Doing Violence for God

Pinehas By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Jul 11, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

What are we to think about Pinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the high priest, after whom this week’s Torah portion is named?

We learned at the very end of last week’s portion that Pinehas “turned away God’s wrath” against Israel when the people engaged in a mass orgy involving Moabite women and Moabite gods. Moses got a direct order from God to “take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord” (Num. 25:4), and in response ordered Israelite officials to “slay those who attached themselves to [the idol] Baal-peor.” When an Israelite man brazenly consorted with a Midianite woman within sight of Moses and Aaron, Pinehas followed the two into their chamber “and stabbed both of them . . . through the belly.” God’s “plague against the Israelites was checked”—but not before 24,000 perished.  

Now, at the start of this week’s parashah, Pinehas is rewarded by God for his “passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion” (25:6–9), God grants Pinehas a brit shalom. The words are variously translated as a “covenant of peace,” a “pact of friendship,” or—a popular Hasidic rendering—a “covenant of wholeness or fulfillment” (shelemut). That covenant shall be for Pinehas and his descendants a brit kehunat ‘olam, a “pact of priesthood for all time” (vv. 12–13).

Questions about the passage abound. Three stand at the forefront of my mind, particularly this week, when violence has once again bred violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and vengeance has taken its toll in further vengeance.

1. There seems something utterly primitive about the notion of an out-of-control God, grateful to Pinehas—as He was to Moses after the Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf—for finding a means to assuage His anger and stave off a national disaster that might have ended the Jewish story once and for all.

2. Pinehas’s “passion” (or “zealotry”) is explicitly related to God’s in verse 10: “bekan’o et kin’ati.” The Torah seems to be saying that one can imitate God not only through acts of justice and mercy, creation and redemption, but in hot anger, violence, and slaughter. This is not the Judaism I have been taught, but there it is—or seems to be—in black and white.

3. The entire passage reeks of violence. Moses has commanded killing. God destroys many thousands through plague. Immediately after the story about Pinehas, we are told that (v. 16) “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Assail the Midianites’’’—the tribe to which Moses’s wife and father-in-law belong—“‘and defeat them, for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you [in the] affair of Peor.’” Pinehas is caught up in this violence. He is not an instigator or an outlier, but an exemplar.

Of all the problems the Torah places before a contemporary reader committed to walking in its path, following its guidance, and trying to ensure that “all its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” these incidents at the heart of the book of Numbers seem to be among the very hardest.

The text turns away from them at once: we read about a second census of the Israelites fit to bear arms as the people prepares to conquer the Land (ch. 26) and then learn detailed prescriptions for festival sacrifices (chs. 28–29). Our attention is focused (ch. 27) on leadership succession and on inheritance by women, two popular subjects with contemporary interpreters. But I cannot turn away from Pinehas so quickly. I am, I confess, both riveted and repelled by the image of his spear. My fealty to Torah requires me to face up to its challenges; my gratitude to Torah stems in part from what I learn from such challenges. That is the case here. I want to understand what I can learn from the very difficult passage, in which God apparently blesses Pinehas for resorting to vigilante justice.

I am of course not the first Jew to pose such questions to the text. While Etz Hayyim probably exaggerates when it says that “most postbiblical commentators . . . tend to be uncomfortable with [his] zealous vigilantism” (918), it is true that the Talmud goes out of its way to show that Pinehas’s deed fulfilled rather than violated the law. If one “cohabits with a heathen, he is punished by zealots.” No trial is needed. Pinehas knew that law and complied. Taking the matter one step further,

R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so . . . What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinehas slain him, Pinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]. (Sanhedrin 81b-82a)

The Rabbis knew that the law is not helped when people take it into their own hands. God would not, in their view, have rewarded lawless behavior. We have seen again in recent days what follows when vigilantes engage in revenge killings of innocents. Violence can quickly spiral out of control.

Hasidic commentators add another dimension to our understanding of Pinehas, moving from the societal plane of law to the individual realm of religious psychology and so to the connection between our nature and God’s. Pinehas’s greatness, as a colleague of mine pointed out in summary of the Hasidic approach, “is wrapped up in the fact that he was able to bring various opposing aspects of divinity and humanity into a kind of harmony.” In rewarding Pinehas with a covenant of shelemut, God was fulfilling and rendering permanent a quality of wholeness that Pinehas had already displayed.

Of course this interpretation idealizes the man and his zealotry. We would bridle, I think, if someone did the same for Crusaders or jihadists. But there is sadly something true to experience in the linkage of faith to fanaticism, and of loyalty to God to righteous anger at acts of perceived betrayal. The Torah frequently depicts God too as subject to such anger. God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously pointed out, is the very opposite of an “unmoved Mover,” Aristotle’s description of God. The biblical God cares immensely about us, practices mercy, and renders judgment. God’s nature, as it were, makes God unable to abide among Israelites who practice idolatry.

That theology is problematic to many of us, but the religious psychology seems accurate. Religion is practiced by human beings, rather than by angels. We get angry at times and our anger sometimes—often—leads us astray, while it only rarely provides the energy for good deeds. Being passionate in the service of God carries with it the danger that one will find good reasons for indulging in fanaticism and even committing violence in God’s name. We know this all too well from recent headlines. And because humans are prone to violence, further violence is often required in order to stop violence, or stave off worse violence. As the Rabbis taught, the rigor of law is essential to the practice of mercy. Pinehas may well have prevented national disaster by taking the step he did. The Israelite mob, unchastened by the disaster of Korah’s rebellion, may have been on the verge of rampage. The threat to the people’s well-being, if so, was not divine plague but human anarchy.

The book of Numbers often reeks of violence, because our world does. This week’s news—most weeks’ news—offers sufficient evidence of that. Leaders must act quickly and forcefully to restore order. Justice—as opposed to vengeance—is crucial to that effort.

Perhaps Pinehas receives God’s covenant of peace because he needs it so desperately. We all do. May it come speedily, in our days.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.