The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RABBI JOSH LEVY

“It will be for him... a pact of priest­hood be­cause he took im­pas­sioned ac­tion for his God”

WHAT to do with Pin­chas? His model of re­li­gious ac­tion in killing Zimri and Cozbi is deeply dis­turb­ing, an ap­par­ent in­vi­ta­tion to acts of zealotry. And yet it re­ceives not merely ap­proval, but the re­ward of a “pact of friend­ship”, a divine prom­ise of eter­nal priest­hood.

This ten­sion was as un­com­fort­able for the early sages as it is for us. They dis­ap­proved of re­li­gious zealotry but faced a dilemma: how to pre­vent it with­out chal­leng­ing the model of To­rah? How to ex­press their un­ease at Pin­chas’s ac­tions with­out con­tra­dict­ing the rul­ing of God?

Do­ing so re­quired great cre­ativ­ity. While un­able to ex­plic­itly pro­hibit acts such as that of Pin­chas, the rab­bis used ha­lachic mea­sures to en­sure that his ex­am­ple could not be fol­lowed. As with the ap­pli­ca­tion of the death penalty gen­er­ally (com­manded by To­rah; dis­ap­proved of by the rab­bis), the sages cre­ated stan­dards of proof and le­gal process that en­sured we can ad­mire Pin­chas (if we must) but are un­able, legally, to em­u­late him.

At the same time, the rab­bis used their midrashic imag­i­na­tion to de­velop the To­rah text, plac­ing it out­side of or­di­nary hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. They em­bel­lished the acts of Zimri and Cozbi to take them be­yond the pale and they added a divine help­ing hand. Midrash Num­bers Rab­bah speaks of twelve mir­a­cles en­acted on Pin­chas’s be­half by God in his slaugh­ter­ing of Zimri and Cozbi. This is help that po­ten­tial zealots can not ex­pect to re­ceive.

The rab­bis re­fused to treat bi­b­li­cal char­ac­ters as sim­ple role mod­els; they un­der­stood the com­plex­ity of a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with To­rah; and they re­fused to ab­di­cate moral re­spon­si­bil­ity over a text with which they dis­agreed.

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