Pinhas fanatic violence pushes limits of morality


Numbers 25:10-30:1

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

What do we do when we encounter a really difficult piece of Torah? When I encounter a text that seems objectionable, I try to remember to hold my own opinions with some humility. After all, this is a text that our people have held as sacred, even regarded as divine, throughout our history. Perhaps it is my view that is wrong. Perhaps I just have not yet come to understand the deeper wisdom that the text embodies.

Yet this year I can find no way to redeem the character of Pinhas. This parashah begins where last week's left off, when Pinhas, Aaron's son, saw a Jewish man whoring with a Moabite woman, in full view of the entire community. Pinhas responded to this admittedly flagrantly sinful act by seizing a spear and stabbing both the man and the woman. Worst of all, the Torah seems to find Pinhas' act praiseworthy, evidence of zealous devotion to God. Pinhas is granted a divine brit shalom, or covenant of peace, apparently as a reward for his loyalty.

I take some comfort in the fact that a wide range of commentators through the ages has struggled with this text, as I do. The Talmud actually imagines that, had Pinhas asked a rabbinic court whether it was permissible to kill the two sinners in this way, the court would have responded that the law would permit such a punishment, but the court would not condone it.

The Zohar asks whether Pinhas' act of murder would not disqualify him from future service as a priest. With blood on his hands, how could he continue to offer sacred leadership to the people? Several commentators have observed that, at the start of our parashah, the "yod" in Pinhas' name is diminished in size, suggesting that an act of violence weakens the divine essence within us. Likewise, the letter "vav" in the word "shalom" in Numbers 25:12 is written in the Torah scroll with a break in its stem, demonstrating that violence can never give rise to peace that is whole and steady (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 918).

Having studied these commentators, I know that I am not alone in my discomfort with Pinhas' zealotry. But this year I find the Torah's approval of his behavior particularly painful. I have just returned from a trip to Israel. We met many remarkable people, living each day with the trauma of ongoing violence, distrust and fear. One can hardly judge anyone living in such a situation for holding any view, no matter how extreme.

But we met goodhearted people, some of them old friends, who held views that I could only call zealous. No one went so far as to advocate the kind of fanatic violence that Pinhas engaged in. But we heard otherwise righteous and compassionate Jews express words of hate, fiercely defending a hardhearted posture in which no one else's reality mattered but their own. These people were heirs to Pinhas' zealotry, and this is unconscionable.

By contrast, a beautiful piece of wisdom appeared in an unlikely place. Hung on the wall of a bathroom stall in a café on King George Street was a poem by Yehuda Amichai, Israel's poet laureate, entitled, "The Place Where We Are Right."

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves dig up the world

like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

This year I cannot redeem Pinhas, a model of extremism and self-righteousness. For me, Amichai's words embody deeper Jewish wisdom, as he warns of the dangers of zealotry and excessive certainty. Amichai's poem asks us to question our certainties, to acknowledge that there is more than we can ever know or understand. Only in this humble recognition can new possibilities flower.

Today a whisper of possibility is heard in Israel, and for the first time in a very long time, we can once again dare to hope for a real brit shalom, a covenant of peace, between two peoples. May these quiet voices prove stronger than the cries of zealots, and may flowers soon begin to grow again.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at