Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas

Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas

Steven Bayme, National Director, Contemporary Jewish Life Department


In accepting the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed, "Extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of liberty is no virtue." Whatever chance Goldwater had of capturing the presidency was probably forfeited through that statement. Americans prefer moderation and abhor extremism.

What about Judaism and Jewish tradition? Jewish history or, for that matter, contemporary Jewish life unfortunately, does not lack for examples of extremist behavior. Generally, these actions have proven destructive and elicited broad condemnation. For example, rabbinic Judaism pronounced the day following Rosh Ha-shanah to be a fast day commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah, a Jewish governor who paid with his life for his moderation in the years following the destruction of the Solomonic temple in 586 B.C.E. Similarly, both Josephus and the rabbis of the Talmud bitterly attacked Jewish extremism underlying the rebellion against Rome that culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Conversely, however, the episode of Pinchas in the Book of Numbers provides us with an apparently positive appraisal of Jewish extremism and zealotry:

When the Israelites were in Shittim, the people began to have intercourse with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices offered to their gods; and they ate the sacrificial food and prostrated themselves before the gods of Moab. The Israelites joined in the worship of the Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry with them. He said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and hurl them down to their death before the Lord in the full light of day, that the fury of his anger may turn away from Israel." So Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Put to death, each one of you, those of his tribe who have joined in the worship of the Baal of Peor."
One of the Israelites brought a Midianite woman into his family in open defiance of Moses and all the community of Israel, while they were weeping by the entrance of the Tent of the Presence. Pinchas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw him. He stepped out from the crowd and took up a spear, and he went into the inner room after the Israelite and transfixed the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, pinning them together. Thus the plague which had attacked the Israelites was brought to a stop; but twenty-four thousand had already died.

The Lord spoke to Moses and said, "Pinchas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the Israelites; he displayed among them the same jealous anger that moved me, and therefore in my jealousy I did not exterminate the Israelites. Tell him that I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. He and his descendants after him shall enjoy the priesthood under a covenant for all time, because he showed his zeal for his God and made expiation for the Israelites."
     Numbers 25: 1-13

At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron's grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his "covenant of peace" upon Pinchas as a reward for his "zealotry." Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

Clearly this story offends modern-day sensibilities. While few would give sanction to mixed marriage, much less public lewdness, even fewer would argue that the offending parties ought to be publicly flogged, much less assassinated. Moreover, society and civic order collapse when individuals feel free to take the law into their own hands in defense of public morality or justice. Witness, for example, the widespread rioting and looting that took place in Los Angeles some years back shortly after the announcement of the Rodney King verdict.

Interestingly, already in ancient times, Jewish leaders expressed discomfort with Pinchas as a role model for individual behavior. The Psalmist quietly transformed the word for Pinchas's zeal into one connoting prayer (Psalms 106:30). The Talmud went much further in recognizing that Pinchas set a most dangerous precedent that needed to be combated. As a result, the Talmud declares that the "covenant of peace" was given Pinchas to "calm his mind and restore his sanity." Even more strikingly, the Talmud declares that Moses wished actually to excommunicate Pinchas on account of his zealotry. Finally, the Talmud notes that had the offending party, Zimri of the tribe of Simeon, resisted Pinchas, he would have been cleared of charges on the grounds of self-defense (Sanhedrin 82a).

What, then, does this narrative and the accompanying rabbinic interpretations teach us? On the historical plane, we are, in all likelihood, dealing with the decline of the southern tribe of Simeon. The narrative explains the weakening of the tribe and thereby foreshadows its eventual absorption by the larger tribe of Judah. Conversely, the otherwise landless tribe of Levi lays claim to the high priesthood. The Pinchas narrative validates the permanent grant of high priestly status awarded to the family of Aaron of the tribe of Levi.

On the existential plane, the narrative signals the first encounter of the Jews with Canaanite culture. Promiscuous sexuality is rampant, the family structure is undermined, and intermarriage threatens Jewish well-being. Significantly, the Book of Psalms suggests that the pagan deity who is the object of this worship stands at the center of a funerary cult or worship of the dead. Judaism rejected such practices in its worldly emphasis and in its absolute monotheism, insisting that there are no heavenly powers or deceased souls who might be invoked beyond the reach of the Almighty. In effect, mixed marriage with a Midianite foreshadowed a larger and longer conflict between Israelite and pagan culture.

Although these historical and cultural contexts are real, and probably comprise the intended meaning of the biblical narrative, I find most compelling the willingness of rabbinic Judaism to depart from the intended meaning so as to deprive the narrative of the blessing that it bestows upon zealotry. The rabbis of the Talmud recognized that they could not abide a society in which individuals justified violence in the name of Torah. The rabbinic mode of exegesis and commentary sensitizes us to the complexity of the moral choices Pinchas confronted and normalizes the experience by suggesting that Moses as moral arbiter of Israelite society really did not support Pinchas's actions. Thereby rabbinic exegesis criticized zealotry even when done for the sake of good intentions. By suggesting that the "covenant of peace" was meant to restore Pinchas's sanity, the Talmudic rabbis in effect sacrificed the literal meaning of the text so as to marginalize Pinchas's actions and deprive him of his status as role model.

Unfortunately, Jewish history has indeed known its share of Pinchas types. The Zealots and Sicarii in first-century Palestine led the rebellion against Rome, resorting to extremist actions, including terrorism and political assassination. In more recent times the late Meir Kahane raised the banner of zealotry exposing an ugly racism and hatred of non-Jews (and some Jews as well for that matter). Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir during the Oslo years shared the view that extremism in the defense of Torah by no means constituted a vice. These types exist; they compose a small but by no means unimportant aspect of Jewish historical experience. Rabbinic Judaism, to its credit, enjoins us to temper these models, restrain them and, when necessary, combat them.

Questions for discussion:

Is political assassination always immoral? How would we evaluate attempts to assassinate Stalin or Hitler?
Do we distinguish between terrorist actions against Israelis and attacks by Jews in the pre-State period upon British installations, e.g. the King David Hotel?
Bibliography for further reading:

Steven Bayme, "Assassinations: Ancient and Modern," Jewish Arguments and Counterarguments (KTAV)
Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Political Assassinations by Jews (SUNY Press)
Yoram Peri ed., The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (Stanford)