Every Moral Case Is Complex

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By Rabbi Kami Knapp

Parshat Pinchas

Pinchas is a parshah rich with different cases regarding moral decision making, including murder, inclusion, women’s equality and legacy.

There is a deep dichotomy between Hashem’s moral decision making when comparing two substories within the parshah: the case of Pinchas and the daughters of Tzelophad. This dichotomy, albeit confusing, shows us the human factors which enrich and complicate issues of morality.

It reminds us that moral decisions are fraught with influences: emotions, honoring the past, tribal mentality, gender and much more. It reminds us that morality is a complex issue within itself, but theology and morality together can be so much more complex.

We begin the parshah in the aftermath of Pinchas’ violent murder of an Israelite man and Midianite woman because of their intimate relationship. The Israelite man and Midianite woman (Cozbi daughter of Zur) come before Moses and the congregation. Pinchas reacts by killing both of them in front of the congregation.

Rashi provides context as to why Pinchas commits murder. “He saw the deed and reminded himself of the law. He said to Moses, “I learned from you, ‘If someone cohabits with an Aramean [heathen] woman, zealots have a right to strike him [dead].’” He replied to him, “Let the one who reads the letter be the agent to carry it out.”

Immediately, “he took a spear in his hand. …” (Sanh. 82a)” Pinchas is a zealot, an extremist. He justifies his violent actions by believing he is carrying out his faith’s decrees. He commits murder for the sake of and in the name of Hashem. Herein lies two challenges of morality: the act of murder, in itself, and the act of murder in Hashem’s name.

This challenge is not foreign to us today. We continue to grapple with questions such as: Is murder ever justified? If so, in what cases? Is it honorable to commit crimes according to the literal interpretations of our faith? Is it honorable to commit crimes if we are promised a reward from Hashem?

Not only does Pinchas murder for the sake of Hashem, Hashem condones and rewards Pinchas for his crime: “Pinchas … has turned my anger aware from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say: “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”

Hashem’s response adds complexity to an already complex moral issue. Later in the parshah we find another case concerning morality: Hashem distributes the land to the tribes. The daughters of Tzelophad are excluded from receiving land because their father has daughters and not sons.

Is it moral to withhold inheritance from women merely because of their gender? The daughters go to Moses and argue the injustice of the situation. Moses turns to Hashem for judgment and Hashem commands Moses to give them land.

Hashem’s decision supports the value of gender equality and that every human being is equal. In addition, Hashem’s decision represents the act of ensuring justice in cases affected by historical injustice and allowing the voices of the unheard to be heard. Again, these are issues of morality that resonate deeply within our society today.

Within this parshah, we are faced with a dichotomy of moral decision making. Does Hashem condone violence for community preservation or does Hashem carry out justice by working to eradicate the injustices around us?

I do not have an answer as to why Hashem seems to condone violence in one case while ensuring equality in another. But, what we learn from this parshah is that issues of morality are complex; issues of morality and theology are even more complex. Every case of morality, as demonstrated in this parshah, has nuances and external factors that make it unique.

But this does not mean that we should withdraw from the issues because of the challenge of complexity; our tradition teaches us to reach deeper within the issue and within our texts for guidance. It teaches us to look at all the nuances and think deeply about how our decisions affect our community, our faith, our legacy. It also reminds us that many voices are left unheard and that our choices in morality not only affect those who contribute to the issue but also those who are not allowed or empowered to speak.

In Orot HaTorah, Rav Kook states: “Morality, in its naturalness, in all the depths of its splendor and power of its strength, must be determined in the soul, and will be receptive to those noble influences deriving from the force of the Torah. Every word of the Torah must be preceded by worldliness.

“But if we deafen our ears so that we cannot hear the simple call of the Lord which is potentially proclaimed through all the natural gates of light, which are in every man’s reach, because we think that we will find the light of the Torah in a Torah which is severed from the light of life spread over the world and planted in the splendid soul of man, then we have not understood the value of the Torah.”

Rabbi Kami Knapp is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is the rabbi at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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