When should one disobey law and follow conscience

Numbers 25:10–30:1

I Kings 18:46-19:21

by Rabbi Stephen Pearce

The tension between respecting the dictates of law vs. taking the law into one's own hands is central to understanding Pinchas, the Torah portion for this week.

In this biblical account, the Israelites, after traveling for many years in the desert, have settled at Shittim, the last way station before the entrance to the Promised Land. There, Israelite men became enamored with the local Midianite women, not only because of their beauty but also because the men could participate in their pagan fertility religion.

Zimri, an Israelite, took advantage, in a blatantly indiscreet manner, of what the Midianite women had to offer. Instead of stealthily taking up with a woman at some clandestine location, Zimri flaunted his disregard for Israelite law by taking into his tent, located in the center of the encampment, a woman named Cozbi, the daughter of the Midianite chieftain. In so doing, Zimri destroyed the image that the Israelites had of themselves, of being an am kadosh — "a kingdom of priests and a holy people."

A reader of the text can only imagine the rumblings and mutterings of the people who witnessed this act of defiance, especially because the Torah reports that Zimri's behavior resulted in a plague of great magnitude that afflicted the entire community.

Enter Pinchas, grandson of Aaron and son of the High Priest, Eleazar, a passionate man with a zealous devotion to the Covenant. Unable to tolerate Zimri and Cozbi's public disregard for the mores of the community, he burst into the tent where the idolatrous, illicit union was taking place and, with a single thrust, ran a spear through both of them (Numbers 25:1-18).

Although Pinchas' vigilante action resulted in the lifting of the plague, it also granted Pinchas the honor of the covenant of peace, the leadership privilege of the high priest's position and immortalization by the Psalmist (106: 30-31): "It was counted to him for righteousness unto all generations forever." Nevertheless, a student of Torah must wonder how such recompense could have been earned for murder.

The Torah author and some later zealots set a dangerous precedent by heaping praise upon Pinchas for arresting the deterioration of Israelite morals and restoring the breach in the wall of the Covenant. Thus, Pinchas' self-righteous disregard for legal procedure resulted in sanctions of illegal activity and violence. The real danger in siding with fanatics is the resulting breakdown of the legal system. The assassin who murdered Yitzhak Shamir utilized this text to justify his action. Thus, the issue of civil disobedience, the breaking of one law to redress another, is one that is a constant source of anguish. While Jews are admonished not to stand idly by while a kinsman's blood is shed, they are also exhorted to follow the law with care.

Jews champion the righteous Christians who broke the law of Nazi Germany by sheltering Jews who were hunted by the SS. Nevertheless, those Christians were breaking the law. How does one know when to make the distinction between being law abiding and breaking the law when conscience calls for it? In the case of Nazi Germany, the call is easier because breaking the law meant saving lives. However, such action is not always so clear.

Jewish tradition provides ample examples of this strain between following the law and taking the law into one's own hands. For example, the Haftarah that accompanies Pinchas is about Elijah, another man praised for his zeal for God when he led the Israelites to destroy the false prophets of Ba'al. However, Elijah is also criticized for his excessive fervor. The interpretation of the revelation at Horeb (I Kings 19:10-14) is one of censuring Elijah for accusing instead of defending Israel (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:6,1).

The problem of when to disobey a law in order to obey one's conscience has no solution. "Let your conscience be your guide" is not sufficient. When confronted by this problem, the rabbis attempted to create a sufficiently human law that provided strict guidelines. They wanted to make it unnecessary to have to stand outside the law because they understood the dangers of such action. They also believed that obedience to law was more important than rejecting it.

Nevertheless, no law is perfect. As a result, the problem of following or disregarding the law is still one that will continue to be struggled with and discussed for years to come.