Pinhas Zealotry leads to Shalom with a Broken Leg -A Further Reflection on Dealing with Difficult texts.
July 30, 2016
We seem to have no end of people who are taking on the mantle of self-appointed judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner. The terrorists in Dallas and Baton Rouge who undertook single-handedly to wipe out police officers to avenge what they were told by many public officials was a campaign of racism by the police. The terrorists in a village in Northern France who decided that an elderly Catholic church priest had to be slaughtered because they were told it was an act of jihad to wipe out an adherent of a false religion.
There is political extremism and there is religious extremism. For the political extremism, here in the US, we can only say, to leaders who have stirred up the public, “ Chachamim, hizharu—Wise men, be careful what you say, lest you bring upon us exile and you drink from bitter waters.”( Pirke avot)
What about the religious extremists, who are also political extremists, in the case of ISIS or Al Qaeda? As I stated in a previous sermon, we all have to deal with difficult texts. I can’t tell the Kadis at Al Azhar or the Imams in Qom how to define their laws and standards, but I can talk about how we Jews have handled it.
We also have our despicables, but I can say, they are few and rare. It is so because the our history has forced us to understand our teachings in the face of reality and not to bend reality to match our teachings.
We are in the period of ”Beyn hameytzarim”—Between the Straits- the period that leads up to the 9th of Av. This period marks the tragedies surrounding the fall of the first and second Temples .
We know that this was the period of the “Kanaim”, the zealots, and one of Jesus disciples, Simon the Zealot or the Kanaii, was a member of this movement. ( Some scholars suggest that he too may have been a member of such a movement at one point in his life).This movement led the revolt against Rome and eventually to the very destruction of the Temple. They were also known as “ Biryonim” in Rabbinic sources, which means, despite their noble aspiration, they were ,very simply, boors and ruffians. Biryonim was actually reborn in the 1930’s as a Jewish fascist movement, Brit Biryonim, modelled on Mussolini’s fascism. You may also have seen a movie that came out last year, called “ Sicario”, about the hitmen of the drug cartels. That very term is the one used in our own sources for these same vigilantes, “Sicarii”, which means “ dagger men”, as they were, we are told, won’t to mingle in the crowds and assassinate anyone they suspected of collaborating with the Romans.
Now, it would seem, from some passages in our sources, that this is a legitimate movement. Here is the wording of the Mishnah, written as if the Temple, destroyed over a century before, still stood:
“ If one steals the utensils of the Temple or curses by enchantment( with intent to kill), or cohabits with a heathen woman( in other words, to have children that would become pagans) he is punished by zealots, Kanaim.( Mishnah sanhedrin 9:6)
From whence this word, “ Kanaim”, especially in regard to the third offense, cohabiting ( the Hebrew word used is blunter)?
It is directly from our Torah portion
At the end of the previous portion, the children of Israel, after their blessing by Balaam, are now defeated by their weakness for exotic women who lead them in pagan revelry. One of the leaders, Zimri, takes up with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, right in front of Moses and a terrible plague breaks loose. Notice that this is not a matter of a private peccadillo but a flagrant act of defiance, not just sexual but religious, causing a plague, a physical disaster.
Moses and the leaders are dumbfounded; their only response is to burst out in tears as they see the community as a whole backsliding.
Something must be done. God calls for action; Moses calls for action. But no one does anything. Suddenly, Pinhas(Phineas), alone, rushes into action, and single-handedly slaughters the chief Israelite and his temptress.
That was at the very end of last week’s portion. This week, as we open Pinhas, we have words of praise and blessing from God to Pinhas, for he “turned My wrath away from the people of Israel, for he was very jealous ( bekano et kinati) for my sake.” Kano”-being jealous- is of the same root as “ Kanaii”, a zealot.
Pinhas is rewarded with a great prize: Behold, I give you my Briti-shalom, G-d’s covenant of peace. It would seem to be an ideal prize.
Now, it may well be that the Rabbis are describing a fact: we aren’t ordering the Zealots to do this.Rather, it’s a fact, that they exist, whether as individuals or as a movement, and don’t expect us to stop them. We can’t.
Or, is this an active instruction, a positive commandment, to act?
From whence did the rabbis, draw this dictate? Maimonides ascribed the principle of kana’im pog’im bo to the laws handed down by Moses at Sinai (halakha l’Moshe mi’Sinai) noting that “if zealots attacked and killed [the transgressor] they are praiseworthy and energetic.” (Mishne Torah/Yad haHazaka: Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah, 12:4. )
Are there Jews who still follow this? Just last year, a Charedi, Yishai Schlissel, believed he was in the mold of Pinchas and murdered someone at the Gay Pride parade in Israel. Fortunately, he was apprehended and this year the parade passed through peacefully. Is this the final word for us, this act of a deranged Chasid?
(I found a halakhic discourse which covered the sources in this murder account very well and I am indebted to the author for summarizing the key arguments. It was written by the U S Under Secretary of Defense (2001–2004)( and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense ,1985–1987). Dov Zakheim. He also happens to be an ordained Rabbi, something that doesn’t show up in his official resumes. You didn’t know that a Rabbi could serve as Under Secretary of Defense?)
The Rabbis of the Talmud take a second look at this dictate. They look back on the previous centuries of rebellion against Rome and recognize that reality precedes zealotry.
