The past few weeks have been exceedingly painful ones for Jews and Palestinians, marked by the kidnapping and brutal murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, and—within hours—the kidnapping and barbaric torture and murder of an Arab Israeli boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, apparently in retaliation. Both acts are egregious, unconscionable acts of vigilantism. All life is precious, and at no time should children become pawns and weapons in the wars of adults, used to incite hatred and violent reprisal.
Vigilantism is not new. Last week, at the end of parshat Balak, we read a most emotionally disturbing and morally unsettling tale: Following the idolatry committed by the Israelites at Ba’al Pe’or, God commands Moses to publicly impale the ringleaders. Before that extraordinary punishment can be carried out, a man named Zimri brings a Midianite woman named Cozbi into no less sacred a place than the Tent of Meeting where, in the sight of all, he copulates with her (no G-rated book, the Torah). Imbued with zeal for God and Torah, Pinchas, the leader of the Levitical retinue in the Tent of Meeting, grasps a spear and runs them both through with one stroke. To insure that we, the readers, know that this was is to be understood as a righteous act, Torah tells us that the plague which had been devouring the people, and took 24,000 lives, ceased immediately. This week’s parashah, which bears the name of the zealot, Pinchas, opens with an account of God’s reward to Pinchas for this act:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned bad My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant [Pinchas] My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all times, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:10-13)
Gevalt! There is no end of difficulties to understanding this passage of Torah. It is so riddled with troubling aspects that I hardly know where to begin. But begin I must because, however discomfiting the account of Pinchas, Zimri, and Cozbi may be, it is part of our sacred tradition: It is holy text. Yet, whenever I contemplate this episode of Torah, the words which leap to mind are not “inspiring,” “ennobling,” and “edifying.” Rather, I’m apt to conjure up: appalling, revolting, and horrifying.
So I pause to consider other biblical accounts that remind me of the story of Pinchas and also trouble me: the Torah’s tacit approval of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian taskmaster who was, himself, not guilty of murder so far as we know; and the erratic and violent behavior of Samson that led to the deaths of hundreds of Philistines. All three stories all have a feature in common: Each story seems to applaud and approve vigilante “justice.”
We want to know what these stories teach us about how we ought to live our lives, but the lesson that seems implicit in each—at least on the very surface—is abhorrent. People have struggled with the source of ethics from time immemorial. The ancient Greeks believed that the human mind, endowed with the capacity for logic and reason, could eventually plumb the depths of any problem, however thorny, tangled, or torturous. But it is easy to recognize the weakness in this approach: Logic and reason are invaluable, but humans rarely practice them purely. We make a muddle of reason when we unwittingly combine it with our emotional proclivities and political alignments; the results are far from pure reason and rationality. On the other end of the spectrum are those who tell us that all ethics derive from divine revelation, and human reasoning plays no part. This essentially boils down to a bumper stick I loathe and disdain: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This puts a divine imprimatur on any act that a person claims is biblically permitted or mandated. It’s hard to imagine anything more religious self-serving and narcissistic.
What, then, are we to make of the extreme violence and vigilantism of Pinchas? Does God expect us to replicate Pinchas’ behavior? Is this what God wants? We know deep within that it is not. Yet Pinchas is the poster-boy for fanatics like Meir Kahana, Baruch Goldstein, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, Yigal Amir—and many West Bank and Gaza Israeli settlers, whose claims to promote Judaism and its values are utterly belied but their hatred toward Palestinians and their immoral actions, from desecrating churches and mosques to the latest and most horrific: the torture and murder of an innocent child. What have they all missed?
It may seem an enormous leap from the story of Zimri and Cozbi being speared by Pinchas to permission for a modern-day vigilantism, but sadly it is not.
The Sages do not shower Pinchas with unadulterated approbation. On the one hand, the Israelites have descended yet again into communal idolatry. From this perspective, Pinchas embodies God’s wrath and carries out God’s will, and in so doing, halts the plague that is devouring lives by the thousands. This perspective, in an attempt to defend him, garners Pinchas praise, and the “covenant of peace” is understood to confirm the propriety of Pinchas’ actions. The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7) tells us that the Elders wanted to excommunicate Pinchas and only relented when God declared that the covenant would be for him and his descendants for all time. Concerning this, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in Torah Temimah, writes: “Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In this case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.” On the other hand, the Rabbis and later commentators are clearly uncomfortable with Pinchas and express great ambivalence. They are wary of vigilante action; they do not wish to legitimate the violence of any zealot who feels himself imbued with God’s wrath. Therefore the Rabbis attempt to limit the application of Pinchas’ example to “while the fire is burning,” meaning that Zimri and Cozbi had to be caught in the act and without the slightest hesitation on their parts. Abraham ibn Ezra expresses even greater concern about the precedent the story may set for other zealots, and therefore tells us that witnesses had already given testimony concerning Zimri and Cozbi in court, and therefore Pinchas was acting in the capacity of a duly authorized executioner following a proper court hearing. This is both an attempt to justify the simple sense of the text precisely that cannot be justified, and to forestall the use of the text to promote vigilantism. Some commentators openly hold that Pinchas’ behavior was condemned by Moses. It has been explained that the broken letter “vav” in the term briti shalom (“covenant of peace,” Numbers 25:12) reflects God’s unwillingness to offer a full “covenant of peace” to Pinchas, a man who had just committed murder. Clearly, the Rabbis were deeply ambivalent about Pinchas, and very wary of his violent vigilante behavior—however much Torah tells us that God approved. And well they should be! Such behavior is exceptionally dangerous and highly reprehensible.
