By Rabbi Jon Cutler
This Shabbat’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas, begins by referring to an event that occurred at the end of the prior one, when Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, killed Zimri, a scion of the Simeonite ancestral house, and Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain.
As the Torah recounts the episode, the Midianites, having failed to thwart the Israelites by means of a curse, turned to a more insidious tactic, seducing the Israelite men with Midianite women, who then led them into idolatry and apostasy, resulting in a punishing plague. Thereupon, God commanded Moses to publicly execute “the ringleaders” and Moses, in turn, instructed Israel’s officials to slay those among the people who have been drawn into pagan worship.
“Just then,” Zimri and Cozbi flaunted their relationship “in the sight of … the whole Israelite community” (Numbers 25:6), and Pinchas “took impassioned action for his God” by killing them, thus checking the raging plague (25:11-13).
Parshat Pinchas tells us what happened next. God is said to have granted Pinchas a “pact of peace,” ensuring that he and his descendants would serve as priests “for all time” (25:12-13).
Nehama Leibowitz described Pinchas’ violent deed as having been “on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all of the procedures of judicial examination prescribed in the Torah” (“Studies in Bamidbar,” p. 329). This act of “summary justice,” she observed, “taking the law into his own hands, constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angles” (ibid., Leibowitz).
In our world, we are faced with the same problem when law officials take the law into their hands as in the case of George Floyd or countless other African American and other people of color through the decades.
How, then, could God have rewarded Pinchas? If anything, he should have been condemned. Although Pinchas receives praise in the Tanach, for his action, there is criticism of his violent act in the Talmud. Talmud Y’rushalmi 9.7 states that Pinchas acted “against the will of the Sages,” who would have excommunicated him, but for God’s intervention.
However, if Pinchas had not acted and had the Moabites succeeded in seducing the Israelites away from God, Judaism and the Jewish people would have died in its beginnings. The Israelites were new to freedom and had not formed a bond with God. The sexual promiscuity described in the portion was not a moral issue.
As such, the people had not yet internalized monotheistic values. Confusion and mayhem threatened to destroy the newly formed nation. Pinchas’ actions may be somewhat less bloodthirsty and impulsive. Rather, the Israelites were in spiritual and existential peril as a consequence of their lack of faith.
In a period when so many profess to have divine sanction for violence against others, it is more essential than ever to differentiate between passionate religious commitment and fanaticism. The former is profoundly necessary, but the latter is dangerous — and damaging.
The concerns Leibowitz expressed and those implicit in the Talmudic passages ring true in our own day, systemic racism. Much of the turmoil in the world, historically and presently, is attributable to religious extremism and racism, to the belief on the part of some that they have an exclusive understanding of God’s will and are entitled to oppress, harm, or even kill others in God’s name.
While this phenomenon is most pronounced today in white nationalism and certain circles of Christianity or radical Islam, no religion, including Judaism, is free of carriers of this deadly virus. If the “impassioned” deeds of Pinchas make us uneasy, despite the Torah’s insistence on the purity of his motives, it is for good reason. Such unease bespeaks ethical sensitivity and a becoming humility.
Human life is sacred. Our Jewish tradition is clear on this. When God created us, God gave us both yetzer hatov (a good inclination) and yetzer hara (an evil inclination). While most of us find a balance between the two, there are those whose evils far outweigh their good deeds. But their choices and their lives, however evil or wicked, are still sacred.
While we need not mourn the loss of our enemies, we would be turning our back on God and the holiness of life to rejoice in their death. In the Book of Proverbs, we have two positions juxtaposed within relative proximity to one another: “When the wicked perish there is glad song” (Proverbs 11:10) and “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles” (24:17).
Rabbi John Cutler is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County in Chester Springs. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.