Friday, 10 Jul 2009

Written by Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield

Tony Bayfield on Sidrah Pinchas

God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of  Aaron the Priest, has turned back My anger from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My zeal. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he was zealous for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’ (Num. 25:10–13)

I stand up in honour of the Torah, follow it round the synagogue out of respect with my eyes and my posture. But not as a sacred totem, nor as a manifesto carefully crafted for ease of maximum buy-in. What tells me that this is a document touched by God is its elusive character, its deceptive complexity and the depth of challenge it throws down. Like God, it will not be possessed or summoned to yield simple truths. It does not provide an incontrovertible programme with which to capture the souls of others. Rather, it bothers, provokes, disturbs. Sometimes even ‘touched by God’ will not do. There are dark passages and characters in the Torah, passages displaying zealotry and applauding violence. By men.


We are near both the end of the Book of Numbers and the Promised Land – in fact, at a place called Shittim (which means ‘acacia trees’). The sons of Israel have become involved with women from the locality and have embraced them in immoral and idolatrous practices. A plague is raging. Just as Moses is about to deal with the situation, a man called Pinchas (Phinehas), grandson of Aaron and son of Aaron’s son Eliezer, grabs hold of a spear, rushes into a private chamber, finds an Israelite man called Zimri having sex with a Midianite woman called Cozbi and despatches them both through the stomach. The plague is checked, the defection is halted and God rewards Pinchas with the pact of hereditary priesthood. That is the story.

By and large, the traditional Jewish sources are accepting and approving of Pinchas’ act of zealotry. The end amply justifies the means. How could that not be so, since the text of the Torah itself explicitly endorses Pinchas’ act? Yet hereditary priesthood is high reward indeed for the work of an impulsive, murderous moment. Characteristically male.

I remember, in my student days at the Leo Baeck College in London, being introduced to a particular midrashic sequence from a collection known as Midrash Tanhuma in which both the ancient authors and my teacher, Professor Raphael Loewe MC, revelled in the details – of where precisely the spear had entered and exited and of the exact position that Zimri and Cozbi had adopted at the moment they were caught in flagrante delicto. This midrash turns Pinchas into something of a strong man and has him running round the camp with the unfortunate couple impaled on his spear like an exotic kebab.

Pinchas turns up in later midrashic history in all manner of positive places – at the head of the Israelites in their campaign against Midian, intent on completing the good work he himself had begun by slaying Cozbi (Num. R. 22:4.); avenging his maternal grandfather Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by the Midianites (Sifrei Num. 157; B.T. Sot 43a.); miraculously slaying Balaam (B.T. Sanh. 106b.); as one of the two spies sent by Joshua to Jericho (Targum Yerushalmi Num. 21.22.), where he managed to make himself invisible like an angel (presumably he could be trusted to enter Jericho without having recourse to the services of its best-known inhabitant).

The Mishnah goes so far as to codify the incident: ‘If a man …. cohabits with a gentile woman, he may be struck down by zealots’ (M. Sanhedrin 9:6.) and a midrash has Pinchas recalling this halakhah (law) as legal justification for his own behaviour (Sifrei Num. 131.) – even without Moses’ permission, a Moses paralysed by his own marriage to a Midianite woman (Exod. 2:16–21; B.T. Sanh. 82a; Num. R. 20:24).

But what I find truly fascinating, terrifyingly fascinating, is the way that the story is dealt with in contemporary Jewish Bible commentary. I want to quote at some length from Gunther Plaut, that renowned rabbi and scholar from Canada, whose major commentary appeared in 1981.

Plaut raises the moral question of how a priceless reward could be given for an act of killing and says: “ By post-biblical and especially contemporary standards, the deed and its rewards appear to have an unwarranted relationship. But the story is biblical and must be appreciated in its own context. To begin with, Phinehas is rewarded not so much for slaying the transgressors as for saving his people from God’s destructive wrath. But, even if we assume that the text concentrates on the former merit, we must remember that the Moabite fertility cult was, to the Israelites, the incarnation of evil and the mortal enemy of their religion.”  He then goes on to quote George E Mendenhall, who identifies the plague with bubonic plague and suggests that Zimri was following a pagan precedent for dealing with the affliction (it is remarkable what one used to be able to get in public health benefits!). Plaut, however, concludes: “ Phinehas did not act out of superior medical knowledge. He saw in Zimri’s act an open breach of the Covenant, a flagrant return to the practices that the compact at Sinai had foresworn … This was the first incident in which God’s power over life and death (in a juridical sense) passed to the people. Phinehas’ impulsive deed was not merely a kind of battlefield execution but reflected his apprehension that the demands of God needed human realisation and acquired a memorable and dramatic example against permissiveness in the religious realm.”

