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Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

When Fanaticism Goes Unchecked (Parshat Pinchas)

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The end of Parshat Balak and the beginning of Parshat Pinchas discuss a great tragedy for the Jewish People. They are engaged in orgies with Midianite women following engaging in their idolatrous practices. [Numbers 25:1-3]

It’s not just the rank-and-file of the Jewish People; it’s the aristocracy. It’s Zimri, the prince of the Tribe of Shimon, who takes a woman by the name of Kozbi, the daughter of the priest of Midian, and in front of the Sanhedrin, Moshe, Aharon and the entire Israelite community, he engages in a public act of intercourse. These orgies cause God to bring a plague upon the Jewish People that claims 24,000 lives. [Numbers 25:6, 14-15]

Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon and the grand-nephew of Moshe, takes a spear in his hand, and in the middle of this act of public intercourse, plunges the spear into the two of them, ending the plague. [Numbers 25:7-9]

God acknowledges that Pinchas has ended this Chilul Hashem, this disgrace of God:

פִּנְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Pinchas, son of Elazar, grandson of Aharon Hakohen,
has allowed me to remove my wrath from B’nei Yisrael.
[Numbers 25:11]

And due to Pinchas, this Chillul Hashem and plague end.

Yet the Talmud and Maimonides, in their codification of this action, are hesitant to endorse this act, and grapple with the issue of whether “קנאים פוגעים בו”, an act of zealotry, is permissible.

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 81b-82b], in a position codified by Maimonides [Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relationships 12:5], states that if a zealot asks his rabbi or beit din if he may engage in ending a public act of sexual intercourse, they are not permitted to respond in the affirmative.

Furthermore, if Zimri had separated himself from Kozbi while Pinchas was plunging his spear through the two of them, Pinchas would have been חייב מיתה, he would have been subject to being killed for his action.

Additionally: if during the act of intercourse, Zimri would have turned around to defend himself against Pinchas, he would have gone scot-free, because the halakha considers Pinchas to be a “רודף”, a pursuer.

The Ra’avad, a commentator on Maimonides, adds that before Pinchas could plunge his spear into them while they are engaged in this act of intercouse, he has to warn them about it. It’s not enough the act is happening; there must also be a warning. [Comments to Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relationships, 12:4]

And the Jerusalem Talmud declared that Pinchas’ action was “שלא ברצון חכמים”, it was not halakhically acceptable. It was not permitted by the rabbis. But what can they do? After all, God descended upon them and said that which Pinchas did was fine. [Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7]

We live in an age of fanaticism. We live in a time in which Jews still throw stones at other Jews.

We live in an era in which Jews have no problem interrupting a prayer service that is foreign to them; and, tragically, in which they have no problem protesting against other Jews and calling them such horrific names such as “Nazis”.

Judaism does not celebrate or encourage fanaticism!

True, Pinchas stops a Chilul Hashem, ending a plague that had killed 24,000 people. Yet the Jerusalem Talmud is not willing to endorse his actions. It is only God spoke directly to the people that Pinchas was protected from punishment.

And even if Pinchas’ actions were permissible, the Babylonian Talmud limits it to very specific situations, and even then, if Zimri would have defended himself against Pinchas and killed him, Zimri would have gone unpunished.

The Ra’avad requires that Pinchas warn Zimri and Kozbi about the severity of their sin and imminent punishment prior to plunging his spear into themi.

All of these example demonstrate the clear message that Judaism does not engage in fanaticism.

We are beginning the Three Weeks. It’s a time to (re-)learn that the reason that the Temple was destroyed was NOT because we did not engage with God. It’s because we did not engage with other Jews. It was because of Sin’at Chinam, baseless hatred. [Yoma 9b]

If we want to repair the tragedy of 2,000 years ago, we need to learn that fanaticism is not something that Judaism embraces.

Rather, Judaism embraces the responsibility to treat every Jew and every human being with respect. And even when disagree, to do so in an agreeable fashion.

May we put the story of Pinchas in its proper context and may we take that context into the Three Weeks so that, please God, next year, this will not be a period of fasting, but a period of joy and celebration.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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