Friday, July 10, 2009

The Weekly Portion: Lessons in Religious Fanaticism

The weekly Torah portion of this week, Pinchas, provides an opportunity to discuss a concept of significant importance to societies with strong religious convictions- in general, and to the Israeli society - in particular.

The beginning of this week's Torah portion Pinchas is a direct continuation of the end of the previous portion, Balak, which featured the affair of the daughters of Moab, with whom the Israelites whored, and which involved the worship of the idol Pe'or. That affair climaxed in the act of Zimri, who blasphemed the God of Israel and scorned His prophet, Moses, by having sexual relations in public with a Midyanite woman. In response to this act, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Cohen, brandished his sword and stabbed Zimri and the Midyanite woman, brutally severing their bodies and killing them in front of all the Israelites.

Pinchas's act is described in terms of religious zealotry. Pinchas committed this act in the name of God, for God's honor which had been desecrated. In other words, he wanted to carry out God's judgment by himself and bring about the blasphemer's punishment. At the beginning of this week's portion, the Torah states that because of this Pinchas and his descendants have been granted a covenant of peace with God. The radical zealot, who in his zealotry for God sheds human blood, is the very same person who is granted God's covenant of peace!

What is the meaning of this covenant? Doesn't it seem strange and ironic that a man who killed two human beings without the authority of the law receives a covenant of peace? One way to interpret it - the religious fanatical way - is to claim that this covenant is a retrospective blessing by God. Another way, however, is to say that God's covenant was given to him to prevent this from ever happening again: Pinchas (and his descendants) are now sworn peaceniks who - by virtue of this covenant - cannot possibly engage in this kind of violence. From this we can deduce that a person is not permitted to be zealous for God and carry out extreme measures such as these unless he is someone who is wholeheartedly a man of peace - shalom - and who is faithful to God and man.

Now this parasha of Pinchas has a very close parallel, one which is well-known and part of the consciousness of all generations, in the figure of the zealous prophet who arose about 500 or 600 years after Pinchas--the prophet Elijah. He too is zealous for God, and it is because of this that he kills the false prophets of the Ba'al and the Ashera. The parallel between these two events and these two figures is so strong, that not only was the story of Elijah adopted as the haftara for the parasha of Pinchas, but in the aggadic tradition, the two characters are fused into one, and Elijah is none other than Pinchas, who miraculously remained alive for 500 or 600 years.

We have a long tradition that the prophet Elijah is the harbinger of peace, and the concluding verse of all the books of the Prophets in the Bible is a verse about the prophet Elijah, who will come back and reconcile fathers with sons and sons with fathers - and will bring peace between the generations. Again, we have the same contradiction: the zealot, who out of his zeal for God even sheds blood, is none other than the harbinger of peace.

This is a problematic topic both ethically and religiously. Who is permitted to be a zealot for God? Who is permitted to take upon himself the right to act in accordance with this zeal? An aggada (Midrashic story) presents this question very forcefully in the context of the deeds of Elijah.

Elijah kills the prophets of Ba'al and must flee the wrath of Isabel. He flees to the desert and is privileged to have God appear to him. God does not appear in fire or thunder, but in a still, barely-audible voice, and asks him:

Elijah what are you doing here?

Elijah answers:

I have fled from Israel, for "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword and I had to flee for my life." (Kings I, 19:10)

Notice the justification: "I have been very zealous for the Lord." Elijah is given an answer by God who responds to each one of Elijah's arguments. On his comment that, "the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant," God says to him:

"Whose covenant did they forsake? Was it your covenant or Mine? After all, it was not your covenant, and who gave you the right to be zealous against those who have forsaken My covenant?

As to "they have torn down Your altars," God says to him: Did they tear down your altars or Mine? In other words: Let Me take care of My honor which is desecrated, and don't assume for yourself the authority to be zealous on My behalf. Elijah is then disqualified from being a prophet to Israel. God tells him:

Israel cannot withstand your zealotry. You were zealous at Shittim (this is a clear reference to Pinchas, who, according to the Aggada, is Elijah), and now you were zealous at Mount Carmel. You spilled blood there and you spilled blood here, in your zeal for God. That is a noble deed, but Israel cannot survive such zeal. Therefore, Elijah must find another person to be a prophet over Israel, and that is Elisha.

This has significance for all times. In every generation, but especially in our time, there are people who purport to speak in the name of faith in God, and assume for themselves the authority to be zealous on God's behalf. And the question is asked: Is their personality such, and are their qualities and their human and ethical level such, that they are worthy of being men of the covenant of peace-except that their zeal for God has forced them to carry out these severe actions?

Is there anyone who has these qualities etched so firmly in his soul to the extent that by his nature and essence he a "man of peace" devoid of any aggressive tendencies whatsoever? On the theoretical level, that man would be permitted, in extreme cases, to be zealous on behalf of God. But in the real world, we know that no such human being exists. Modern psychology teaches us that we all have in us some form of aggressiveness and violent leanings. Accordingly, the real meaning of this story is that no human has a right to carry out zealous acts of punishment in God's name. In other words, Pinchas was granted the covenant of peace to warn all others that they should never attempt to carry out zealous acts of violence in the name of God.

In summary, no person has a right to commit violent acts on the pretext of being zealous for God. If he is zealous on behalf of God, he is nothing but a murderer.

(Based on on my grandfather Yeshayahu Leibowitz's book Accepting the Yoke of Heaven - Commentary on the Weekly Portion)

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! I look forward to next week's lesson.