Pinchas, the biblical zealot, was so angered by the Israelites intermarrying with idolaters that he executed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman publicly fornicating. Some suggest that this story is the inspiration for the stabbing at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem and the attack on the Arab family at Duma. The attraction of this story to extremists is clear. Pinchas sees people doing wrong. He acts decisively and in so doing a plague is stopped.
Understood correctly, the Pinchas story has much to teach us. Indeed the covenant of peace Pinchas is given later is a subtle critique of his actions. But there are dangerous pitfalls in using this story as a model, or as the only model, for our response to our current situation. When applied directly to modern issues consequences can be deadly. One way to avoid this is by harnessing Jewish tradition for insight as to how to handle difficult political or cultural issues and how to behave towards other communities.
Israel and communities within Israel sometimes see themselves as “Shimshon der nebechdicker” (Yiddish for “Samson the pitiful one”). Like this Biblical hero, they have unprecedented strength but this is combined with a feeling of vulnerability. Our situation seems miles away from the political situation in Talmudic times. But, ironically, it is the rabbis in the Talmud who were masters at balancing idealism and expediency, values and realpolitik, the ideal and the attainable. And it is to the Talmud we should look to for guidance. For example, R. Ilai’s statement in Chulin 89a that “the world endures only because some restrain themselves during conflict” offers a fascinating counterbalance to the Pinchas story. It deepens our reflections on when bold action is called for and when not. In fact, we should all be zealots but we should be sure to be zealots in the right way and at the right time.
I have no illusions that these models will convince the Pinchases amongst us. But the more nuanced our Judaism is and the more we do to disseminate it, the less fertile ground there will be for Pinchases to flourish .
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