A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

Get daily updates delivered right to your inbox

The Zealot: The one who would be God

Rabbi Josef Davidson

In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade as a national precedent for the right of women to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, 20 states have  passed legislation essentially revoking that right to choose. In six of those states, that legislation has been blocked by court order. Nevertheless, that still leaves 14 in which women no longer have a choice.

In as many or more states, legislation has been passed that severely limits freedoms heretofore enjoyed by members of the LBGTQ+ community regarding access to restrooms and  participation in sports; medication necessary to treat body dysphoria; the ability to wear clothing that fits their perceptions of themselves, to affirm their authentic sense of themselves.

As well, there has been an increase in mass murders and other types of violence perpetrated expressly against people of different religious, ethnic, sexual and cultural identities.

In short, we seem to be living in an age of extreme zealotry.

This week’s Torah portion is named after a zealot, Pinchas, a son of Eliezer son of Aaron and a member of the priestly caste.

As last week’s Torah portion drew to a close, the Midianites, having failed to defeat the Israelites through curses, took a different tack. They seduced the Israelites to join in an orgiastic celebration of the Canaanite deity, Baal.

As the proceedings became more frenzied, God, in righteous anger, sent a plague to afflict them. The final straw, as it were, was when Zimri, a scion of the tribal leader of Shimon, engaged in intimate relations with a Midianite woman, Cozbi, daughter of one of their tribal leaders, in full view of everyone. Incited by this flagrant display of immorality and idolatry, Pinchas took a spear in hand and thrust it into the abdomens of the couple, killing them both. The plague immediately stopped.

It is only in this week’s portion that we learn what happened to Pinchas. After all, he murdered two people when they were the most defenseless. He consulted with no one, received no permission from Moses to commit this act. And how could the competing values be weighed against one another? It was the sanctity of life and the prohibition of murder versus fidelity in marriage and devotion to God.

Pinchas seems to be rewarded for his action. God communicates praise for Pinchas as the one whose act caused to God to lift the plague before it annihilated the Israelites. Pinchas is awarded the priesthood in perpetuity. And lastly, God grants him a “Covenant of Peace.” It seems that Pinchas’ zeal tempered God’s!

So, Pinchas is a hero, right? Well, not so fast! Never again does Pinchas employ violence. Rather he becomes a peacemaker, a negotiator, which may be what is meant by a Covenant of Peace.

The rabbis describe his behavior as “Halacha Ve’ein Moriin Ken” — an action that cannot be modeled or taught as correct.  It’s a “one-out,” an exception, not a norm. Such zealotry can be dangerous, in fact.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book, “Covenant and Conversations,” taught that the zealot acts as if he is God. The zealot plays God, as it were. There is a real danger in people acting as if they are God, as if they alone can read God’s mind. Everyone else becomes subject to the zealot.

We know that we cannot always judge the Torah by modern standards, but we also cannot import biblical texts and stories verbatim into our own context. Were Pinchas to act as he did today, he would stand trial for the murder of two consenting adults.

We live in a diverse world, not a homogenous one. No one can have a corner on the market of Truth; we can only live by truth as we come to experience it through our particular religious teachings, philosophy and experience, and no one of those can be declared unilaterally to be superior to the others. All are created in the Divine Image and yet are individuals, unique.

No one is created to be God, and no one is capable of reading the mind of God (an old saying, “If I knew God, I’d be God”).

Zealotry is a behavior that is not to be taught, not to be emulated, not to be countenanced. Better to model Pinchas’ grandfather, Aaron, of whom it is said that he “loved peace, pursued peace, loved his fellow creatures, and drew them near to the Torah.”

Drew them near, not by legislation, not coercion, but by love and being a good model. May we all be disciples of Aaron and not of Pinchas.

Rabbi Josef Davidson is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association and though retired from the active rabbinate, remains an active member of Congregation B’nai Amoona.

More to Discover