Religious Zealotry, Then and Now

Pinhas, Numbers 25:10-30:1

July 9, 2014

Hot-blooded anger. Self-righteousness. Unflinching certainty. Extreme measures. These are some of the hallmarks of violent religious zealotry. We see its vicious resurgence all over the world today: the headlines from Iraq, Syria, and much of the Middle East are filled with Islamist jihad, as Sunnis slaughter Shiites and vice versa; Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group in Nigeria, gained notoriety for kidnapping 300 young girls for the sin of going to school; Evangelicals have stirred Uganda and other African countries to enact draconian laws persecuting individuals for being homosexual.

And last week, for Jews, the horrific anguish of such zealotry hit us in our guts. We doubled over in pain at the news from Israel that Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gil-ad Shaar, three teenagers kidnapped weeks ago, turned up murdered near Hebron, likely by two suspects with ties to Hamas. The mourning of this terrible tragedy by Jews in Israel and across the globe then was interrupted by the news that at least some Jews were not only the victims of religious zealotry but also its perpetrators, having killed—likely in retaliation—a 16 year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. These savage acts have contributed to the latest military conflict between Israel, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations operating out of the Gaza Strip.

As modern people, we like to see ourselves as standing above the fray of religious zealotry; we view ourselves as civilized, responsible, and tolerant. Yet this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinhas—read in synagogues throughout the world—challenges this self-perception. Rather than condemning religious-based hatred and violence, the Torah portion begins with (and is named after) a gruesome valorization of religious zealotry. In Numbers 25, at the end of last week’s Torah portion (Parashat Balak), God is outraged that the Israelites fall prey to the seductions of foreign women and worship a deity named Ba’al Peor. God orders Moses to execute all the idolaters. At that instant, Pinhas, a priest and grandson of Aaron, sees an Israelite chieftain named Zimri bringing a Midianite woman named Cozbi into his chambers. Enraged, Pinhas picks up a spear, charges in, and impales them both (Numbers 25:8).

Parashat Pinhas picks up from this moment. We might expect that God would judge Pinhas harshly for his act. After all, the priest murdered two people without any of the due process required in the Torah (no trial, witness testimony, prior warnings, etc.). His vigilantism flies in the face of both our modern sensibilities and those of various pre-modern sages. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that Moses and the elders wanted to excommunicate Pinhas for his actions (Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7). At the very least, the biblical commentator Hizkuni adds, Pinhas should have lost his priestly status because one who kills another is prohibited from offering the Priestly Benediction.

But God reacts differently in this text. God tells Moses that Pinhas “has turned back My wrath from the Israelites, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My jealousy” (Num. 25:11). God adds that, in appreciation of this dramatic act, God will grant Pinhas “My covenant of peace” (Num. 25:12) and will ensure that the High Priesthood will remain in Pinhas’ family forever (Num. 25:12-13). Pinhas’ zealous action is not only condoned by God but also valorized and rewarded.

How can we, as humane, 21st century Jews, make sense of this embrace of violent religious zealotry? Further, can we both denounce contemporary manifestations of this religious zeal and at the same time hold fast to Parashat Pinhas as part of the Torah we so venerate?

While one could argue that this text is irredeemable, an ancient source we are compelled to preach against lest it be used as a justification for religious violence, I want to explore if we can respond to this disturbing biblical episode through a careful reading of it, with the aid of several classical commentators.

The first step, I believe, is admitting the propensity for zealotry within each of us. After all, how many of us wished—explicitly or within our own hearts—for physical harm to come to the murderers of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad? How many of us hoped for immediate violent retribution? We would do well to acknowledge that this is the same visceral, blood-boiling response Pinhas embodies when he spears the Israelite and his Midianite consort. The urge to respond to a wrongdoing with righteous violence is elemental to all humankind. According to this text, it is also a divine attribute: God freely admits that had Pinhas not acted, God would have wiped out “the Israelite people in My passion” (Num. 25:11). Instead, moved by Pinhas’ action, God immediately stops the killing God instituted against the Israelites as punishment for their idolatry.

But what comes next is even more important. God responds by bestowing on Pinhas a “covenant of peace.” What was this covenant? The Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) explains that it was the bestowal of an attribute of tranquility, a psychological bulwark to prevent Pinhas from again becoming so quick-tempered or angry. This suggests to me that God does not want Pinhas to react the same way in the future. God’s desire is for Pinhas to evolve beyond his propensity for violence and to pursue peace. Though, in the heat of the moment, God praises the priest, God’s ultimate goal is for Pinhas to change his response capacity so that he does not act out in vengeance again. Perhaps God (as depicted in our text) offers this blessing as a way of also checking God’s own violent leanings?

The ending of our parashah, I believe, also is instructive. In Numbers 27, God tells Moses that he soon will die. The Hasidic Master, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, adds that until this time, Moses had assumed that Pinhas would be his successor. But upon seeing his act of wild vigilantism, Moses realizes that this extremist would not be a successful leader of the Israelites and therefore asks God for an alternative (Amud Ha-Emet, p. 42). Moses requests that the Divine appoint a successor, and God responds by telling Moses to choose Joshua.

What I find intriguing about the appointment of Joshua is that, at this point in his career, he is the anti-zealot. Joshua has served Moses ably and steadfastly as his executive assistant ever since the exodus from Egypt. He is an administrator, not a rabble-rouser. Joshua, along with Caleb, didn’t give in to the persuasive efforts of the other ten spies who tried to sway the Israelites against entering Canaan. And in the one instance to date in which Joshua appears independently in the biblical narrative, he does so as an opponent of religious zealotry. In Numbers 11:28, when Eldad and Medad prophesy in the Israelite camp, Joshua tells Moses to restrain them. Joshua was fearful of prophetic conduct; he was apprehensive about those who claimed spontaneously to act as God’s medium in this world. This is the person God selects to be Moses’ successor.

How, then, should we respond to the outbreak of violent religious zealotry in the world today? First, by admitting that we all carry within us the propensity to act with such fury. We cannot be dismissive or triumphalist in the face of this form of religious extremism because it exists in each of us—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.—no less than in Pinhas. In this biblical narrative, it even exists in God. But, and this is a crucial but, it is my argument that God calls on us to exercise control over this violent streak; to reject acting upon it and to condemn others who give in to such extremism. Those who persecute and kill others out of religious zeal demand “every sort of condemnation and rejection.” True zealousness is not based on hatred and violence; true holiness requires the cultivation of a set of very different virtues. If we wish to cleave to God and act on God’s behalf in the world, then we, no less than Pinhas, need to embrace the covenant of peace that God aspires for each of us.

Rabbi Joshua Ratner is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New Haven and Associate Rabbi at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2012, Rabbi Ratner was a Joseph Neubauer Fellow and also earned a Master’s Degree in Midrash and a Certificate in Pastoral Care. He also worked as an attorney for five years prior to entering rabbinical school. Rabbi Ratner is passionate about the interplay between Judaism, public policy, and American culture. He has received training in congregation-based community organizing and was part of the original rabbinical student cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. He and his wife, Dr. Elena Ratner, are the proud parents of Dimitri, Eli, and Gabriella.

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