Torah from Around the World #334

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By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman, Rabbi at the

Community Synagogue

in Port Washington, New York, USA.

He is a former Board member of the

World Union for Progressive Judaism


Dealing with Religious Extremism

It’s not easy being a religious person today. I often worry that religion as a whole gets very bad press in the western world. If you ask the average person on the street what comes to mind when they hear the word religion, unfortunately I think for many the associations will be with terrorism, fanaticism, extremism, and intolerance. Sadly, the minority within our different religious traditions have been able to define the way in which the secular world views us as a whole.

And while it is easy to focus on the extremists, the fanatics, and the zealots in other religious traditions, we need to be aware that we all have them in every religion, and we all need to speak out against them. We Jews have to admit that there are fanatics and extremists among us, of whom we are ashamed and embarrassed. We need to reclaim and reassert the religious message of love, tolerance, respect, and peace.

All of this can seem very difficult against the backdrop of this week’s Torah portion as we read the story of Pinchas. In many ways Pinchas is the first Jewish extremist (depending on your views of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Isaac). As the Israelite men went astray after the Moabite women, Pinchas took matters into his own hands and when he saw Zimri, an Israelite man, together with Cozbi, a Midianite woman, he followed them into their tent and killed them, skewering them on a spear.

Reading about the incident is troubling enough but then to read God’s response makes it even more challenging. God says to Moses: “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, 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, thus making expiation for the Israelites’” (Num. 25:11-13). It appears that God not only approves of the actions but actually rewards Pinchas for what he did.

Moses is the first one to challenge this understanding of Pinchas as a hero. A few chapters later when he sent the Israelites out to war against the Midianites we read that Pinchas was there. But this time Moses sent him ‘equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.’ (Num. 31:6). He ensured that the man who had shed Midianite and Israelite blood would not be allowed to shed blood again, and would instead be contained with a role that removed him from the fighting.

The Rabbis went even further and offered a critique of Pinchas in the way that they structured the Torah. While it may seem like an honor to have a Torah portion named after you, in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) the other individuals for whom portions are named are Korach and Balak. In this way Pinchas becomes associated with the leader of a revolt against Moses who was so wicked that the earth swallowed him up, and a Moabite King who tried, and failed, to have the Israelites cursed. Having a Torah portion named for him was the Rabbis way of associating him with other undesirable characters in this book of the Torah.

More significantly, their division of the Torah portions ensured that his story would be split in two. While the story of Pinchas really begins at the start of the 25th chapter of Bamidbar, the Rabbis decided that the first nine verses would be read as the conclusion to the Torah portion of Balak with the portion of Pinchas beginning in the 10th verse. In this way they separated the action from God’s reward and ensured that the two would not be read together, leading to a reward which is read out of context and without a clear indication of why it was given. The Rabbis could not change the words of the Torah but in their division of the portions they could influence the way it is studied and read.

Following the example of Moses and the Rabbis, we are given three ways in which to respond to the religious extremists within our own tradition. The first is to remove their ability to cause harm by ensuring that weapons of violence are kept away from them. The second is to be confident in asserting that religious fanatics of all traditions are dangerous to all of us; we should approach them all as threats not just to our individual tradition, but to all of us. And then finally, in the way that we teach our tradition and religion we must ensure that no-one could be confused and think that Judaism in any way condones these acts of violence and hate. The response of Moses and the Rabbis to Pinchas is the model which we must follow in responding to religious extremists today.

About the Author

: H

is weekly Torah commentary “Two Minutes of Torah” is available on


and through the

JCast Network


Prior to his tenure at the Community Synagogue, he was a Rabbi at the

West London Synagogue

of British Jews. He is a

Rabbis Without Borders

fellow and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the

UJA Federation

of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. He is married to Micol and is the proud father of Gabriella and Benjamin.

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