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Religious Extremist or Righteous Individual?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Picture the following headline in the New York Times: “Muslim/Jewish extremist kills two – man and prostitute cohabiting”. What would be our gut reaction? I know what mine would be – another extremist nut out of control. This is not what my religious values teach me, in fact, on the contrary: “Her ways are ways of peace” as stated by King David.

Seemingly this hypothetical case (which in our times is not that hypothetical) is the narrative of this weeks Torah Parsha. Pinchas, a Jewish man witnesses another Jewish man cohabiting with a Midianite women sent as a prostitute to seduce Jewish men. He takes a spear and kills both of them. Is he not a religious extremist? Is he not acting like one would expect a Taliban member to act?

While considering this question I decided to Google the phrase ‘Pinchas a religious extremist’. The results led me to web pages where the authors came to the conclusion that Pinchas’s actions were indeed incorrect. Some even brought textual sources to support their claim. I reject these opinions for the following reasons. The simple reading of the text shows that the actions of Pinchas were considered righteous and praiseworthy. God in fact rewards him with a covenant of peace eternal entry for him and his descendants into the priesthood. In addition to this I am not aware of even one of our Midrashim or any other teaching of the oral law that faults his actions. Therefore I do not see this approach as tenable in accordance with our tradition.

Rav Mordechai Gifter of blessed memory explains that the Hebrew word used to describe a protester against public immorality ‘Kanai’ [zealot] does not mean ‘extremist’. As the Rambam writes [Hilchos Dayos 1:4], Judaism does not appreciate extremism and values the golden middle path. Rav Gifter quotes the Sifrei which defines a ‘Kanai’ as someone willing to sublimate their entire being to fulfill God’s will. This explains why it would be incorrect for us to emulate the example of Pinchas – we cannot honestly say that we have no agenda of our own, and are acting out of complete sublimation to God’s will. According to this approach Pinchas was not an extremist because his motivations did not have an iota of selfishness. He acted purely out of knowing that his act was the will of God at that time. The religious extremist today on the other hand acts out of hatred and other personal agendas.

This approach somewhat limits the applicability of the Parsha to our lives. If after all none of us are on this lofty spiritual level to act in such ways, then what is the practical message and application for us mere mortals in the twenty first century.

I suggest the following approach. Many commentators are puzzled by the reward God gives Pinchas ‘A covenant of peace’. His act was one of bravery, courage and aggression – the reward of ‘a covenant of peace’ does not seem to gel with the nature of the actions for which he was being rewarded.

The Ralbag surprisingly states that on the contrary we learn from here that God in fact rewards us measure for measure. Pinchas was rewarded with peace because he was involved in a peace making effort. How so? He restored peace between God and the Jewish people. This then is a revolutionary way of seeing the actions of Pinchas. Yes, his actions were not acts of war, violence and terror. His actions were an attempt to make peace – to resolve a potentially catastrophic consequence. He was taking the lives of a few to save the lives of many. He was motivated by the intense desire to bring about conflict resolution and not by anger and hatred. Yes, Pinchas was a peacemaker and not a religious extremist.

Viewed in this light the message of the Parsha becomes apparent. Peace amongst humanity and between humanity and God is one of the loftiest spiritual ideals. Peace is an ideal worth striving for and an ideal that in fact defines a Torah scholar. As our sages teach “Torah Scholars increase peace in the world” and as King David says ‘Search out peace and pursue it’. Herein lies the distinction between Pinchas and the religious extremists that should be condemned. The religious extremists of our time are motivated by hatred and violence. Their actions do not result in peace, but rather in retaliation and more bloodshed. For Pinchas on the other hand, a forceful violent act is a last resort towards peace. Peaceful negotiations between Moses had broken down and a plague was taking the lives of many. Pinchas, the ultimate pursier of peace begrudgingly resorts to a forceful violent act as a last ditch effort to promote peace. Indeed Pinchas teaches us that peace is worth fighting for.

This message is not unique to Pinchas but is an eternal one. Unfortunately there are times in the 21st century where this message is applicable – where evil may have to be forcefully uprooted for the sake of universal peace. Under these extenuating circumstances force should be seen as an act of peace and not as extremist violence. Of course even such action should never be carried out without tremendous deliberation. May the one who makes peace upon high, make peace for us and all Israel and may we merit the attainment of this gift of peace through peaceful means alone.