Parshat Pinchas

Losing It:
The Talmud's teaching on Pinchas, God and zealotry

(Or: The Sephardi Chief Rabbi's betrayal of Talmudic Judaism)

A Dvar Torah prepared for Parshat Pinchas, 1997

I first encountered Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron whose zealotry earned him God's covenant of peace, as a 12-year-old, preparing this week's Torah portion for my own Bar Mitzvah. In a portion filled with endless genealogies and lists of sacrifices, the story of Pinchas was a welcome ray of plot. Who would imagine that three decades later, the Chief Rabbi of Israel would make headlines for his sermonizing on Pinchas?

First, a quick recap of the story: At the beginning of this week's portion, God grants his Covenant of Peace to Pinchas for his decisive actions at the end of last week's portion. In the final days before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites had gone "awhoring" after the daughters of Moab. God, in His wrath, responded by sending a plague. When Moses turned to God for guidance, he was told to execute the leaders of the sinners. But even as Moses began marshaling his forces, Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, cavorted Cozbi, a princess of the Midianites. Moses was frozen and the people burst into tears. But Pinchas went after the wicked couple and speared them in the act-- thereby, according to the Torah, averting God's wrath and ending the plague which had already claimed 24,000 Israelites.

Twenty years ago, I felt comfortable with the description of Pinchas in the Hertz commentary then universal in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues as a man "inspired by motives absolutely pure and holy." These days, zealotry of people convinced of their purity of their purpose has become monotonously familiar. Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir.... there seems no shortage of God's zealots. And Pinchas, blessed by God for his zeal, is a model for them all. You don't even have to be Jewish to love Pinchas: A group of Christian fundamentalist extremists calling themselves the Sons of Phineas have been robbing banks in the American South for the past couple years, hoping to finance their Christian revolution.

Pinchas '96

That's why Sephardi Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron made the papers in 1996 when he compared Zimri and Cozbi's interfaith liaison to the "plague of intermarriage" -- which he asserted was caused by Reform Judaism. What to do? In times of plague, he reminded his listeners, desperate acts are sometimes necessary. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more. Death threats began pouring into the Jerusalem offices of the Reform movement from yeshiva pay phones. Incitement to kill? The chief rabbi denied he had meant any harm and the Israeli police decided not to file charges.

Yet if Pinchas seems frightening -- his sword seemingly aimed at all of us who don't follow the Orthodox party line on theology and politics -- we have to give him his due. Wasn't his zealotry in fact pleasing to God? Isn't decisive action called for in time of plague?

Let's take this argument one step further. If intermarriage is indeed a "spiritual Holocaust," as Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald told New York Magazine, isn't desperate action appropriate to avert a Holocaust? Would we object to a Pinchas who killed a genocidal dictator?

And while the sociological forces behind intermarriage would not be affected by the elimination of even the most important Reform rabbis, what if Rabbi Bakshi Doron's view of the world was correct and a murder or two could actually guarantee Jewish continuity? Would we not consider Pinchas the terrorist a role model?

Chief Rabbi's Sin

Thus far, I've been following the Chief Rabbi's lead and committing a cardinal sin in Judaism: Reading the Bible. The fact is that our Judaism reads the Torah filtered through the Talmud, and as it happens, the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin, page 82) has an extended discussion of Pinchas. And what the Talmud has to say provides some important clues for how we today can deal with the Pinchas problem.

Not that the passage starts off comforting. For while the Torah relates the story of Pinchas as a story, not an explicit Divine command, the Mishna -- the third century legal code at the center of the Talmud -- turns Pinchas into an explicit role model: "One who has sex with a Gentile woman -- zealots kill him," rules the Mishna, in a passage that permits a handful of other extrajudicial executions. For the Mishna, Pinchas' practice is normative -- and source of a rather drastic solution to intermarriage.

Fortunately, the Mishna is only the starting point for the Talmud, which records 350 years of further rabbinic discussion, which begins by Rabbi Kahane -- no relation to the 20th century would-be Pinchas of Brooklyn -- asking Rav, "What's his punishment if the zealots don't kill him?" In other words, how should we non-zealots view intermarriage?

When asked this question, Rav presciently quotes the sage of the mellow decade, Steve Martin: "I forgot!"

This might be the first lesson the Talmud is teaching here -- that we should be suspicious of those who remember certain things too well. Rabbi Meir Kahane of Brooklyn could rattle off every chapter and verse justifying cruelty to gentiles and Jews. That sort of erudition, the Talmud seems to imply, is as far from wisdom as remembering is from forgetting.

Personal Loss, not Holocaust

The Talmudic Rabbi Kahane, lacking an answer from Rav, may have perhaps turned to the Report of the Babylonian Commission on Jewish Continuity for an answer to his question, for he fell asleep. In his dream, Rabbi Kahane reads this verse from the prophet Malachi:

"Judah hath dealth treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath been intimate with the daughter of a strange god. (Malachi 2:11)"

The next morning he tells it to Rav, who remembers what he had been taught concerning Haboel Aramis -- One who has sex with a Gentile woman.

