Parashah Pinchas continues the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, a man rewarded for zealotry, for killing in the name of God. At the end of last week’s story we read that Pinchas, upon witnessing an egregious act of apostasy between an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, takes immediate extrajudicial action, executing them on the spot. This week we hear God’s word in response to Pinchas’ deed, “[Pinchas] has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace.’” Both God and Pinchas are depicted as characters of zealotry and passion. Despite the Torah’s seeming endorsement of Pinchas’ act of zealotry, Jews throughout the centuries, sages and student alike, have questioned Pinchas’ act in particular and zealous behaviour as a Torah principle. Today, it is not just Judaism that struggles with what it means to be willing “to kill for God,” for all religious traditions have a text or tradition that endorses that type of killing. Our world seems in tatters as killing in the name of God and Scripture becomes more widely practiced.
Those who endorse Pinchas’ action, and zealousness for God, argue as the great 19th century Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “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.” Of course, what is good and true is defined within the very scripture that allows one to kill in its pursuit. The commentary in our Etz Chayim Chumash points out that,
“The tradition generally considers moral threats to be more dangerous for national survival than physical threats. Although the Egyptians and the Edomites threatened Israel’s physical existence, we are commanded not to hate them. We are told to wipe out the Midianites, however, for they tried to undermine Israel’s moral standing.”
For some, upholding one’s moral standing by taking action that is against the law is problematic. This solipsistic argument to support killing in God’s name from the sense of morality from God’s supposed book is precisely the same point made by other religionists who now argue for God’s war against Western society. These “wars of God” have nothing to do with God or morality, when one has a more nuanced understanding of God and more responsible position of what is moral.
Accordingly, an entire other tradition arose in Judaism, one that over time has become preponderant. Thousands of years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud established so many rules that a person ready to take zealous action had to follow that for all intents and purposes, that they halakhically classified as murderer one who claimed to kill for God as a zealot. In addition to this restriction in law, they added the following homiletic teachings. The early rabbis noted that Pinchas’ name in the opening of this parashah is spelled in the Torah scroll with a small “yud”, the same letter used in God’s name, and learned from that that one who commits violent acts, even for a “good cause”, has diminished his own Godly nature. Similarly, the “vav” in shalom is written with a broken stem, suggesting that peace achieved through force is not complete or sustainable.
While the minority position endorsing zealotry in Judaism still exists (Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir have not been condemned outright by the tradition, the former having a grave visited by many as a shrine and the latter still considered as a hero by thousands), the majority finds such action abhorrent. Pinchas’ actions are considered to be “of that time” and it is noted that he is assigned to the priesthood partly to disarm him. The essence of the message of the Torah and the prophets is that those of us who wish to create real shalom know it is achieved with justice tempered by compassion. In just a few weeks, we will read in the Torah the words that form our core teaching: “Shema: Listen Israel, being is what is our God, all being is One”. The seventh word of that teaching is “Ve’ahavta”, and therefore you shall love. As the rabbis indicated thousands of years ago, zealotry has no place in Judaism, or any religion at all. Rather, the unity of being calls us toward love.
As Martin Luther King said decades ago: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”