We associate vigilantism with the Wild West and presume it is a thing of the past. In early mining communities, cow towns, and farm settlements of the late 1800s, law enforcement was virtually non-existent. Groups often coalesced to take matters into their own hands and mete out punishment without even the semblance of a trial, employing everything from harassment and blacklisting to torture and lynching. Often these groups were popular with the locals; just as often, they became intoxicated with their power and grew ruthless and corrupt. The moral line often blurred. That is always the case with vigilantism.
As I have read report after report of shootings of unarmed black men in this country, I wonder if we are seeing the insidious shadow of vigilantism today lurking in the background. Police officers and community patrols who are sworn to uphold the law and operate according to the rule of law, sometimes go far beyond it or completely outside it, effectively executing people without benefit of trial, judge, or jury. This is dangerously close to (if not outright) vigilantism—even with a badge. Trayvon Martin brought the problem into sharp focus, but recall Amadou Diallo who was sitting on his stoop in New York in 1999 when four police officers fired 19 bullets into him, claiming they mistook his wallet for a gun. There were many before and so many since: Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Sean Bell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Dante Price, Kimani Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Freddie Gray.
A horrifying example of vigilante thinking and behavior is found in this week’s parashah, Pinchas. In last week’s parashah, Balak, we read that following the idolatry committed by the Israelites at Ba’al Pe’or, God sends a plague to punish Israel and commands Moses to publicly impale the ringleaders. Before the punishment can be carried out, a man named Zimri brings a Midianite woman named Cozbi into the sacred domain of the Tent of Meeting where, in the sight of all, he commits an act of desecration by engaging with her sexually. Imbued with zeal for God and Torah, Pinchas grasps a spear and runs Zimri and Cozbi through with one stroke. To insure that we, the readers, understand this to be a “righteous” act, Torah tells us that the plague ceased immediately. This week’s parashah opens with an account of God’s reward to Pinchas for this act of zealotry:
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. יג וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם--תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
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 25:12-13)
Pinchas is a vigilante. He murders two people for committing an offensive act. There is no trial, no judge or jury, no sense of proportion—just passion and zealotry. Yet Torah explicitly confers its seal of approval, placing words of affirmation and gratitude in the mouth of God.
The story of Pinchas is troubling in two ways: First, Torah seems to be praising behavior we would today condemn as vicious and immoral. Second, in applauding this act of vigilantism, it might be used as a precedent to uphold the legitimacy of vigilante justice.
Let us consider, therefore, another account of vigilantism found in the Torah. In Exodus chapter 2 Moses murders an Egyptian taskmaster.
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ; וַיַּךְ, אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ, בַּחוֹל. יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָרָשָׁע, לָמָּה תַכֶּה, רֵעֶךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט, עָלֵינוּ--הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי; וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר, אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר.
Sometime after that, when Moses was grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk, and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, [Moses] struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. And he went out the next day, and, behold, two Hebrews were fighting, so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened and thought, “Then the matter is known.” (Exodus 2:11-14)
This is a clearcut example of vigilantism and the perpetrator is no less than Moses. Moses kills an Egyptian who, so far as we know, has not murdered anyone. The other Hebrews recognize his act as murder. Moses, realizing his murder of the Egyptian is extra-legal, flees Egypt. He runs away to Midian. Here is a case we can use to explore the troubling issue of vigilante justice.
The Rabbis expend considerable effort to explain this episode, indicating how troubling they found it. Exodus Rabbah 1:28 goes to great lengths to defend Moses. The midrash claims that the Egyptian taskmaster, having sexually assaulted a Hebrew woman whose husband learned of the attack on his wife, was plotting to kill the husband. Moses’ act, therefore, was not vigilantism: it prevented the murder of the innocent husband. Shades of Minority Report. All the details that would exonerate Moses, however, derive from the imaginations of the Rabbis, not the pages of Torah. Exodus Rabbah 1:29 considers Psalm 24:4 to be a rhetorical question: Who has not taken without cause any life? and Moses to be the answer to this question. But the midrash goes on to explain that when Moses “looked this way and that way,” he was consulting the heavenly court of angels, who gave their approval to his plan to kill the Egyptian taskmaster. This is a creative justification of Moses’ rash act, but it makes Moses a role model for violent vigilantism. The Rabbis do not leave the matter here.
Midrash Petirat Moshe offers us an entirely different approach. It considers Moses’ rash act to be morally grievous and sufficient grounds for precluding his entrance into the Land of Israel with the Israelites at the end of their 40-year journey. In the midrash, God asks Moses, “Did I authorize you to kill the Egyptian?” Moses responds that God slew the firstborn of all Egypt, therefore why should he (Moses) die on account of merely one Egyptian? God’s response is extraordinary: “Are you like Me? I take away life and I give it back. Can you restore life?” The midrash expresses an enormously important moral point: Just because we might judge something to be what God would do or approve does not mean we may do it in God’s name. Midrash ha-Gadol on Genesis makes this point explicitly. Drawing on Isaiah 59:15-17, which speaks of God clothing himself in garments of retribution and wrapping himself in zeal, the midrash warns: We may not emulate God in this way because retribution and zealotry belong to God alone: only God can properly control and dispense them. In human hands, retribution and zeal result in mayhem and murder.
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 too often far from rational. 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 the bumper stick: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This argument holds that humans are incapable of making ethical decisions on their own; ethics come from on-high. We cannot always understand God’s ways but we can choose to be obedient. This is a dangerous view.
In between the seemingly tacit approval of Torah to zealous acts of vigilantism, and the concrete moral behaviors we hope to practice in our own lives, is an entire world: The world of halakhah, which does not merely transmit God’s will, but like a fine and experienced chef, combines it with the seasonings of sensitivity, insight, perspective, human reason, logic, empirical evidence gathered from living in this world, and a liberal sprinkling of compassion. It is an enormous leap from the story of Zimri and Cozbi being skewered by Pinchas, to permission for a modern-day vigilantism, and halakhah would never condone that. It is precisely this process—that examines not only the Torah account, but the full breadth of Torah values and priorities—that prevents such accounts as this from being used to justify vengeful violence.
In American society, the analog to halakhah in cases like this is the rule of law and the judicial system. The guilt or innocence of a human being and appropriate punishment should be decided after proper defense and due consideration have been rendered in the sober light of day—the rule of law that we so rightly respect and cherish as a hallmark of decency and civilized society.
The account of Pinchas is neither license nor warrant for vigilantism. What is more, it serves as a stark reminder that we have a process for proceeding from narrative to the formulation of ethical principles, to the promulgation of guidelines for moral behaviors and the rule of law. When lives are at stake, we must raise the bar of justice as high as possible and insure that our standards do not descend into an abyss of racial bigotry and racist justification for what cannot, in any moral system, be justified.