Friday, July 29, 2016

Parsha Pinchas: Zealousness and How There Can Be "Too Much of a Good Thing"

With all the ISIS attacks taking place in the past few weeks, it has me think about taking religion too far. I'm an Orthodox Jew, but I still believe in an interpretive tradition that can be discussed and debated in an amicable manner without infringing upon others, especially when it comes to life and death. Religious fundamentalism is already irksome, and all the more so when someone kills another human being in G-d's name. Even so, how did last week's Torah portion end?

It introduces a biblical character called Phinehas (Pinchas). Pinchas was not just one of the priests in the priestly order. He was also the grandson of Aaron and son of Eleazar (Exodus 6:25). His grand entrance in the story is brought about by a bump in the road through the wandering of the desert. Balak was unable to use Bilam to curse the Israelites, so he turns to the wonderful world of debauchery. He sends a bunch of Midanite women to successfully tempt the Israelite men and get them to pray to a false deity: Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). This resulted in a plague sent by G-d (25:3). Since idolatry is a major affront to Judaism, Moses ordered the judges to slay each individual who committed idolatry (25:5). As an insult to injury, one of the Israelite men publicly brought a Midianite woman to the Tabernacle. Pinchas was so angered that he took a spear and killed the two (25:7-8). As a result, the plague was uplifted (25:8).

In case that doesn't confuse you enough, look at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, particularly with Numbers 25:11-13. Not only does G-d recognize that Pinchas turned away G-d's wrath because Pinchas was motivated by G-d, but also grants Pinchas "My covenant of peace (בריתי שלום)," as well as an eternal spot in the priesthood. We know that this took place because the later high priests were descendants of Pinchas, although Eleazar may have had other sons (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Numbers 25:13). If we take the verse at its simple meaning, if you're solely motivated by the zeal to serve G-d, it's okay to kill people in His name. It is not simply that modern-day sensibilities are violated, but also that what Pinchas did was the exact opposite of peaceful and in violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Is G-d really saying that we should emulate this behavior?

Fortunately, this shock isn't just one for us in the twenty-first century. The ambivalence of Pinchas' behavior goes back much further:

Pinchas did the right thing.

