Parshat Pinchas 5782: Defining “Zealot”

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Pinchas is being sponsored by Seth and Esther Grossman of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated Lilui nishmas his father Dovid ben Menachem Munish (David Grossman z”l). To the Grossman family, many thanks for your sponsorship and continued kindness.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Pinchas 5782: Defining “Zealot”

by Moshe Burt

Our vort on Parshat Pinchas opens with excerpts from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Parsha summary for Parshat Balak in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text,” Sefer Bamidbar (pages 218):

The Jews dwelt in Shittim, where they began to consort with women of Moav and are drawn towards the idolatrous worship of the Ba’al Pe’or. (The Midrash and the Talmud attribute these events to a scheme contrived by Bila’am.) As a result, Hashem’s anger was kindled against the nation.

R’ Goldin expresses, that “our fate is determined by our own merit or guilt” (ibid, page 251) and there appear numerous instances throughout Tanach where B’nei Yisrael suffered due to the sins of successive generations, i.e. “what was displeasing in Hashem’s eyes.” (Repeated citations throughout Tanach)

In contemplating our Parshat Pinchas and condemnations from among the B’nei Yisrael regarding Pinchas and his action in response to the Zimri and Kozbi cohabitation, this author deems it crucial to understand the lead-in — the conclusion of Parshat Balak, as expressed in Torah (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 24, posuk 25 and Perek 25, posukim 1-3, 6, as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash):

“Israel settled in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav. They [the Moavim] invited the people to the feasts of their deities [MB — my term]; the people ate and prostrated themselves to their [the Moavi] deities [MB — my term]. Israel became attached to the Ba’al-peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared against Israel.” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posukim 1-3)

“Behold, a man of the B’nei Yisrael [Zimri, a Nasi (Prince) of Shevet Shimon] came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of the entire assembly of the B’nei Yisrael; and they were weeping at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed [the Tent of Meeting].” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 6)

As an aside, it seems strange that Zimri, the leader of Shevet (tribe of) Shimon, the Shimon who, with Levi, centuries before acted against Shechem and the Shechemites after Shechem violated their sister Dina, would now act and condone co-habitation with other than B’not Yisrael.

R’Rafael Katzenellenbogen is cited in Studies in the Weekly Parsha on Parshat, by Yehuda Nachshoni, referring to R’ Sonnenfeld who noted that Zimri’s distorted sense of “acting for the sake of Shemayim” evolved from;

“…a novel, misleading ideology, that evil must be tolerated by incorporating it into the Camp of Israel, to dissuade the lustful man from finding himself in the camp of idolaters.” (Studies in the Weekly Parsha, by Yehuda Nachshoni, Parsha Balak, page 1115.)

Zimri’s alleged “L’Shem Shemayim” model; bringing co-habitation with Moabite women into the camp of B’nei Yisrael lest men go looking for it outside, i.e., at the Midianite/Moabite Bazaar where the co-habitation was an enticement and seduction to the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or, seemed a cover for his (Zimri’s) true motivations and intentions. Zimri’s “In your face, Moshe” demeanor appeared as motivated by lust for power, just as Korach’s true motivations were covered by rationale of accusation of nepotism against Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron.

Rabbi Goldin asks questions and provides a framework regarding Pinchas’ actions in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text” (pages 255-256):

Through the suspension of the deadly plague and through bestowal of Divine reward, Hashem indicates his approval of Pinchas’ apparent vigilantism.

One could well ask, however, by what right does Pinchas take the law into his own hands? How does Halachic law, in general, view such solitary acts of zealotry?

The Halachic verdict concerning Pinchas’ actions can be best described as one of striking ambivalence.

On the one hand, the Talmud includes the circumstances facing Pinchas in its list of situations in which Halachic law permits zealots to enter the breach and summarily execute perpetrators in the very act of their crimes. (Rabbi Goldin citing Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6) This legal allowance for zealotry is even identified as one of the few regulations directly transmitted by Hashem orally to Moshe at Sinai. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a)

On the other hand, the Rabbis also maintain that this right of zealotry falls into a small, puzzling category of laws described as “Halacha V’ein morin kein,” “law that one may not teach.” (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a) Had Pinchas sought Halachic advice before acting, he would have been instructed to refrain. (ibid)

The puzzling rulings indicate that, while actions like those performed by Pinchas may be Halachically allowed, they are not uniformly Halachically embraced.

The complex, seemingly contradictory Rabbinic attitude towards Pinchas’ actions rises out of the delicate balance struck by Halachic law as it navigates between two conflicting truths:

1/ The Halachic system, deeply committed to the deliberate application of the rule of law, can rarely, if ever, condone the decision to act beyond due legal process.

2/ A legal system that does not allow for immediate, extraordinary reaction to moments of great exigency [requiring immediate action or aid; urgent; pressing. requiring a great deal, or more than is reasonable] cannot survive, certainly not across the course of turbulent history.

