinchas, let's raise a critical voice. Let's raise the voice of those who've been able to call out zealotry in favor of a more humane, a more grounded, spiritual, religious worldview that we call Judaism. And let's celebrate those people who are able to both make the case like Amos Oz or to argue the case like Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Orly Erez-Likhovski. And let us, in our own way-- and it may be in a small place-- I'll leave you with this very mild teaching that Amos Oz has. He said, you know, obviously, zealots are very extreme example, he said, but you know, many of us in our own families' lives, we sometimes have the desire to change people. And now, we want our kids to be more ready to clean up their rooms, or the gentle things that couples do. That's normal. But when you take that into a more radical view, then those natural traits become very, very dangerous traits. That's the danger that we face with zealotry. We face it internally within our own community. We face it all around us. And let us raise our Jewish voices of decency, of commitment to the many ways that we live lives of holiness and purpose. And let's be forces against zealotry yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, L'heitroat!