On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Pinchas: Religious Extremism

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Pinchas who kills an Israelite out of zealous belief. There are many who equate “people of faith” with zealotry, doing anything to ensure the continuation of a religion or peoplehood. But how can we turn that definition around to the idea that  "people of faith" are good, kind, caring people who tend to their community? We should not let religion be hijacked by zealots – not in the bible, and not today. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, examines Parashat Pinchas.

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Welcome to episode 27 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter, our handle is @URJ. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will teach us about Parashat Pinchas. He'll ask us how we can safeguard our communities from being defined by zealots. 

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Pinchas. Pinchas, in the Jewish tradition, is a very, very problematic individual. He literally is going along one day and he sees an Israelite doing something so offensive that he literally, not only intervenes, but he kills them. He is filled with this righteous zealotry. He is the quintessential zealot. A person whose faith literally makes him froth at the mouth. And some in our circle of interpreters say he is such a righteous defender of our people, but others see, in his zealotry, the most dangerous and dark side of faith. We are living in a moment in the 21st century when there is a greater and greater number of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are literally defining themselves as not religious. They call themselves, in using the language of demography, “nones.” 

When they look at the choices, are you religious, are you this, are you that, they say none of the above. And one of the things, actually, I think grows out of Parashat Pinchas, many, many modern people say, is that what it means to be a person of faith, that you're so filled with zealotry, with righteousness, with certainty, with intolerance? If that's what it means to be a religious person, you know what? I don't want any of it. And so people define themselves against that and say I am none of those choices. Our tradition, obviously, has many different models of what it means to be a person of faith, a person of kindness, a person of love, a person of deep commitment to the well-being of others. So we are at a moment to try and kind of flip back what it means to be a person of faith. 

So when someone says none of the above, it's not that they don't want to be people of kindness, people of goodness, people of generosity, people of deep commitment to others and to community. More and more people want to be that. So we have a typology of what it means to be faithful. Is it to be a religious zealot? And we look around the world, and there are so many faith communities that have their zealots. We all do. And, unfortunately, they get a disproportionate share of the attention. We focus so much on them because they scare us, and they make us wonder what faith might someone be practicing, that they would literally harm others out of their zealotry, out of their sense of righteousness. So we're fighting for the very substance of what it could mean to be a person of faith, particularly in the 21st century. Can we actually turn it around? 

And I think we have that opportunity, each of us, to say what I do, and particularly, if we're in the progressive part of the religious community. There are times when we sometimes question is our commitment to tikkun olam. Is that really about faith, or is it a community service commitment? Is my desire to have some time to be quiet and to meditate, is that the same as having a prayer life? Is my wanting to build a community of real deep concern and empathy for one another, is that what it means to be part of a congregation? Well, that is in fact up to us. And we simply can't allow religion to be hijacked by zealots. Not in the Bible and not today. There are people who we meet in our lives who embody the very depths of what it means to be religious, what it means to be a person of faith. 

So let's not allow the zealots, however loud, however intolerant, however self-righteous they may be, to define the entire activity of spirituality and of faith. That belongs to all of us. And, in some ways, we have to take it back and to say no, tolerance is what my religious faith teaches me. Love of the other, particularly the stranger, that's what my faith teaches me. Not to be fearful of the other, the immigrant, the one who is different. Faith teaches me that my life isn't just about doing for me. Generosity isn't about what I'm willing to spend and do for myself. Generosity is about the time and the resources I commit to the communal well-being, the communal good. So we've got a big stark contrast right in front of us. And Parashat Pinchas, boy, it focused us right on that choice. 

And I think as we look at his deed, his murder in the name of his faith, we recoil and we say, that's not my way. That's not the religious tradition I affirm, that I love, that I practice. So when we consider what it means to be a “none,” can we say none of the following: intolerance, zealotry, self, righteousness. What's my faith? It's none of those. It's about all the things that will make our world whole, make our world just, make our world compassionate. That choice wasn't just our ancestors', it's ours. So let us not let anyone walk away with what it means to be a person of faith. We can shape that in our own lives, for our community, and for generations yet to be. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. 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. Until next week, l’hitraot.