Torah from Around the World #280

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Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

By: Rabbi Rene Pfertzel,

Keren Or, Lyon, France and Finchley Progressive Synagogue, London, UK

Religion has a very bad reputation nowadays. Dreadful actions are perpetrated in the name of religion, not only in the Middle East, but also in our developed, well-educated first world. Religion is used as a means to deny basic rights. Here, they kill homosexuals because of who they are; they burn ancient cities because they represent a world where their truth was not yet alive. There, they murder doctors who end pregnancies; they forbid their wives to drive cars. And the list goes on and on. We could find thousands of examples of madness induced by religion. More than ever it is important to speak out, to allow our progressive religious voice to be heard to the four corners of the earth. This week’s parasha is the perfect example of a man – Pinchas – filled with his zeal for God, who commits a double murder in the name of God, and Torah seems to acknowledge it. But, as we shall see, Rabbis in the Talmud were, to say the least, quite embarrassed by his behaviour, so they tried to regulate extreme religious emotions. Let us go back to our texts.

Encamped at Baal-Peor, close to the Promised Land, the Children of Israel forgot the covenant and “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women” and worshipping their god (Numbers 25:1-2). God was “incensed” with them, and in order to subdue God’s wrath, Moses asked the leaders to punish the guilty ones. Is it out of provocation that one Israelite (Zimri) “brought a Midianite woman (Cozbi) over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of the Meeting” (Nb 25:6), and went into the tent to engage with her in intercourse? How careless of him! Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, follows them in the tent and impales both of them. Immediately the plague ends, but not without having first resulting in the death of 24,000 Israelites. God’s answer is even more puzzling: “Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion (


), so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion (


). Say, therefore, I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned (


) action for his God, making thus expiation for the Israelites” (Nb 25:11-13). “The verb


in Arabic and Syriac means ‘become intensely red’ and refers here to the visible effects of anger on the face” (J. Milgrom, Numbers. JTS Torah Commentary, p. 216). Later on, the


became the zealots, the people who defended Jerusalem against the Romans, and were known for being intransigent. In the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 56b), they were condemned for their unwillingness to save the survivors of Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, and their blind militarism. Thus, there is in Judaism a tradition of zealotry, of intransigent people who would prefer death to compromise. And not only that, they find divine approval for their behaviour in our story.


(“Ḥakhameinu Zikhronam Liv’rakha” “Our Sages, may their memory be blessed”) were profoundly puzzled by this story. Why has God accepted the death of two people, even so guilty, without a trial? Is He not the source of justice? Is it acceptable to bring death to someone on the ground of religious emotion?

“Rabbi Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish a transgressor who slept with a pagan woman], we do not instruct him to do so… What is more, had Zimri [the Israelite mentioned in Numbers 25] forsaken his mistress and Pinchas slain him, Pinchas would have been executed on his account [because he had nothing to do with the offence], and had Zimri turned upon Pinchas and slain him, he would not have been executed since Pinchas was a pursuer [therefore, it would have been a case of self-defence]” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a, Soncino translation).

In other words, the Rabbis were keen to defend legal procedures. One cannot execute justice oneself. Law is there to protect. Pinchas’ only merit was that he has diverted God’s anger against his people, but this should never be a common rule.

Our texts should be read with caution, intelligence, and not used to justify our baser instincts. Living together in organized societies compels us to abide by widely accepted rules, to accept courts’ legal judgments and never to make hasty decisions. In that sense, Talmudic sages are the first Progressive Jews, and we are their heirs.

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