Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Zeal in the Age of Tolerance

Posted by rabbiart on July 15, 2008

To study this parshah we must turn back to the end of last week’s parshah and read verses 6 thru 9. Pinhas, grandson of Aaron, sees an Israelite man and a Midianite woman committing “harlotry” in front of all of Israel. Pinhas spears the two of them with a single thrust, ending a plague resulting from HaShem’s anger.

As our parshah opens, Pinhas is given HaShems “covenant of peace” and a covenant of everlasting priesthood for him and his descendants “because he was jealous for his G-d, and made atonement for the children of Israel.” A census follows, and we learn that there are no more survivors from the generation that stood at Sinai, except for Moshe, Joshua and Caleb.

The modern reader is most likely to have tremendous difficulty with this parshah.  We like to think of ourselves, and perhaps we are, tolerant of other religious practices, and willing, if not eager, to say that each individual has autonomy.  We also seek to blur the lines between cultures, ethnic groups, and for some, religious practices.  We are uncomfortable with the idea of murder as an act of religious zealotry, and troubled that Pinchas, the perpetrator, is rewarded by Hashem with HaShem’s covenant of peace.

What are we to make of this episode?

We should note that modern readers are not the first to be troubled by this episode.  We note that Pinhas acted “on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all the procedures of judicial examination prescribed by the Torah, which in practice render a conviction well nigh impossible.” (Nehama Leibowitz in Studies in Bamidbar).

Nehama Leibowitz points out that the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud state that Pinhas action was disapproved of by Moshe and the elders, who would have excommunicated Pinhas, except that the Kadosh Baruch Hu granted him the covenant of peace.

Rav Kook comments on the prayer against Jewish heretics found in the weekday amidah, which is harsh and unforgiving in its tone although authored by a sage who was noted for his love of all creatures.   Regarding the author – Shmuel HaKatan – he writes “One could be sure that he was dominated by completely unselfish considerations and inspired by the purest of motives, and had removed from his heart all private feelings of hatred for the persecutors of his people.” (ibid)  This of course, may also be read as a comment on Pinhas and his seemingly impetuous actions.

Ultimately, we are left with these questions.

  1. Was Pinhas’s act a one-time event, or might there ever be a situation where it should be imitated?
  2. We live in an age of increasingly religious toleration, inter-faith dialogue and acceptance of the idea that there are multiple understandings of, and paths to G-d. (See the Pew Study on Religion) Is there any place for zealotry in the age of religious tolerance?
  3. What should our reaction be when we witness acts of religious zealotry?

Shabbat Shalom

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