Friday, July 13, 2012

Parashat Pinchas and Zealotry

Among the most complex and controversial episodes in the Torah is that of Pinchas and his response to an act of hillul Hashem -- desecration of God's Name. (Numbers 25). In this drama, the Children of Israel stray from God through both inappropriate sexual encounters with Midianite women and idolatry.  The Biblical connection of fidelity amongst humans and between humans and God is a theme that winds from the Five Books of Moses through the books of the Prophets. The loyalty that God demands from His nation is a template for the loyalty which must exist between loving partners.

Thus, Monotheism is the Divine paradigm for monogamy.

Returning to the narrative of Parashat Pinchas, when an Israelite man named Zimri brings his Midianite lover Cozbi to engage in intimate sexual acts before The Tent of Meeting in the sight of Moses, Pinchas, in an act of passion, "rose up from among the congregation and took the javelin in his hand" running it through the illicit lovers. 

According to the text, this graphic and brutal killing appeases God's anger and Pinchas is given a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. 

Let’s examine the biographies of the players in this story. Zimri is not just any Israelite; he is a prince from the tribe of Shimon. And Pinchas is not just any freelance crusader, he is none other than the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the Priest.

Significantly and troublingly, Pinchas's act of zealotry became the Halakhah: "He who cohabitates with a heathen woman is punished by zealots" (Sanhedrin 82a). 

This presents a conflict for contemporary Jews of the moderate persuasion. How do we balance our personal and collective disdain for zealotry with the Halakhah of Pinchas? 

The commentators were troubled by the text as well. The Talmud Yerushalmi resolves the problem by stating that this was not the normative Halakhah, meaning that it was a minority opinion or limited to specific circumstances.  The Talmud Bavli takes the argument further, justifying Pinchas's act but limiting it to Pinchas alone by creating a set of circumstances by which no other person would possibly be able to be justified in doing the same. Rashi solves the problem by making Pinchas a vessel of God who was enacting the Divine will.  In other words, don't try this at home, only when God intervenes, can one respond in this way.  Of course, this explanation raises all sorts of problem in identifying when exactly God's will is at play.

Still, why would Pinchas earn the Brit Shalom?  Why the Covenant of Peace to a man who committed a violent act of passion?

One, nuanced understanding of Pinchas’s Brit is that is more like a badge of protection, akin to the Mark of Cain. Another way to read this ostensible reward is that the Brit is a way of reining in future zealotry. By institutionalizing the incident, it falls under the jurisdiction of Jewish legal authorities. This second interpretation acknowledges the dangerous act for what it is.

Indeed, the Torah itself preserves our unease with the Brit.  The vav in the word “Shalom” is broken, as if to remind us for all time what Reb Moshe Katz teaches us, "that we shouldn't rush to praise" those who are not praiseworthy, or at least those for whom praise is complicated.

The takeaway from Parashat Pinchas has special resonance for me, writing, as I am, from Jerusalem. A shocking aspect of contemporary Israel is the unwelcome mat extended to the non-Orthodox by the Chief Rabbinate. Or, put another way, the conditional nature of the love that the State of Israel has towards Jews.

In Eretz Yisrael, to paraphrase Animal Farm, “All Jews are created equal but some Jews are more equal than others.”

The inequality is manifest in a myriad ways – from the limited access that egalitarian-minded daveners have to the Kotel plaza – to the curtailed rights that the same prayer services have to assemble in Israeli hotels.

In recent months, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has threatened to withdraw the kashrut certification from hotels that permit non-Orthodox prayer services on their premises. A punitive gesture such as this, which threatens hotels with severe financial repercussions, is the very definition of zealotry.

Israel’s rabbanut  should take heed of the lessons learned from Parashat Pinchas and the ancient rabbis’ efforts to rein in the human impulse towards rash action borne of the conviction that one is acting as God’s proxy, meeting out Divine Justice on Earth.

The zealous nature of the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s actions are highly unjust. Worse, like Pinchas, they drive a spear into Israel’s democratic heart and soul.

Shabbat Shalom

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