And lest you think that such things are the stuff of Torah legends and could not happen today, two examples will suffice. In 1996, the then-Chief Sephardic Rabbi in Israel, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, delivered a d’var Torah on Shabbat afternoon in which he likened Zimri to liberal Jews who desecrate Jewish traditions, thereby suggesting that a righteous Jew might act the violent role of Pinchas. When furious and vociferous objections were raised from every corner of the country, he responded that he meant it in a metaphorical way. Well, Pinchas did not run Zimri and Cozbi through “metaphorically.” The response to Bakshi-Doron’s d’var Torah was swift and strenuous because we had already seen what can happen when the halakhic process is short-circuited: the result can be disaster. The year before Bakshi-Doron delivered his ignominious drash, Yigal Amir assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l, propelled by yet another ignoble d’var Torah delivered by an irresponsible ring wing rabbi based on the din rodef (law of the pursuer). The rodef is one who, with weapon in hand and articulating clear threats to another, runs after him with intent to kill. Amir heard a rabbi liken Rabin to a rodef for proposing negotiations with the Palestinians. It thus became a mitzvah in the mind of a fanatic to kill him. Yet another metaphor translated into concrete and violent vigilante action.
Parshat Pinchas does not present a rosy picture of how people are, but then very little in Torah does. Torah is a view of life without blinders. Its realistic portrait of humanity is far more valuable than a pietistic whitewashing because it is against this background that we are propelled into wrestling with God, struggling with our traditions, and ultimately arriving at religious imperatives in which we can have ethical confidence.
I am glad that Israeli politicians in the Knesset spanning the broad political spectrum publicly condemned the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Finance Minister Yair Lapid rightly said, “We should all be ashamed of the findings on the Arab teen’s murder. The State of Israel cannot stand silent following the shocking murder of a young, innocent Arab boy by Jewish murderers. There is no difference between our blood and their blood. Law enforcement must act determinedly and harshly against the murderers and put them on trial.” MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid party) said: “Our responsibility as a nation is to purify our camp from fringe elements who were forced on us. The values in our national DNA require us to act. The investigation of Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder should be a top priority and his murderers should be brought to justice.” MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor Party) summed up the situation succinctly: “Woe to us if the lust for revenge will replace the state, its institutions and its rule of law, Whoever is fanning passions and giving legitimacy to blood lust should know that his hands are stained with blood.”
I feel a measure of relief that six people have been arrested in connection with the abduction and murder of Muhammad and that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has denounced their actions as terrorism, saying, “We do not distinguish terror from terror.” But this is not enough. The settlement culture and reality that support and breed such acts remains, and receives enormous support from the government. Until that is addressed, such criminal and immoral acts—unquestioned violations of Torah—may continue. The bottom line: those who take it upon themselves to deliver vigilante “justice” are nothing more than violent, fanatical zealots—in other words, they are terrorists.
One should always try to end with a nechamta (words of consolation). I wouldn’t have thought that possible in the case of the barbaric murders of four innocent children, yet it is. Two Palestinians from the Hebron area (I regret I don’t know their names, but I suspect they wish to remain anonymous) visited the Fraenkel family last Sunday, during shiva, to express their condolences personally. One of them said: “Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each other’s pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nation’s liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews… I see before me a Jewish family who has lost a son opening the door to me. That’s not obvious. It touched my heart and my nation. That same day, Naftali’s uncle Yishai called Hussein Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s father, to express, “our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family… There is no difference between those who murdered Muhammad and those who murdered our children…” Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, also spoke with Abu Khdeir to express his condolences on behalf of the residents of Jerusalem. May the deep humanity and sincerity of gestures and actions such as these turn the hearts of many others toward a just and lasting peace.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Let’s say you’re shopping at a mall. You’ve just pulled into a parking spot. You see two people running, one pursuing the other. The pursuer is holding a gun and waving it at the person running away from him, and he’s shouting, “You think you can get away with it, don’t you? I’m going to catch you and kill you. See if I don’t. You can’t escape me.” What to do? There is no time to call the police because the pursuer is gaining on his prey by the second. The din rodef tells us that not only may we kill the pursuer to prevent a murder, but we must kill the pursuer in this one narrow circumstance. (This of course assumes we have the means to kill the pursuer and prevent him from committing murder.) The din rodef also requires that the one who observes the pursuer must let him know that what he intends is a crime punishable by death, and the pursuer must acknowledge that he is aware of that. It’s difficult to imagine being able to fulfill these requirements and thereby fulfill the din rodef, isn’t it?