To address [this delicate balance in Halachic law] created by these competing realities, Halachic law creates the category of “hora’at sha’a,” emergency decrees. (Rabbi Goldin citing S. Y. Zevin, ed., Encyclopedia Talmudit, Volume 8, Hora’at Sha’a) This legal category allows for extraordinary extra-legal decisions and actions under exceptional circumstances.

Even actions taken under the [circumstances] of “hora’at sha’a,” however, require the approval of prophetic or legal authority. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:3, Hilchot Sanhedrin 24:4) Zealotry, such as that evidenced by Pinchas…. [is where] Halacha contemplates the possibility of individual action, precipitously taken in cases of greatest urgency. The hesitation with which Halachic law approaches such zealous acts is most clearly exhibited in the… principle, that the rules allowing and governing such acts are “Halacha V’ein morin kein,” “law that one may not teach….” Were someone to request Halachic psak (ruling) prior to the performance of an act of zealotry, he would be told not to act.

So, how do we go about defining a Zealot?

Torah states:

“And it shall be for him [Pinchas] and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he vengeance for his G’d, and he atoned for the B’nei Yisrael.” (Sefer Bamidbar Perek 25, posuk 13 rendered to English in the Sapirstein Edition, The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary)

Rabbi Goldin presents various understandings of commentators as to Zealotry (ibid, pages 257-258):

Some commentaries suggest that Halachic hesitation arises out of the fact that zealotry is an allowance, rather than an obligation. Respecting deep visceral [adjective: characterized by or proceeding from instinct rather than intellect: a visceral reaction] reaction to the crime, Hashem allows him to respond. He is, however, not commanded to do so. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbeinu Yerucham, Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a)

Other authorities perceive Halachic hesitation concerning zealotry as reflective of uncertainty concerning the motives of the zealot. To qualify as a zealot, one “must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of Hashem.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Torah Temima on Sefer Bamidbar Perek 25, posuk 13) Such priority of motive. however, is rare. Most often, other less legitimate factors influence a person’s decision to act under the cover of zealotry. The sages of Pinchas’ time, therefore, suspicious of their hero’s motives, move to excommunicate him, only to be stopped by a Divine decree attesting to his genuineness. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Torah Temima on Sefer Bamidbar Perek 25, posuk 13)

Some scholars, however, see the complex Halachic approach to zealotry as reflective of an even more basic issue.

Zealotry can be acceptable, suggests these authorities, only when it is true zealotry — when the act is emotionally driven, performed in the heat of the moment, without hesitation or calculation.

An act of zealotry… emerges as the singular exception to the general rule of Halachic law. To qualify as a permissible act of zealotry, the deed must be performed without, rather than with, Halachic consultation. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rashi on Talmud Bavli 82a) Judgement can only take place in retrospect, as the Halacha determines, after the fact, whether or not this individual is a true zealot, justified in his actions.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe noted in regard to Pinchas’ action (Studies in the Weekly Parsha, by Yehuda Nachshoni, Parshat Balak, page 1113);

“He impaled the woman through the belly”; “He aimed his spear between their male and female members, proving that he did not kill them in vain.” Why would we think that he had killed them in vain? Rather, the Torah here alludes to the law that a zealot has free reign only while the act is in progress.

What the Lubavitcher Rebbe appears to be describing is another legal point…, the concept known under the loshen; Kannoi Pogim Bo — that a zealot witnessing a co-habitation between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman may slay them both only provided that the slaying occurs as they co-habit. (bottom of Sanhedrin 81b through top of 82a)

This author now excerpts two points from The website which provide further explanation as to zealotry regarding the case of Pinchas:

4/ Whenever a man has relations with a gentile woman in public, i.e., the relations are carried out in the presence of ten or more Jews, if a zealous person strikes him and kills him, he is considered praiseworthy and ardent.9 [This applies whether the relations were] in the context of marriage or licentious in nature. This matter is a halachah conveyed to Moshe at Sinai.10 Support for this can be derived from Pinchas’ slaying of Zimri.11

5/ The zealous person can strike [the fornicators] only at the time of relations, as was the case with regard to Zimri, as [Numbers 25:8] states: “[He pierced] the woman into her stomach.”12 If, however, [the transgressor] withdraws,13 he should not be slain. Indeed, if [the zealous person] slays him, he may be executed [as a murderer].14

If the zealous person comes to ask permission from the court to slay him, they do not instruct him [to],15 even if this takes place at the time [of relations]. Not only that, if the zealous person comes to kill the transgressor and he [the transgressor, in the case here — Zimri] withdraws and kills the zealous person [in this case, Pinchas] in order to save himself, the transgressor is not executed for killing him.16

Rabbi Goldin concludes (Unlocking the Torah Text, Sefer Bamidbar, page 258):

These and other observations in Judaism’s scholarly literature reflect the deep legal and philosophical complexities raised by actions like those of Pinchas at Ba’al Pe’or.

At the dawn of Judaism’s history, at a time of great crisis, a solitary man courageously steps forward to defend Hashem’s name. In doing so, he not only responds to the needs of the moment, but challenges us across the ages to confront the place of the zealot in Judaism’s thought and law.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now free of his parole and restrictions and that he is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of seven years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.