Home / Community / Torah PortionRSS Feed
D'var Torah: Zeal for a cause does not justify unjust behavior
July 1st, 2012
Madison — Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers bridges the Torah portions of Balak and Pinchas, which are read in the synagogue during July this year.
While crossing this bridge we read the story of the young priest Pinchas, who was “zealous for his God” (Numbers 25:13).
In his fervor to carry out Divine commands, this grandson of Aaron the High Priest slew both an Israelite man and a Midianite woman on the spot, when he caught them committing adultery.
Traditional Torah commentators of the medieval period view Pinchas as the exemplar of enthusiasm and zeal as he displays his eagerness to please God. They praise him as he acts to preserve the morality of the Israelite men as they encounter the wiles of the seductive Moabite women.
Prevalent among the attitudes of the sages of our Talmudic tradition, however, there is the notion that Pinhas’ actions are less than completely praiseworthy.
No one examined the evidence or served as witness against the perpetrators, and no one judged them to be guilty except for Pinchas.
In other words, he carried out a capital punishment without the sanction of a court of law, and according to many Talmudic authorities he should not be accorded the totality of God’s grace.
To arrive at this conclusion, the Rabbis spin Midrash passages on certain graphic characteristics of the Torah scroll that seem to point to this less-than-favorable viewpoint.
Specifically, in the verse where God indicates that the Holy One is going to grant Pinchas God’s “covenant of peace” (“briti shalom”, Numbers 25:12), we can see even today in our scrolls that the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” is smaller, or broken, or somehow misshapen. (The Aleppo Codex — c. 930 C.E. — does not appear to share this graphic anomaly.)
They say this broken letter demonstrates that the Divine “peace” intended for Pinchas is not absolute or complete, and that this deficiency is as a result of his overzealousness.
Scholars who focus on the literary context of these events might comment that Pinchas’ zeal is not for killing per se, but rather for saving the errant Israelite people from God’s wrath. Their promiscuous behavior, if left unchecked, would lead to their destruction, and Pinchas’ actions prevented this downfall.
This explanation has some merit. One could say that his acting as judge, jury, and executioner had a higher purpose. But the student interpreting Torah for the modern world cannot possibly justify the absence of due process.
And so we come to a serious problem with this text. How can any zealous act, whether connected to patriotism, the law, or our ethical and moral code, be justified if it leads to a disastrous or calamitous conclusion?
The rabbis of the Talmud imply that all our actions should be decisive, that our “yes” should be a “yes,” and our “no” should be “no” (Talmud Tractate Baba Metzia 49a).
However, even in this passage, the rabbis refer to a “just” yes and a “just” no. So we see that certain decisive actions could lead to injustice or, perhaps, catastrophe; and we need to hold back our approval, and reconsider our behavior.
I have never been able to understand how zealous feelings for any cause could allow someone to bypass and degrade human dignity. But this can happen even in our civilized United States society.
During the last 18 months, Wisconsin’s governor and state legislature enacted laws that severely reduced funding to vital human services because they were focused on what was, in their minds, a higher purpose. They were attempting to serve a political philosophy rather than meet human need.
In my mind, this was a perverted priority, and the result was that their zeal for politics overshadowed their humanity.
This is where the wisdom of the rabbis must win the day. Our “yes” must be just, and our “no” must be just, meaning that there should be a nobler and righteous purpose behind all our actions.
If our passion for any cause leads us to irrational, fanatical, obsessive, or immoral behavior, we must learn to hold back and re-evaluate, and wait for authorities whose judgment is not clouded by excessive zeal to intervene.
Pinchas may have been emotionally correct in his conclusion, but even living in a God-fearing and religious society such as his does not supersede the absolute necessity to act within the structure of human law and conduct.
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Madison.