There are some voices from the classical period which sound much more disturbed by Pinchas than Plaut appears to be. A passage in Tractate Sanhedrin (82a) struggles with the legal problems. Why no warning? Why no evidence? Why no trial? The answer that emerges is that the act was licit only because the couple were caught in flagrante delicto. Had they finished fornicating, then Pinchas’ zealotry would have been murder. If Zimri had turned on Pinchas and killed him first, he would not have been liable to the death penalty, since Pinchas was a pursuer seeking to take his life. Even here the rabbinic anxiety is more convincing than the conclusions at which they arrive to allay it. The question was taken up again in the nineteenth century by Samson Raphael Hirsch, who offers the same lame explanation: “Phinehas acted meritoriously only because he punished the transgression in flagrante delicto, in the act. Had he done it afterwards it would have been murder.”

That same passage from Tractate Sanhedrin also reports Rabbi Hisda as stating explicitly that anyone consulting ‘us’ about how to act in a similar situation would not be instructed to emulate Phinehas’ example. Interestingly, a connection is made between Pinchas’ slaying of Zimri and Cozbi and Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian overseer. Because the Exodus text offers little comment and refrains from explicit praise of Moses, the rabbis felt more able to voice doubts here. Some even connect Moses’ act of killing with the punishment of not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. But they are still a minority.

I want, at this point, to go back to the passage that I quoted from Gunther Plaut. “This was the first incident in which God’s power over life and death (in a juridical sense) passed to the people.”  I have severe doubts about God’s power over life and death being taken up by religious traditions and religious authorities and those four words ‘in a juridical sense’ only increase my discomfort. For there is no juridical context to Pinchas’ act. He acted alone; as the text implies and tradition makes explicit (Jerusalem Talmud 25,13.), without the approval of Moses or the religious, political and legal authorities of his time; no warning was given, no evidence adduced, no trial took place. As Plaut says: “ His act reflected his apprehension that the demands of God needed human realisation and required a memorable and dramatic example against permissiveness in the religious realm.”  In this, Plaut is absolutely at one with an early twentieth-century, Orthodox commentator, Baruch Epstein, author of Torah Temimah. According to Epstein there is justification if such a deed is ‘animated by a genuine, unadulterated (sic) spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God.’ (Torah Temimah on Num 25 v7).

That, for me, is the clearest remit for and definition of zealotry and fanaticism that I know. It is the ultimate reversal of a wonderful hasidic adage “ Take care of your own soul and another person’s body, not of another person’s soul and your own body.”  It encapsulates that terrifying absolute certainty that you know what God requires and that others do not. It declares with total conviction that human beings can stand in God’s place and hold sway over life and death, that we can execute, not in self-defence, not in the defence of the lives of others but to advance our own religious agenda and protect our own religious point of view. It seems to me to be a peculiarly male failing.

I do not have to spell out contemporary examples of those who appear to have seen in Pinchas and in similar scriptural authorities not simply justification but inspiration for becoming God and doing God’s supposed murderous will. In fact, part of my discomfort with Plaut may be explained by just how much the world has (apparently) changed over the last twenty-five years, how much more we are aware of the resurgence of fundamentalist zealotry, religious fanaticism and violent patriarchy.

Jews recall Brooklyn-born physician Baruch Goldstein who, apparently with the story of Esther in mind, went out just before Purim in 1994 and murdered twenty-nine Muslims in the Ibrahimi Mosque over the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. And Yigal Amir who believed he was saving Israel by shooting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Christians too have their fundamentalist zealots prepared to threaten violence, bomb and murder at abortion clinics in many parts of America. Islam has been hideously defaced by kidnappers and suicide bombers, for whom every conceivable act of inhumanity – and some that were even inconceivable before they were perpetrated – is justified by their religio-political goals and suitable Koranic texts.

Zealotry and fanaticism represent a facet of religion which disturbs me deeply. Pinchas is a terrifying role model, a dark character who seduces his fellow men from dark passages in our holy Torah.

So there we have it. A text, a sidrah against which I rebel from the very heart of my being. It is not that I cannot wrestle with it; it is not that I mind being challenged by it; and it is certainly not that I cannot find some things of merit, interest and religious quality within the narrative. But I rebel because it can be read and heard as having authority, as being worthy of reverence, as being God’s word. Which it is not. It can be taken up and used in ways which are absolutely antithetical to religion, to humanity and to the name of God. Too much of the commentary on this text, both ancient and modern, is self-justifying rather than self-critical, supporting blind obedience and justifying zealotry and fanaticism.

I stand up in honour of the Torah, follow it round the synagogue out of respect with my eyes and my posture. For this is a document touched by God. Like God, it does not offer a simple menu of impressive sound bites, homely truths and responsibility-absolving instructions. Rather, it challenges us even to the extent of asking us to struggle with texts which we ourselves can misunderstand, misuse or leave as hostages to fortune. It demands that we accept the fact that there are dark passages which are not God’s but ours, still ours – we men – even in Torah.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield

July 2009

Taken from the recently published The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary: New Insights by Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K Salkin (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights), 2009.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.