In an unprecedented act of sanctioned zealotry, we read in this week’s Torah portion about Pinchas being commended for taking a stand against a public atrocity and killing the perpetrators, consequently saving thousands of lives. Pinchas is subsequently rewarded with the “covenant of peace.”
What does this teach us about modern day zealotry and its dangers? Haven’t we learned our lessons over history of the grave destruction perpetrated in the name of G-d by religious extremists?
Item: Another slew of bombs explode in London.
Item: One more daily car bomb goes off in Iraq (are there any cars left in Baghdad?).
Item: Israel is at the brink of civil war, as Jew stands up against Jew, while the Arabs smile to themselves.
Item: A growing Muslim population is slowly changing the shape of Europe and the world.
Item: Most of us are sleeping quite peacefully, immersed in our midsummer night dreams.
Cynics conveniently explain it all away using the wise words of Solomon: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains standing unchanged… That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.”
Yes, that sounds like a good way to maintain the composure of our reverie. But one need not dig far beneath the surface to recognize that we are sitting on a boiling pot.
Forces are simmering. A one billion plus Muslim population is not complacently waiting for America to sell them Coca Cola and Big Mac’s (even if they were halal meat). The Muslim world is driven by a philosophy and a passionate belief system. Many of its ideas are quite noble and therefore appealing. Beyond all the distortions and the violence, it is not unfair to argue that the core of their belief system is the Divine message of the Bible of sublimating and spiritualizing the material universe (see By The Rivers Of Babylon).
However, like all strong belief systems, that same Muslim world is also a breeding ground for radicalism. At its extreme there is a powerful movement – no one knows the numbers, but it encompasses many elite, affluent Muslims – that advocates violence struggle against Western secularism. They see Christian and Jewish influences as corrupt forces that need to be vanquished.
Islamic intellectual hero, Sayyid Qutb, one of the primary philosophical fathers of Muslim fundamentalism today (he was executed by Nasser in 1966), has an extensive corpus of writings that advocates the philosophical underpinnings of the Islamic war against secularism.
“If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyya (pagan ignorance of divine guidance), and all the marvelous material comforts and high-level inventions do not diminish this Ignorance … It is essential for mankind to have a new leadership... It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which positive and constructive, and which is practicable. Islam is the only system which possesses these values and this way of life.”
Do not be seduced by the ideological tone. Qutb then calls for a militant revolution that will, violently if necessary, annihilate the Jahiliya.
This is not to suggest that all Muslims feel this way. But however you want to analyze it, one mistake we should not make is that the Muslim world is indifferent. It has deep passionate beliefs that are not just going away (and should not necessarily go away) because the Western world is uncomfortable with them.
And this belief system is a hotbed of fermenting radicalism, which is giving birth and continues to give birth to thousands (if not more) of faithful individuals ready to sacrifice their lives in their Jihad against a world, in their minds, opposed to G-d.
No one wants to hear this fact because then our battle is just too formidable of a task. How will a Western world, complacent with its comforts, ever face the violent passion of thousands of religious zealots?
Therein lies the powerful message of Pinchas. The Torah clearly and consistently abhors zealotry. When Abraham hears about the impending destruction of the infidel city of Sodom – criminals by all accounts – he doesn’t celebrate or join the attack, even though it was led by G-d Himself. Instead, He argues and implores G-d to not destroy the city. The same with Moses after the Jews built the Golden Calf, openly defying the commandment against idolatry they had just heard and accepted at Sinai. Moses insists that G-d forgive them, and after 80 days he ultimately prevails, evoking the powerful thirteen Divine attributes of compassion, thereby opening the door of teshuvah (return) to all souls – the ultimate power of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.
The Torah is filled with the message of love and compassion. Indeed, this is the entire undercurrent of Torah “Love you neighbor as yourself – is the fundamental principle of Torah,” said Rabbi Akiva. “This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary” in Hillel’s words. Indeed, the Torah warns of the dangers of being “more religious” that G-d, acutely sensitive to the fact that people can create “Torah sanctioned” outlets for their own personal aggression. “Erase My Holy Name,” G-d declares, “to preserve peace between husband and wife.” Never, ever use religion as a weapon. When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea for their obstinate crimes against mankind, G-d rebuked the angels for singing praise: “My creatures are drowning and you sing?”
Even when King David fought justifiable wars, he was not allowed to build the Holy Temple because of the blood on his hands. His son, Solomon, the man of peace, built the Temple. The Talmud tells us that a Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court) was labeled a “murderous” court if under their tenure one verdict of capital punishment was issued even once in 70 years!
Not because they are accused of being biased or corrupt, but to emphasize how abhorrent death is, even when it may be justified. At times, Jews were instructed to take the life of others, but the Torah always made sure not to glorify the act, but to appreciate the profound pain involved.
The only exception of sanctioned zealotry is Pinchas. Why would the Torah allow for the celebration of this one instance of zealous behavior when it knows the risks of how it can be interpreted?
The answer lies in the opening verse of this week’s chapter: G-d says “Pinchas, the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron the Priest, turned away My anger from the Children of Israel by zealously taking up My cause and thus preventing me from destroying them.”
The additional attribution to his grandfather Aaron the Priest (and not the usual reference to “Pinchas son of…”) is in order to emphasize Pinchas’ personality. Aaron was man of love and peace. The Mishnah tells us: “Be of the students of Aaron, love peace and pursue peace. Love all creatures [even if they have no other obvious quality except that they are G-d’s creatures] and bring them closer to Torah.”
