Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“There’s no issue today for which we have to kill, defame, or alienate others,
beginning with fellow Americans and fellow Jews.”
Pinchas is a Biblical personality who was known for his remarkable passion to serve God. In this week’s Torah portion, we first learn in Numbers 25, how Pinchas drove a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who violated God’s covenant and caused plague to decimate the community. For his zealotry, Pinchas was granted God’s “covenant of peace” or “brit shalom,” and Pinchas and his descendants enjoyed a pact of priesthood for all time.
As biblical events often do, this one can inspire us to value Pinchas’ role in securing the faithfulness of the Israelite people against false gods and idol worship. But, in general, zealotry isn’t prized in Judaism. Zealotry is reserved for biblical stories and the most extraordinary of circumstances. The wow factor in biblical and epic stories is what made their transmission from generation to generation so appealing and successful. For the same reason, we still know the legends and lore of Greek and Roman mythology, and the stunning tales of medieval crusaders and kings. By comparison, they make some biblical events sound tame even though ours have been elevated to sacred status.
Our contemporary challenge is to learn the lessons without embracing the zealotry. We learned the hard way in 1995, when a young zealot named Yigal Amir, a far-right law student at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel, acted on his passion and assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv. Amir believed that the Oslo Accords, which would have been an unprecedented agreement with the Palestinians for peace, would deny Jews their “biblical heritage which they had reclaimed by establishing settlements.” No doubt Yigal Amir knew the story of Pinchas. He also believed that Rabin was a “rodef,” a “pursuer” who threatened Jewish lives. In Jewish law, it’s justified to kill a pursuer in the moment when his aim is to kill you. Amir believed that he was justified under this law to kill Rabin, because it would save Jewish lives in the settlement areas, which were the areas that the peace agreement would have returned to the Palestinians.
In his explanation of the “law of the rodef,” Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote:
[T]he law of the pursuer only applies to a spontaneous act, whereas Yigal Amir planned this assassination for two years. [T]he law of the pursuer is only intended to save a potential victim from imminent death. There is absolutely no proof that withdrawing from certain territories will directly lead to the death of any Jews. [A]ccording to the law of the pursuer, this act was totally futile and senseless since the peace process will continue (Rabbinic Response: Jewish Law on the Killing of Yitzhak Rabin, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 14 November 2005)
Unfortunately, ambitious stories of blood and glory persist. In recent years, but less so now, ISIS (or IS) zealots adhered to the strictest interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law. It preserved one small sect of Islam and aimed to annihilate all the rest. ISIS’s zealousness was so severe that it left room on the “zealous-spectrum” for others to be passionate without appearing to be as dangerous. Far right-wing coalitions, neo-Nazi groups, and some populist movements gained footholds across the world, while escaping comparisons to dangerous zealots; “at least they’re not decapitating their opponents,” some would dare say! But, zealots they are, and they’ve resurrected and demonstrated xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, to name a few.
In the wake of such neo-zealotry, leaders of nations have been swept into power and elected office. Demonstrations in the streets, not just in America, have sounded an alarm. The gains that modern Western nations have claimed in areas of social justice are at great risk, including religious tolerance, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, access to education and climate change. They aren’t just achievements of liberal zealotry from the left side; they’re the achievements of mostly reasonable and bipartisan efforts, including from the three branches of government in our country. They’re also entirely consistent with progressive Judaism’s aim (Reform and Conservative) to accomplish what we need in a world of sweeping change and transformative leadership.
Pinchas was biblically passionate; he defended the sanctity of God’s name. You and I can be passionate, too, but there’s no issue today for which we have to kill, defame, or alienate others, beginning with fellow Americans and fellow Jews. Now is our time to honor God’s name with profoundly good deeds (mitzvot) between reasonable people for the sake of the world we share.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.