At the end of last week’s parashah, we witnessed one of the most disturbing stories in our Biblical canon. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, witnessed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman “in intimacy” in public view on the steps of the Tent of Meeting. He rose in a fury, stabbed and killed them both with a single thrust of his sword.
The blame for this monumental and utterly indefensible zealous act perhaps should not be placed solely on Pinchas. The beginning of Numbers 25 details how the Israelites “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god (Baal-Peor).” Moses showed them no mercy. Their punishment for this “slip” into worshiping false gods was severe. Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.” (25:5) No questions asked. Just slay them.
No wonder Pinchas acted as he did. The command came from the top. Pinchas was in fact rewarded, but rewarded less for the actual murders than for saving God’s people. Immediately afterwards “the plague against the Israelites – which claimed the lives of 24,000 – was checked.” Pinchas entered into a Brit Shalom – A Covenant of Peace with God.
Zealotry, extremism, and radical behavior have popped up episodically in Jewish life, from Mattityahu in the book of Maccabees who “rose up and murdered” to contemporary acts of zealous killing, such as the murder of peace activist Emil Grunzweig in 1983, Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in 1994, and Yigal Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. None of these murders developed on their own. Each grew out of an extremist culture, incitement, and a looming sense that such acts would be regarded as heroic and would bring salvation.
Extremism doesn’t manifest only in murder. Hate speech, incitement, and rash decisions are all forms of extremist behavior, albeit less gruesome and violent. In our increasingly polarized world, we are witnessing a trend to the extremes and an increasing intolerance for those across political/ideological divides.
Extremists espouse absolutism and embrace dichotomous thinking. Absolutist views are unfettered by nuance and overlook complexity. In today’s culture we find absolutists on the right and the left. Those who both rush to conclusions without investing the time and energy in engaging with different angles and perspectives and profess them to be absolute truths, do an injustice. This is not to say that there are no absolutist Truths.
Murder is wrong.
Racism is evil.
(And others of course…)
In a recent open letter in Harpers Magazine, over 150 artists and intellectuals bemoaned the escalating polarization in open debate decrying “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
They also point out that “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
Pinchas’ actions were exactly that – hasty and disproportionate. Some things in our society are intolerable and require decisive and immediate response. But not everything. Let’s use the wisdom of our rabbis to consider alternative courses of action before reacting. Rabbinic Judaism could not tolerate the religious fervor of Pinchas. In a Talmudic ruling our Rabbis acknowledged the immorality of fanaticism and declared:
“Had Pinchas been brought before us for trial, we would have said to him: ‘The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law.’”
We are inheritors of a tradition that tends towards moderation in thought and deed. We believe that religion guides us to be better, more thoughtful and moral human beings, working to fulfill God’s will and to respect life. We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage that extremism exacts. We practice a Judaism that seeks sh’leimut – wholeness – in our relationships with God, with each other, and within ourselves. This means opening ourselves to challenge, testing our views with those who might see things differently, and eventually unclenching our fists.