This week’s greetings is based upon the words of Chris Harrison in the anthology, The Social Justice Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Barry Block. At the very beginning of this week’s portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), we learn that Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, has committed an act of murder in a story told at the end of last week’s Torah portion. A plague is spreading among the Israelites, allegedly due to their intermingling with Midianites. In an act of religious zealotry, Pinchas kills Zimri, an Israelite, and a Midianite woman named Cozbi, while they are having intimate relations in front of the Tent of Meeting. Because of Pinchas “displaying among them his passion for [God]” (25:11), not only is God’s wrath settled with Israel, but God also grants Pinchas a “covenant of peace” and a pact of priesthood for all of his descendants (25:12-13).
This story raises a major issue of morality for the modern Jew. When Pinchas first witnesses Zimri and Cozbi together, he does not break the two apart to prevent them from sinning further. He does not even ask them to stop, so they could have a chance to listen. As some have suggested, Pinchas was enraged with a sense of moral authority and as such makes himself judge, jury, and executioner, by stabbing two people to death for the crime of having consensual relations. And the Torah text seems to be completely okay with his doing so.
Granted, the context is the necessary key. Historically speaking, Jews have been targeted and enslaved and murdered by others simply for the crime of existing. It is no surprise then that some of our stories treat zealotry as heroism. The ends, preserving Jewish continuity and purity, justify the means of murder – in the case of Pinchas, his zealousness seems to be crucial in saving the Jewish people.
The problem, as even the rabbis later acknowledged, is that Pinchas was successful and earned a ‘covenant of peace,’ it is not real. Peace achieved through zealotry, even as seen as justified on the surface, is not really peace at all. Not only is Pinchas a zealot and a murderer, he is also a hypocrite. Pinchas, in case you did not know, is an Egyptian name. He is a descendant on non-Jewish priests; and yet, his hypocrisy proves an important point: Judaism is an acculturating religious civilization. Pinchas is a product of an interfaith relationship. The question then remains: How do we create a real covenant of peace?
In short, by not being like Pinchas. If we are to create a Jewish community that is embedded in real peace, we must start by abandoning the self-defeating notion that interfaith relationships are a threat to Judaism and recognize the real threat to Judaism: keeping people out. I think about the countless interfaith and multi-faith households that make our Jewish community a vibrant, beautiful place and keep the spirit of Judaism alive. I think of the spouses, partners, and children of Jews who may not be Jewish themselves, yet or ever, but who contribute so much to Jewish life through their presence and their questions and their ideas. I think of all of the people who are looking into becoming Jewish whose souls thirst to join Am Yisrael.
This Judaism isn’t fueled by zealotry, like Pinchas, to maintain purity; it is fueled by love rooted in the belief that Judaism is made pure when everyone who wants to be a part of our community gets a seat at the table.