Had Pinchas had an aggressive personality, had he been an advocate of religious radicalism -- that would have spelled trouble. Pinchas was a man of peace, a quiet man. Even this act of zealotry was not to kill, but to protect innocent people from being killed. When Pinchas saw that the people were dying as a result of the public atrocity and desecration that Zimri perpetrated, he went against his own quiet nature to defend G-d and save lives. Selflessness, not personal prejudices, was Pinchas driving force. The moment personal interests and inclinations are involved, one ceases to be a holy zealot.
It was actually Zimri, of the house of Shimeon who was the aggressive one, as was his grandfather Shimeon who was rebuked by Jacob for his violent and heated behavior.
Pinchas teaches us an invaluable and powerful message today.
The mistake we are facing today is in two extremes: Either extreme religious radicalism, or its counterpart – extreme libertinism, where everything goes. Indeed these two positions actually feed off each other, thus making them close cousins. Years of abuse in the name of religion have created a backlash and knee-jerk reaction to anything that even “smells” of religious bigotry or imposition. Even if this may be understandable, it still doesn’t make it correct. Often, the reaction born out of an unhealthy situation is equally unhealthy.
What may be even worse than fanatical moral relativism (borne out of religious fanaticism) is passive apathy, or even radical apathy (if that’s possible). As one fellow asked his friend: “What’s worse, ignorance or apathy.” His reply: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
A deep apathy – quite invisible – has arisen as a result of all these battles of extremism on both sides. Some call it the “silent majority,” others the “ignorant masses” ‘(“olam golam” in Yiddish), and yet others the large number of people who live “lives of quiet desperation.” You can add into the mix the cynics that cite the abovementioned reference in Ecclesiastes: “Nothing new under the sun.” Thus it was and thus it will always be.
Comes Pinchas the man of peace and tells us that there is another option: No extremes, no bringing in your own personal prejudices and feelings of aggression or passivity, violence or comfort zones. Pinchas teaches us simple selflessness to protect and defend innocent lives. Zealousness – but in peace.
G-d forbid for anyone to use Pinchas as a model of aggressive to hurt another person even in the name of religious beliefs. Self-defense and protecting other lives is another story. If you are quiet when you see other people being slaughtered, then you are not a man of peace; you are a coward.
What we learn from Pinchas is the exact opposite of killing in the name of religious zealotry. Violence against other people, especially innocent ones, can never be tolerated – no matter what its cause. Any justification of violence, whether it is in the name of religion or in the name of fighting for a cause, is unequivocally deplorable and goes against the laws of G-d. Anger and murder resulting from religious feelings is perhaps the most dangerous of all, because the “holy war” helps mask the venting of personal aggression.
Some prominent writers have suggested that terrorism in Israel can be justified because they are fighting there for a cause, but it cannot be justified in London. It is laughable if it weren’t so tragic to suggest that terrorism is acceptable in one region but not in another. Imagine someone arguing that he can “understand” Nazi atrocity against Jews but not against Americans… If violent terrorism is “acceptable” (or more pc: “reprehensible but understandable”) in Jerusalem, than it becomes “acceptable” – and just a short step away – from violence in London, Paris, Moscow, New York and Beijing.
The Nazi terror made it abundantly clear that injustice in one place is injustice everywhere. Hatred to one race is hatred to all. And the biggest revelation of all: Indifference to violence and brutality against one group of humans is indifference to brutality against all humans. We are in this together – for bad and for good. Churchill put it best: “Appeasement in time of aggression is feeding the crocodiles in the hope that you will be eaten last.”
On the other hand, Pinchas teaches us, just because religion has been abused and used to perpetrate atrocities we shouldn’t fall to the other extreme of not fighting for any values. We must never lose sight of right and wrong, but at the same time we must learn from the past how to fight for it with selfless passion, not with violence.
We face today a major confrontation between religious and secular forces. In the Middle East and spreading through Asia, Africa and Europe, this battle is only accelerating. September 11th was a reminder to America of the festering forces at work.
On a subtler scale similar tensions are brewing in the United States. Whether it be around evolution and creationism or the right to live and die, abortion or the display of the Ten Commandments, the long history of the battle for dominance between religious and secular voices continues to rage.
To borrow a phrase – a specter is haunting the world. Not the specter of communism but of making our peace with G-d.
Leaders rise in times like this. A new vision is needed. Or is it a timeless vision that simply needs to be rediscovered?
What is needed today is passion – but guided by humility. G-d – but guided by love and compassion.
A specter is hanging over us – the specter of freedom. The violence perpetrated around the world today offers us an unprecedented opportunity to wake ourselves up from complacency and embrace a zealous battle for justice and truth.
We need a zealot today. Not a murderous zealot but a zealot of peace. A true Pinchas that will rise and defy conventional thinking.
Today we are called to join forces in a zealous and passionate against all form of extremism and violence, including those perpetrated in the name of religious zealotry. To counter the passion of misguided souls ready to blow themselves up, we need to zealously defend and promote the Divine principles of justice and peace – and all in the spirit of unity and love fueled by selflessness.
Nations of the world, communities across the globe, need to zealously unite with one powerful message: We will not tolerate or accept any form of violence, not in Jerusalem and not in London. Religious beliefs must be used not to fight wars, but to promote spiritual values, to establish laws that respect basic human rights and allow for diversity.
We must demand of the Muslim world – and for that matter of the Christian and Jewish world, as well as of all religions and creeds – to embrace the principles established by Abraham, father of all nations, to promote the deepest values of virtue and integrity, all with love and inspiration. To fight the pagan forces of the universe, not with violence, but with spreading light and warmth.