The Three Z’s: Zeal, Zealots and Zealotry

What a week this has been. Last week I wrote an upbeat blog to offset my natural sense of despair and pessimism. No sooner had I sent it off then I read about the haredi teenager who tore out a page from a siddur and wiped his nose with it. Since my son, Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, regularly conducts bar and bat mitzvahs at the Western Wall’s egalitarian area, I was doubly appalled by this act. My immediate reaction was that this was what Nazis did—they publicly desecrated holy books. To me this was a two-fold hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), in that not only the act itself was abominable, but that it added fuel to those who already have problems with the haredi world (i.e., their over-population, not serving in the army, being parasites of the Israeli government for handouts, you name it). This for want of a better term, is internal antisemitism, and these feelings come, not from without, but within. I was delighted to see a validation of my feelings, when Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt, who is now a special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism said, had this happened elsewhere we would have labeled it as an anti-Semitic act.

To add fuel to this fire, there was the shooting in Highland Park on July 4th. Those of us in the know, immediately felt that this was an act targeting Jews. It took a while, for the newspapers to start naming the victims and then sure enough it turned out that many Jews were victims. But at first, no one actually said directly that this was a targeted attack on Jews. The on-line publication Kweller, had the headline “Toddler Orphaned in Shooting in Jewish Neighborhood of Highland Park.” It pointed out: “All of the victims of Monday’s mass shooting were important and vital members of their families and communities. Many of them were Jews — the population of Highland Park is around 50% Jewish.” Finally, yesterday in a TOI blog called “At Highland Park, the Murderer Went for Jews” the writer wrote that “About half of Highland Park’s residents are Jewish; this mass murder did not aim at random victims; the murderer went for Jews.”

Both these acts have much in common and they derive from a source which encourages us to act violently against people whose beliefs we oppose. The haredi teenager, acted out what HE HAD BEEN TAUGHT and the shooter acted on HIS BELIEFS (evidenced by his postings on the dark spaces he inhabited on social media). David Horovitz, in his opinion piece yesterday, asked “What kind of Jewish education is producing youngsters who genuinely believe the foul behavior witnessed last Thursday constitutes the glorification of the divine power?” To him I would answer that we can look no further than this week’s torah portion, Balak.

In parashat Balak, King Balak commissions the famous prophet Balaam to curse the Israelite nation. Due to divine intervention, Balaam is unable to do so, and famously blesses them and admires them with the well-known phrase “ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, miskenotecha Yisroel” (Numbers 24:5) which we recite every day in the morning prayer service. At the end of the parasha, the prophet goes back home. No sooner has he left the scene, the nation settles in Shittim and the nation begins to stray after Moabite women who entice them to sacrifice to their Gods, in particular to the local god Ba’al Peor. This naturally incenses our God who instructs Moses to have ALL the participants impaled publicly, “in the face of the sun”. Moses passes on this information to Israel’s officials, telling them to kill ONLY the guilty parties. Whether this actually happens is unclear because in the narrative it says ve-hineh, (behold, or just then) an Israelite man brought (ויקרב) a Midianite woman in front of the Meeting Tent (ohel moed) and the entire nation. What they were doing there is unclear. Were they sacrificing (the root קרב is like קרבן)? Were they fornicating? The latter is assumed, but not stated. At any rate, in comes Phineas, the grandson of the high priest Aaron, and stabs both of them through the belly. Not only does his violent act check a plague against the Israelites (which had 24,000 dead), but gets him God’s praise in next week’s parasha, fittingly entitled Pinchas.

In revenge for this act, God tells Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. But what is more interesting here is that rather than criticize Phineas for his violent act of murder, he is praised by God no less: “Phineas, has turned my wrath back from the Israelites by displaying his passion (בקנאו את קנאתי) for me so that I did not destroy Israel in MY passion (בקנאתי)…. therefore I give him my pact of friendship (בריתי שלום), because he took impassioned action for his god (תחת אשר קנא לאלהיו) (Numbers 25:10-13). Notice the repetition of the word for passion, jealousy or zealousness. Zealotry has the stamp of God’s approval.

Lest we not make the connection, the rabbis inserted the haftarah for Phineas, the story of Elijah’s zealousness. There is a world of difference between the haftarot for Balak and Pinchas. The former, from the prophet Micah, references Balaam’s response to Balak’s commands and ends on a positive note: “to do justice, to love goodness and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). This widely quoted phrase, the rabbis said incorporates all the 613 mitzvot into three precepts. Contrast that with the haftarah for Pinchas which is all about how Elijah runs away from Jezebel who is furious that he killed all of her prophets. She threatens revenge: “Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them.” So, he runs away and hides in a cave. When God finds him there and asks him what he is doing there, Elijah answers: I was motivated by zeal for you (קנא קנאתי). When God appears to him a second time and asks him why are you here, he repeats the same mantra of I was moved by zeal for the Lord.

So, we have a clear connection between the haftarah and the parasha, i.e., between Phineas’s and Elijah’s acts spurred by passion/zealotry/jealousy, all in the name of a “cause”, celebrating or protecting God’s name. God’s description of himself, is of a jealous God (אל קנא). Which raises the question why does God’s reputation need protection? Does the choice of this haftarah mean that the sages approved of Phineas’s and Elijah’s acts?

There are earlier texts that support this approval of zealous revenge. The book of Psalms praises him: “Then up stood Phinehas to intervene, and the plague was checked; hence his reputation for virtue through successive generations forever” (Psalms 106: 30-31). Likewise, in the first book of Maccabees: “In his zeal for the Law, Mattahias acted as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias went through the town, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Let everyone who has a fervor for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me’. Phinehas, our father, in return for his burning fervor received a covenant of everlasting priesthood (I Maccabees 2:26-27, 54). And finally, Ben Sira writes in his book: “Phinehas son of Eleasar is third in glory because of his zeal in the fear of the Lord, because he stood firm when the people revolted, with a staunch and courageous heart; and in this way atoned for Israel. Hence a covenant of peace was sealed with him, making him governor of both sanctuary and people, and securing to him and his descendants the high priestly dignity forever (Ecclesiasticus 45: 23-24).

This piece is longer than I intended; however, I want to reiterate that this is my answer to David Horovitz, who asked “What kind of Jewish education is producing youngsters who genuinely believe the foul behavior witnessed last Thursday constitutes the glorification of the divine power?” The sources that are available in our tradition are those which praise this kind of “foul behavior” in the name of zealous protection of the divine name. It is important that we acknowledge this before moving on to doing something about it.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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