R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so. It has been stated likewise: Rabbah b. Bar Hana said in R. Johanan's name: If he comes to take counsel, we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Phinehas slain him, Phinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Phinehas was a “rodef” a murderous pursuer .( Sanhedrin 82 b on Mishnah 9). In other words, we certainly don’t encourage the act of zealotry, and the zealot is in danger of his own life, considered as if he were a murderer, while the sinner certainly may defend himself without impunity or danger of penalty.
The same Maimonides who praised the act also placed tight restrictions on it, based on the instructions of the Talmud:
The sin must take place before 10 or more witnesses; that the act of zealotry could only be undertaken during the transgression; that a court could not authorize such an act; that the zealot would be guilty of a capital crime should he kill the transgressor after having sought the court’s approval; and that should the zealot himself be killed, the transgressor would not be prosecuted for murder. Another great codifier of Jewish law, Rabbi Moses of Coucy ( Sefer Mitzvot Gadol) added a key word to this list of restrictions: laShamayim—for Heaven—indicating that the zealot’s motives had to be pure. If his motives were mixed then he was no better than any murderer.
In our days, Rabbis have added that this act could only take when there is a Sanhedrin that is sitting in Jerusalem with the power to apply capital punishment. (Dr Itamar Warhaftig, "Go'el Hadam" (The Blood Avenger), Techumin 11(5750/1990), 354)
Chief Rabbi R. Avraham Shapira took a similar view. He was asked about the individual taking up acts of zealotry, and stated “gedola aveira lishma”— greatly severe is a sin committed to achieve positive outcomes.In other words, the ends don’t justify the means.
He looked at one of the few cases of Jewish zealotry during the rise of Nazism :the case of Herschel Grynszpan . To keep you up to snuff on history, Grynspan in 1938 murdered German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath in Paris.
Grynszpan’s motive was noble: to avenge the suffering of Polish Jews who had been dumped by the Germans on the Polish border but refused entry by their own country, Poland. What was the consequence? It was used as the pretext for Kristallnacht, just the kind of provocation the Nazi leadership were hoping for. The violence that arose confirmed for them that the German peoples were behind them in their war on the Jews.
Rabbi Shapira then pointed out that just as the murder ignited Kristallnacht, so similar acts of individual zealotry could have far reaching negative consequences. He therefore posited that an individual could not reach his or her own judgment in such "complicated matters," as he put it, particularly those affecting the Jewish people as a whole, but instead should seek guidance from leading rabbinical authorities. We can assume their answer would be a blunt” No.”( Interview with Rabbi Abraham Kahane Shapira, “Geula uMikdash” (“Redemption and The Temple,” Techumin 5 (5756/1996), 432).
[This topic ignited a discussion with my members, who disputed any attempt to lay blame on Grynszpan. What the Germans and their fellow travelers did what ultimate of their own choice.]
Dov Zakheim sums up the discussion on Schlissel:
“Far more worrying is that in the absence of forceful admonitions by Haredi rabbis, there may be other Yishai Schlissels lurking in the background, taking the law into their own hands, while grotesquely fantasizing that they are sanctifying God's holy name. “https://www.jewishideas.org/articles/zealotry-and-its-consequences-case-yishai-schlissel
Now, let’s get back to Pinchas and our Rabbis understanding of this portion.
. The Sages ask, though, why should he have been given this “Covenant of Peace” from God on high? Because he had earned the anger, not the approval of the leaders. He had taken the law into his own hands and they were ready to expel him for it. That is the explanation for God’s intervention. But it is an unusual intervention and an unusual blessing for an act of killing!
The sages note that the word Shalom is written in the Torah-text in an odd manner—the letter Vav in Shalom is cut in the middle! The peace is, so to say, incomplete
Thus, the Ktav Sofer ( Rabbi Shmuel Benyamin Schreiber) explained it: It is true that sometimes, we must take drastic action to save a situation; nevertheless, we must very quickly step back from it to a secure and solid basis, which is peace, the foundation and secret of all blessings.
The Haftarah that is normally associated with this portion is that of the account of Elijah after his victory over the priests fo Baal. He runs for his life to Mt. Sinai. He describes himself to God as, in the mold of Pinchas, ”Kano Kaneti:-I have been exceptionally zealous for you. The Rabbis, attuned ot the nuance of the words, see that he is instructed to turn over his office to another and step down.
The commentators note: he has not learned his lesson- and “ Are you here still with the spirit of revenge.”
That is G-d’s response to zealotry. God appears in the still small voice, not in the fire and earthquake: G-d was in the silent voice, because, again as Metzudat David states, Chaftez Chesed Hu, He seeks lovingkindness!
True, extraordinary times call for extraordinary acts—but beware of zealotry for the sake of zealotry! Pinchas must be tamed by the covenant of peace.
As I mentioned before, we all have to deal with difficult texts- in Christianity, in Islam,in Hinduism, in Buddhism, you name it. A text can easily be read in many ways. It is the community of faithful that give it its meaning, not the author of the text.
There is an old Jewish joke of two scholars discussing wealth as the root of all evil. The wealthy have too much, and they are corrupted for it, while the poor have too little, and suffer for it. Surely, says the first scholar, we need only convince the rich to give up their wealth, and convince the poor to accept it. All would be perfect.
An excellent idea, the second scholar replied. Let’s start now. I will convince the poor people to accept the wealth—You try to convince the wealthy to give it up.
I and other Rabbis can convince our Jews not to be zealous. It is up to the Kadis and Imams to convince the faithful ( and the many unemployed and failed souls that often become the fanatic perpetrators) in the banlieues of France or the war-torn neighborhoods of Syrian, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere to turn against zealots and zealotry. For our sakes, I wish them success.