  • Rashi seems to be okay with Pinchas' actions because as Numbers 25:11 states, "He [Pinchas] was zealous for My sake," meaning that Pinchas' intentions were pure, and thus justifiable.
  • R. Samson Raphael Hirsch said that "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."
  • The Chatam Sofer commended Pinchas for showing as much zeal, alacrity, and energy to do right as the sinning Israelites put forth to do wrong. 
  • Midrash Shemot Rabbah 33:5 assumes that Pinchas was righteous in his actions. 
  • R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook thought that because Pinchas protected the Jewish people from the plague and further moral depravity, his actions brought about peace. 
Maybe Pinchas did the right thing, but there's a catch.
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) says that if Pinchas would have asked the rabbinical court prior to committing the act, it would have not been permitted. This act is presumed to be an act of zeal. But Maimonides (Rambam) adds on the caveat that the Talmudic source points out it was permissible only because Pinchas caught them in the act, and if Pinchas would have waited, he would have been liable for murder. More to the point, this Talmudic passage teaches that if Zimri (the Israelite Pinchas killed) would have killed Pinchas instead, Zimri would have been innocent in a court of law because it would have been an act of self-defense, which diminishes Pinchas' killing. 
  • The previous Torah portion ends with Pinchas' deed and 24,000 dead Israelites. Only in the following Torah portion do we see Pinchas vindicated. This is to teach us that we are not to prima facie praise extremism, and that we should wait for the dust to settle to see if his motives were pure (Moses of Coucy). Speaking of which.....
  • According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7), the Elders were ready to excommunicate Pinchas. However, G-d interjected and said that Pinchas would be granted priesthood for all time (per Numbers 25:13). What is implied here is that killing people is not typically acceptable. It is really difficult for an individual to objectively view their motives. Pinchas is not meant to be taken as an example of how we should live our lives, but rather an anomaly in an exigent circumstance. G-d is the only one who can objectively know our motives, which is why He voiced His "final answer" in Numbers 25:13. Conflating personal motives with actual zeal for G-d is all too easy. It is objectively too difficult to fulfill the requirements of this law, which is why the Sages in this Talmudic passage discouraged such zealous behavior. 
  • Rabbi Pinchas Peli thought that Pinchas "occupies a great place in the pantheon of the Jewish people," but also added that we should emulate with caution because zeal can occasionally be an asset, but not be viewed as a permanent norm. 
Did Pinchas do the right thing? Not so much...
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Zevachim 101b) said that Pinchas did not become a priest until he made peace with the other tribes [per Numbers 25:13]. Regardless if he technically did the right thing, there is a hefty price for zealousness, and peace needs to be made to pay the price.  
  • Regardless of whether the act was justified, it left Pinchas in emotional turmoil. Again, zealotry has its price, and G-d was granting Pinchas the peace to cope with it (Netziv). Even so, if you look at the Torah scroll, when you look at the word for peace in Numbers 25:12 (שלום) when mentioning "the covenant of peace", the letter "vav" is broken, implying that Pinchas will never fully have that internal peace. In verse 11, we also see that the letter "yud" is smaller than the rest of the letters in Pinchas' name. The "yud" stands for the name of G-d and for the word Jew (יהודי), and Pinchas' violence, even if it were justifiable, diminished him as a Jew and as a person.
  • I want to throw in an alternative interpretation into the mix. Where else in the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) do we see such a zeal to serve G-d? The obvious answer is Elijah because he is used in this week's Haftarah to parallel Pinchas' zeal. However, I want to take a different approach, and say that there are parallels to the Nazarite. As I wrote a few years ago, the Nazarite took on the three prohibitions because the individual wanted to channel their fervor for G-d in a higher spiritual direction. The problem is that at the end of the temporary Nazarite vow, one has to make a sin offering. Rambam says in the Mishneh Torah that the Nazarite is both a holy person and a sinner. Ultimately, the Nazarite vow is meant to be a concessionary vow. However, avoiding one extreme by going to the other is a bad idea. There needs to be a balance via the Golden Mean, which is something that Rambam advocated. According to the K'tav Sofer, we should go with the Golden Mean. Zeal and peace are two contradictory, extreme qualities. G-d granted peace not to reward Pinchas per se, but to bring him to a sense of balance to best serve G-d. Much like with the Nazarite, there are exigent circumstances that require us to go to an extreme. However, we ultimately screwed up because we should not have needed to go to an extreme to find balance. It is far from the ideal of the Golden Mean. G-d reminds us that peace is preferable, and in terms of Jewish values, it is one we should emphasize over zeal (Iturei Torah). Even when showing fervor to G-d or pursuing peace, much like Pinchas' grandfather did (Pirke Avot 1:12), we should not go in such extremes to do so. 

Although there is disagreement among commentators, there are some commonalities. Regardless of whether Pinchas' violent act was proper, it unquestionably left a permanent emotional scar. Zealousness comes with a personal toll, and diminishes us as those who are doing our best to serve G-d's ways. The sources also remind us that this Pinchas' actions are not meant to be as instructive. It is also noteworthy that Joshua was chosen instead of Pinchas to lead the Jewish people because a leader needs to have patience and forbearance to do his job. Zealousness is too unstable of an idea to last in the long-term.

Sure, we should care about G-d a lot, but extremism is not the way, and finding the circumstances to replicate Pinchas' zeal are next to impossible. We should take a the fervor to stand against moral depravity, much like Pinchas did, but also to remind ourselves there are better ways of acting in G-d's name than taking the extreme of zealousness.

1 comment:

  1. Your advice to stand against zealotry and depravity is well-noted, especially in this current election when emotions are running high nationwide.

    Also, I have noticed that many born-Jewish folks are like Pinchas, in a different way. Some of them have a very all-or-nothing approach to Judaism and are perfectionistic. They seem to have this mentality of, "If I can't be the best Jew I can be 24/7, I'll just let it all slide and do nothing."

    I'd like to remark, as well, that the ancient Israelite men apparently loved them some women from Midian and Moab. Let's not forget Ruth "lying down until the morning" for Boaz. Haha.