Parshat Pinhas is the one week every year when Jews are compelled to focus on the zealot as a figure of piety and devotion, the zealot as hero, the zealot as savior. Partisans of the ideological left and right use Pinhas as the exemplar of their respective positions. In the Torah, Pinhas represents the true hero, perhaps only supplanted by Abraham and Moses. All three act outside the norms of acceptable behavior and, in doing so, achieve divine recognition and reward. All three are also associated with violent actions: Pinhas and Moses both kill in acts of passion, and Abraham attempts to kill, in response to a command. All three are rewarded in perpetuity.

Phineas (Pinhas) and the Sons of Boreas. Credit: Creative Commons/Sebastiano Ricci.

For those in the vast middle – advocates of moderation, tolerance, and pluralism who believe compromise is the only path to peace – the Pinhas story is a hard sell. How can such an act of unmitigated zealotry and murder (not only of the Israelite Zimri ben Salu who transgressed but the Midianite Kozbi bat Zur who did not) find such divine favor? How can the rabbinic tradition justify Pinhas’s action of taking the law into his own hands by defining his act as “the zealot will attack him” (kana’im pog’im bo). Doesn’t tolerance of this behavior only affirm the claims of those radicals and extremists who act in a similar way? No. But why not? Below I offer a reading of a Hasidic interpretation that addresses why the Torah suggests that the zealot as true radical is the only one who can bring a sustained change to the corrupt nature of the society in which he or she lives. That is, can bring peace. My reading questions the devotion, even addiction, our society has to moderation, a value that while crucial is often a tool for the perpetuation of violence and persecution.

Reproduced below is an interpretation of the Pinhas story by Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapiro of Dinov (1783-1841) that appears in his collected work Igra de-Kala, volume 2 (Brooklyn: Revi’it Press, 1976), 71c:

Pinhas son of Eliezer son of Aaron the Priest (Numbers 25:11). The sages say: God says that Pinhas should take his reward because he was so audacious in his behavior he did not consider honoring his father as an expression of his love for the Creator. And he did not refrain from rebuking Israel. One can ask on this reading: why did Rashi distribute praise to Pinhas for not considering the embarrassment it may have caused Eliezer (his father), it would make even more sense to distribute his praise to him for not considering the embarrassment it may have caused Moshe (his teacher), the father of all the prophets. One could answer this following the law that states honoring one’s teacher comes before honoring one’s father but if one’s father is a sage (talmid hakham) honoring one’s father comes first….Consider that in the Shulkhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim # 167:14 R. Moshe Isserles says that if the father is a priest and a sage, he should come first (even if there is a sage greater than him, in this case Moshe). And Magen Avraham adds “and he will merit longevity for this” (longevity being the reward the Torah mentions for honoring one’s parents,). The secret of God is for one who fears God (Psalms 25:14) (the verse continues, and God’s covenant to those that know God, referring, I think, to the “covenant of peace” brit shalom, granted to Pinhas). Longevity (lit. length of days – orekh yamim) is in the right (yamina), that is, to honor the priest (priesthood being on the side of kindness/the right side in Kabbalah).

Now the initial question can be better understood. Pinhas was not concerned about his longevity (the reward for honoring his father/teacher) enough to refrain from doing this act for the sake of honoring his father. He did this act with zealousness for God. (For that reason) God rewarded him justly (mida ke-neged mida). He gave him eternal life, as the sages say, “Pinhas was Elijah the prophet” who was taken up in a storm (and did not die) (2 Kings 2:11) and will return in the proper time. This is why Rashi says he merited the priestly covenant forever (‘olam) in accordance with his zealotry.

Now we can better understand the rabbinic teaching that the law dictated that he should take his reward because he did not concern himself with his own longevity (that is, he was willing to sacrifice everything). In return he got eternity as a just reward. Understand this.

Focusing less on the egregious act of violence against other human beings and more on trying to understand the inner posture of the zealot who is rewarded with eternal life, R. Zvi Elimelekh offers a way to justify the true zealot and disqualify all false zealots. In some sense, he also offers a critique of moderation, or at least the ways in which moderation fails to achieve its stated goals. Here I suggest the zealot’s act is one of “radical lishma.” That is, Pinhas sacrifices his longevity not for another reward, e.g. 72 virgins, a mitzvah, the land, national pride, honor, or revenge. His act is not a mitzvah, nor is it an explicit command as in God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It is also not an act of defense like Moses’ killing the Egyptian taskmaster. It is simply an expression of pure subjectivity as truth, expressed otherwise, an expression of pure devotion to God. All zealots who act otherwise, and that would likely be all zealots, are false zealots the way prophets are false prophets. They act in accordance with the external dictates but lack to requisite internal conditions.

This portrait also calls into question the moderates among us – those committed to the middle way, the path of compromise and tolerance – by suggesting that only the zealot (do we have zealots for moderation?) who acts in the way of “radical lishma” can bring peace. It was Maimonides who said the middle way was the “golden path.” Yet it was Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk who countered “the middle of the road is for horses.”

This act of “radical lishma” is violent, violent in the way Robert Cover calls law, violent, violent in the way Slavoi Zizek calls revolution violent. The law cuts, Cover says, it draws blood, it excludes, and it amputates. For Zizek, revolution brings about a radical change in collective life, as Pinhas’s act ended the plague and created a “covenant of peace,” brought into existence through that violent act. Aaron was the master of the compromise (Avot 1:12). But that was apparently insufficient. Now he had to share the priesthood with Pinhas, the violent perpetrator of “radical lishma.”

Moderation can resolve disputes, even change regimes, but it often leaves the foundations of the corrupt system in place. This is why Zizek claims Gandhi was the most violent leader of the twentieth century. Other like Stalin, Khomeini, et. al. may have thought they were revolutionaries but simply fed on previous forms of corruption and hatred that already existed and gave them renewed power to work in different ways. Gandhi, on the other hand, changed the society he lived in. His “violence” (enacted as nonviolence) was the true violence of revolution.

So moderates beware: There are many false zealots among us, many who claim to be revolutionaries, most, maybe all, of whom are fakes, many of whom are destructive. But there may be another Pinhas, one who will sacrifice everything for the possibility of everything and equally the possibility of nothing. For Pinhas, it no longer mattered – he sacrificed any reward. But God does not tell us who is who. But God does tell us it is he (or she) who we need. No, not the messiah. Pinhas is more radical than the messiah. The holy zealot is the one whose subjectivity as truth, only expressed after sacrificing everything, saves the nation. Lishma is the template for devotion. Radical lishma, as an act of violence as revolution, it brings devotion to its fulfilled end.

The messiah is born on Tisha b’Av. And what can, and too often does, destroy the world, is precisely what is needed to save it.

This essay was originally written for the Israeli political blogs “Ha-Okets” and “Erez Ha-Emori” as part of a series on opposition and resistance edited by Nitzan Lebovic.


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