Religious Moderation in the Face of Extremism
Commentators have pondered why the enigmatic episode of Pinhas ben Eleazar is split between last and this week’s parashiyot. We read of the violent action of Pinhas killing an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in front of the Tent of Meeting in the final three verses last week, and now pick up the narrative with God’s response. The brutal sentence Pinhas was carrying out was one levied by God at the beginning of chapter 25, but we cannot begin to comprehend the emotional and spiritual trauma that resulted in executing, or even witnessing, this aggressive meting out of God’s justice.
One possible answer is that in splitting the story, we are afforded some distance from the violence, so that when we read God’s gracious response and blessing of Pinhas and his descendants, it does not sit in as stark a contrast with the bloody beginning of the narrative.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinhas, son of Eleazer 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.” (Num. 25:10–12)
Beyond the general endorsement of violence that concerns me in the above, Pinhas is granted what the Etz Hayim relates as a “pact of friendship,” but which translates more literally as a “covenant of peace” (brit shalom). How are we to understand this brit shalom? Defining the spectrum of interpretation, the Etz Hayim understands it to be God’s promise of protection from retaliation by the clan of the Israelite Pinhas killed, while Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah goes so far as to say that through this brit shalom Pinhas was actually granted immortality.
A perspective that resonates with me this year—and helps me to walk the line between my discomfort with the action in question and the reward that is granted—is from Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovski, the Slonimer Rebbe, who focused much of his commentary on how we understand shalom in the brit shalom. The Slonimer begins by stating that there is no doubt that this is an important covenantal act on God’s behalf. Beyond the gravity of the language, the text explains to us that Pinhas’s action prevented the annihilation of the entire Israelite population. We know of God’s displeasure at the immorality at Ba’al Peor through the 24,000 who died in the plague that was levied at the Israelite people; contrast that to the 3,000 who died at the Golden Calf incident, and you can see how severe this breach was.
The Slonimer reads incredible significance into shalom—beginning by stating with biblical proof texts that peace is the mission of the world, and the point of the entire Torah. If we take a short step back with him, we find that shalom surfaces as a fundamental idea in Judaism. The ‘Amidah that we recite three times daily ends with shalom; the priestly blessing ends with shalom. The Slonimer goes so far as to say that all of creation, everything physical and spiritual, hinges on this concept of shalom that God gave as a gift to Pinhas. But for the Slonimer, shalom is much deeper than the existence of peace or the absence of conflict.
Relating it to the concept of wholeness (sh’leimut, from the same Hebrew root), the Slonimer sees all of humanity in a struggle for wholeness. We can all be doing everything we should in life, fulfilling our personal mission, and doing good in the world, but there can still be an internal struggle with sh’leimut. Citing the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, the Slonimer explains that there are three aspects of wholeness: with God, with the Other, and with oneself. Each is independent, but interdependent when striving for sh’leimut. Returning to our comment above, what the Slonimer recognized was that an individual can be doing what is right and good in the eyes of God, but still not be achieving wholeness. Our outward actions can, and often do, tell a very different story from our internal dialogue. The personal physical, emotional, and intellectual struggles that we negotiate on a daily basis frequently stay buried deep within ourselves. To achieve wholeness, true sh’leimut, we must find a way to make peace with our internal drives.
Stepping back into the parashah, we gain new insight into God’s covenant of peace with Pinhas. But first, we cannot avoid the difficulties of the narrative. It is challenging for us, modern readers of the Torah, to hear sanctioned violence in the name of religious belief. Strikingly, what we read is that the text gives explicit support for Pinhas’s violent action. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel'” (Num. 25:4). Pinhas’s outward actions are not only deemed appropriate, but are commanded by God.
But after a break from the violence, we encounter the aftermath and through God’s response may have a window into the psychological, spiritual, and communal damage that may have resulted from Pinhas’s zealous vigilantism. As I understand it this year, by granting Pinhas the brit shalom, God recognizes that the commanded violence traumatically tore the fabric of the Children of Israel. It is not only in the eyes of God that Pinhas needs shalom. It is among the rest of the Children of Israel, and within himself. We do not hear how his action affected his later life and relationships; we can only hope that he did find some means to achieve sh’leimut.
Rabbinic Judaism could not let the story of Pinhas stand as an example for religious fervor. In a wonderful piece of Talmud from Sanhedrin, when his fanaticism comes face to face with rabbinic courts, the Rabbis acknowledge the immorality, but declare, “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (82a).
This kind of fanaticism and violence are overwhelmingly the dominant voices much of the world hears in the name of religion. However, we are inheritors of a tradition that understands that Judaism is a voice of moderation, and that religion guides us to be better humans, working to fulfill God’s will and to respect life. We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage done by extremism. We practice a Judaism that seeks sh’leimut in our relationship not only with God, but with each other and within ourselves.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.