At the end of last week’s parashah, Balak, there is a terrible and violent incident, where some of the children of Israel get caught up in a frenzied orgy of idol worship with Moabite tribes. Pinchas, who was an Israelite priest, grabbed a sword and killed the sinners, a gruesome end to an awful tale. And so in this week’s parashah, called Pinchas, an honorific gesture to the crusading reformer, we are left with an ethical dilemma on our hands.
Is the Torah condoning violence when a grievous sin is committed before God? “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back 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 him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendents after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:10-13)
Seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t it?
But we Jews have never really been literalists when it comes to the Torah text. We read the text in a way that is mediated by interpretation. The lens through which we view and understand Torah is called Midrash, a word that conveys the necessity to explain, to interpret that which has been handed down to us from prior generations.
“Moses received the Torah on Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.”
So begins Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, an early rabbinic text from the Greco-Roman period of the first century. These sages, the first rabbis in Jewish civilization, understood that the ancient text from Sinai was already more than a thousand years old by the time they received it. They knew that their age, their generation, was living in a different time, under other circumstances, and that if the Torah was to remain relevant and protected by that aforementioned “fence,” it would need a system of interpretation to allow it to continue to live.
And so they wrestled with the fanaticism of Pinchas in ways that diverged from the plain meaning of the Torah text they had inherited. In one Talmudic passage, the sages say that had Pinchas asked a rabbinical court if it was permissible to kill the perpetrators of the sin, the court would have answered, “The Law may permit it but we don’t follow the Law!” A radical statement indeed, where one might claim that the contemporary Jewish consciousness takes issue with and argues against a divinely mandated text. Another commentator, Moses of Coucy, a 13th century French scholar, insisted that while the killing took place in one portion, it’s not until a week later that Pinchas’ name gets attached to the Torah in order to demonstrate that we should always create distance between ourselves and our extremist impulses.
The scribes, whose job was to write the Torah text out, developed a tradition of spelling Pinchas’ name with a diminished “yod,” also the first letter of God’s name, to indicate that in fact God was diminished when violence was committed in God’s name. And finally, the scribes also wrote out a broken “vav” in the word “shalom” in this parashah, to demonstrate the brokenness of Pinchas’ actions — that his violence was the exact opposite of peace.
Some might argue that these interpretations, these explanations, these midrashim, are nonsense, that they alter the very plain meaning of the text. It’s clear, after all, that, God does reward Pinchas. There is no way around that. And surely we can think of instances when violence is used for just causes.
This morning’s New York Times carried a beautiful obituary about Max Fuchs, a New Yorker, veteran of Normandy and Aachen, who also served as a cantor in the US Army and afterward at his shul in Bayside, Queens. Fuchs was never one to speak of the trauma of his battles but was well aware that the battle against Hitler and Nazism was a righteous battle. His fellow chaplain, Rabbi Sidney Lefkowitz, was quoted as describing their chaplaincy in the war with the words, “How sweet upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger of good tidings. The light of religious freedom has pierced through the darkness of Nazi persecution.”
The heroism, the light of righteousness, the just cause. These weigh heavily upon our minds, as they always should.
The Jewish tradition speaks in many voices. It is the great, sustaining strength of our peoplehood. The multi-vocal record of interpretation allows each of us to stake a claim, to grab hold of the text, to argue with it for the “sake of heaven” and to always be challenged to respond ethically and responsibly when doing anything in the name of God and Tradition.
It’s fitting to remember the prophet Micah’s words from last week’s haftarah, that we are meant to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” Humility, the prophets and the rabbis agreed, is meant to be the characteristic foundation beneath our feet.
In our own present age of bitter division and righteous indignation, we might consider it our duty to speak civilly, peaceably, respectfully — even when pursuing what we know in our hearts to be a righteous cause — and to remember the ethical warnings, the fence around Torah, if you will, that our sages built, by necessity, to warn us against the propensity to be like Pinchas.
Max Fuchs wasn’t just a cantor and a veteran of two of the most important battles of the Second World War. He was a diamond cutter. About his work he once said, “You can take a diamond that’s, let’s say, a broken diamond, and you bring it back into shape…It’s a masterpiece, like Picasso.”
Let us take what is broken in our world and with love and merciful intention, make masterpieces of justice and peace in our world.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.