Torah from around the world #227

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by Rabbi Dr. Gábor Lengyel,

Kehilat Ez Chajim

, Hanover, Germany, and Guest Lecturer at the Leibniz University, Hanover

Parashat Pinchas is a very difficult chapter where Pinchas, the priest, plays the leading role.

It was Pinchas who, towards the end of the wandering through the desert, put an end to the immoral ways that had been spreading throughout the People of Israel. What did Pinchas do?

A head of the one of the tribes of Israel started a public sexual act with the daughter of one of the Moabite lords as a sort of idol worship with pagan rituals. This behavior is referred to as Avoda Sara and it incensed Pinchas to such an extent that in his zeal to wipe out such acts he struck them both dead.

Then the Eternal spoke to Pinchas through Moses in Exodus 25 v. 12:

לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את בריתי שלום

“Therefore I give you the covenant of My peace”.

We read further in verse 13:

והיתה לו ולזרעו אחריו ברית כהנת עולם תחת אשר קנא לאלהיו ויכפר על בני ישראל

“He and his descendants shall receive the covenant of eternal priesthood as reward because he has shown zeal for his God and has redeemed the Children of Israel.”

There is hardly a story in the whole Torah that is more challenging than this one. It seems as if God not only tolerated this murder, but condoned it to such an extent that the perpetrator was rewarded with the divine blessing. This is something that causes much discussion between many commentators.

A German Rabbi after the Shoah once said, and I quote, “With the wisdom of hindsight, nowadays we think wistfully how different things might have been if in the 1930s, during those first years of National Socialism, there had been a zealot to stand up for justice and the divine truth about the dignity of human life.”

If we take the Hebrew word for zeal – Kin’a – then we discover that there are several words with the same root, like envy, jealousy, revenge and retaliation, also meaning intolerance and fanaticism.

We Jews tend to view both of these as a type of mental illness which can lead to egoism, which in turn can lead to the hatred of all things human. The interpretation of many Rabbis saw the case of Pinchas as a prime example of fanaticism.

We all know the story of Dina and the reaction of her brothers Shimon and Levi whose retaliation for her rape was by Chamor the Hivite. They attacked the city when their defenses were weakest, slaying all men and even plundering the city. This is another prime example of fanaticism.

The question as to if, when and under what circumstances one can resort to self-justice, as in the cases of Pinchas, Shimon or Levi, is one of the most controversial ones.

On the one hand those who advocate self-justice are of the opinion that there are situations in which a person feels compelled to intervene. Most particularly when, from their point of view, there has been an outrageous breach of human rights and the legal authorities do nothing to deter or remedy the situation.

On the other hand those who decry self-justice insist that no single person should ever under any circumstance be allowed to carry out such acts. Those who are commissioned to ensure that laws are obeyed should be the only ones empowered to act accordingly.

Both these points of view have been discussed in the Talmud.

There are those who say that Pinchas acted in concurrence with Moses’ wishes after he was convinced that the death penalty was required, which he then carried out.

There are others that say Pinchas acted without Moses’ authorization, due to the fact that Moses had not reacted after seeing the disgusting acts of the Israelite Simri.

Both these stories provide the opportunity to discuss fundamentalism and violence in the Torah from the Jewish viewpoint. Of course we must not ignore them and although they are painful subjects they must be discussed.

What is the Hebrew expression for fundamentalism? Is it Kanau? A fundamentalist takes the law into his own hands and his aim is Kiddusch Ha’Schem which means divine healing. In this case he sees his actions as one defending the values of Jewish society. The basis for his actions is not his own opinion, but his belief, indeed his conviction, that he is compelled to act in the name of truth and in the name of God. The worst, most shaming question of all is what should one write on the gravestone of such a fundamentalist?


Zichron Zadik Le’Bracha

, meaning “in memory of a righteous one, may he be blessed”?



Yimach Schmo Ve’Sichro

, meaning “his name and his memory should be erased for all time”?

It took a long time for Jacob to react to what Shimon and Levi had done. He only said that they had shamed him and that he was afraid of revenge, but shortly before his demise he damned them when he blessed his other sons.

Whereas for Pinchas verse 12 says that the Eternal spoke to him through Moses:

“Therefore I give you My covenant of peace”.

Surely we find this verse painful. Does it not look as though God is demanding that the fundamentalists perpetrate such acts of violence? Or can we at least see this one act of fundamentalism as being required by God? Could we even ever accept that Judaism, according to these biblical texts, accepts fundamentalism if it is God given?

Even in modern times: if we take for example Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who went to Mearat Ha’Machpela, The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, on 25 February 1994, where 800 Moslems were holding their Friday prayers and opened fire on them. He shot and killed 29 worshipers and wounded 125. The remaining worshipers lynched him. These words were written on his grave: “With clean hands and a pure heart.” It originally read “He gave his life for his people Israel, its Torah and its land.” This was removed when such Memorials to terrorists were banned by the Knesset. Many would think Goldstein deserves the epitaph

Yimach Schmo


A final example would be that during his second legislative period Yitzchak Rabin met with serious opposition to his peace initiative. There were many protests in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, even using Nazi effigies. He was stamped as a traitor. On 4 November 1995 he was murdered during a peace meeting in Tel Aviv by a religious fanatic called Yigal Amir.

I find it difficult to draw wisdom from this parasha. Or perhaps it is this: Jacob did damn his two sons with his final blessing: ארור אפם : “May their anger be damned.” So the message is: keep your hands away from all fundamentalist thoughts and deeds.

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