Torahthon: the Zealotry of Pinchas

The second session I attended at Temple Beth Am’s Torahthon was Dr. Ron Reisberg’s class on “The Zealotry of Pinchas”. He advertised the title of his session as “Good Tefila, Bad Tefila”, but acknowledged at the beginning of his teaching that he decided to change the subject. Instead, much to my pleasant surprise, we did a little bit of Talmud study.

We read the story of Pinchas from Numbers 25 in English translation and made sure everyone in the group understood the story. We then moved on to the Gemara and read the Rabbis’ interpolation of the story to understand whether Pinchas was justified in his actions and whether we could extrapolate any halachic lessons from the story.

Reisberg made the argument that the Rabbis were trying to limit the applicability of the story to the narrowest case so as to discourage religious zealotry. I was reminded of this other discussion in the Gemara about the rebellious son who is supposed to be put to death for disobeying his parents. In short, the Rabbis found this story from the Torah objectionable, but they did not dismiss it. Instead of contradicting the text, they simply applied it as narrowly as possible, claiming that a child could be put to death under only the very specific conditions mentioned in the Torah. After much discussion, the punch line goes something like “There has never been such a son, and there will never be such a son.” In other words, the Rabbis couldn’t admit that the Torah was wrong, but since they felt that capital punishment was inappropriate for a disobedient son (no matter how extreme) they had to neuter the story so that it simply couldn’t apply in any real case.

In understanding the story of Pinchas, Rabbis similarly try to limit the situations in which religious zealotry is allowed. They can’t dismiss it outright, because the Torah explains that God is pleased with Pinchas and makes him a member of the priesthood. But the Rabbis explain that the murder of Zimri and Cozbi is justified because it was the manifestation of God’s jealousy. Had the killings taken place after Zimri had slept with Cozbi it would have been an unjustified act of revenge; the fact that Pinchas killed them during the act is what makes Pinchas righteous and not a murderer.

I know there are the makings of a good drash here, but I can’t quite get into it. In my book, zealotry is just plain wrong. Unlike the Rabbis of the Gemara I have the luxury of being able to say that Hashem made a mistake. Pinchas should not have been praised because murder, even if for the “right” reasons, is always wrong.

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