The Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)
And yet the Torah reports that Pinchas was rewarded for his actions. Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become enthralled with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.
"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinchas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinchas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." (Numbers 25) Pinchas' passion tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinchas renews the covenant between God and the people.
It is for this reason that Pinchas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony. As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinchas. We then welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah who, in the future, will announce the coming of the messiah. We pray, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet who is remembered for good.” Perhaps this young child will prove to be our people’s redeemer.
Elijah is as well a zealot. He, like Pinchas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with an equally heavy hand. He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal. So why are these the heroes we recall when we circumcise our sons? Is it possible that the rabbis saw this ritual and its demand that we take a knife to our sons as a zealous act? Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform the mitzvah of circumcision?
The Torah suggests that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means. Pinchas succeeds in ridding the Israelites of idolatry. Elijah as well bests the prophets of Baal, bringing the people closer to monotheism. They are thus revered by our tradition.
I remain troubled. I stand appalled.
I wonder. Why must passions lead to zealous acts?
Zealousness and passion are too often intertwined. Passion is desired. Zealousness must be quelled. The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder.
My teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps it is better to say, too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is exacting. It can be as well ruthless.
I hold firm to its belief. I remain distant from the actions it too frequently deems holy.
And so I draw a measure of comfort from the very same prophet whose actions I abhor. Elijah’s story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God. It is not in a thunderous voice or mighty actions. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind... After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." (I Kings 19)
This is the Haftarah that is often paired with this week’s portion. The rabbis offer this reading as a counterweight. We require passion, but not zealousness. Not every disagreement is a threat that necessitates radical action. Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers. A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.
Hold fast to your own beliefs. Leave room for others’ convictions.
The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.
Rely instead on the still, small voice.