Each clause of the verse in Malachi, relates the Talmudic Rabbi Kahane, refers to a different sin: idolatry, homosexuality, prostitution and, of course, "the daughter of a strange god," refers to sex with a Gentile. With this verse now referring to our issue of intermarriage, Rabbi Kahane proceeds to quote the next verse, where God warns of the consequences of his anger:

"The Lord will cut off the men that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the Lord of Hosts."

Rabbi Kahane explains this to mean that if a man has sex with a Gentile, if he is a scholar he will not be quoted or heeded in the house of Study -- and if he is a priest he will not have his son follow him in the Temple rite.

In other words, there will be a loss of Jewish continuity. For Rabbi Kahane and his colleagues, this is perhaps the most grievous possible consequence.

But note: The not unexpected disassociation from the core of the Jewish people is a far cry from the death penalty imposed by Pinchas and endorsed by the Mishna. With this exegesis, intermarriage has become a private sin with private consequences. It is not a "Holocaust." Accordingly, the inevitable "cure" for an "epidemic" would not be vigilante justice, but enabling people to experience the joys of Torah study that make its loss such a curse for Rabbi Kahane.

God's Morality

Now, one of the basic principles of Talmud study is that when all the Rabbis agreed, there was no need to write it down; only the disagreements were worth recording. So if two rabbis are quoted in subsequent passages as saying what seems to be identical points, then the student of Talmud must look beyond the appearances to find the actual disagreement. We have such a situation here, because the Talmud proceeds to quote Rabbi Hiyah bar Abuyah, in reference to our question of intermarriage and the quoted verse from Malachi, as follows:

"He who is intimate with a heathen woman is as though he had entered into a marriage relationship with an idol." In other words, those who would make a capital offense of intermarriage are right: it really is idolatry, a "spiritual Holocaust."

And to drive home this view -- diametrically at odds with that of Rabbi Kahane - a bizarre ghost story is now quoted in Rabbi Hiyah's name. It seems he came upon a skull in Jerusalem with the words, "this and more" written on it. He buried it, but the skull emerged from the ground. The rabbi realized that it must have been the King Jehoiakim, who had been cursed with "the burial of an ass." But out of respect for the king, he took the skull home and wrapped it up. His wife found the skull and her friends warned her that it must be that of her husband's first wife. So she burnt it in the oven. When Rabbi Hiyah came home and found out what happened, he said that was what "this and more" had meant. He saw that God's curse on King Jehoiakim had taken effect.

The moral of this story, it would appear, is that while we might think even a sinner deserves certain respect, God reserves the right to be harsher. Does Pinchas seem too harsh? Too bad, implies Rabbi Hiyah. God has his own moral counsel.

Moderate Hairsplitting

Between this brutal acceptance of Pinchas and the previous rejection of the Mishna's premise that crime needs punishment lies a legalistic, halachic narrowing of the deed so as to make it safe. Pinchas, and the more general Mishnaic prescription of "Zealots kill him", refer to only limited cases. As the Talmud says: "Someone who asks for a ruling [permitting the zealous killing] you don't give it to him. If Zimri had pulled out [and was not in the act of sinful coitus when killed], Pinchas would have been liable for murder. And if Zimri had turned and killed Pinchas, he would be acquitted; it would have been in self defense."

In effect, the Talmud is trying to legislate away Pinchas to rare circumstance. There is no general license for zealotry.

This middle approach sounds less comfortable today than it would have in 1977. Today we understand that fanatics by nature don't expect to get back alive. We understand zealots willing to commit suicide if they can kill the evildoers; we know that they while they feel they are acting out God's will, they little expect to end up in a courtroom, smirking through their trial. They expect their acquittal in the next world.

Having sketched out three ways to understand the Mishna's ruling, the Talmud now proceeds to tell the story of Pinchas in a midrash that, as we will see, acknowledges these points.

The midrash begins with Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon. His people approach him: "Moses is holding court against the sinners" -- which is to say, us -- "and you're doing nothing?"

So Zimri gathers his 24,000 followers, and approaches Cozbi, princess of Midian. "Hey babe, how about it?"

"Can't do," she replies. "My father told me to hold out for the big guy" -- Moses. This is nothing personal; it's political and spiritual warfare. Cozbi is out to commit spiritual genocide. This is the story as Rabbi Hiyah understood it.

Zimri then plays the old "my tribe is bigger than his tribe" argument -- Moses is a Levite, tribe #3; Shimon is tribe #2. Not being well-informed on Jewish politics, Cozbi falls for the line.

Yo! Moses!

Zimri is playing his own political game, so he brings his date before Moses, sitting in judgment with the other Jewish leaders.

"Hey! Son of Amram! Is this girl permitted or forbidden? And if she's treif -- what about your Midianite wife? Who permitted her?"

Moses is no paragon of ethnic virtue. Raised by an Egyptian princess, married to the daughter of a Midianite priest -- who is he to lead the fight against intermarriage? Confused, Moses is silent. He too has forgotten the Law. This impotent silence brings the people to tears.

At this point, Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, Moses' brother, approaches. "Uncle Moses, didn't you teach us the law at Sinai, 'haboel aramis kanaain pogin bo' -- One who has relations with a Gentile women, zealots kill him?" Pinchas is quoting the Mishna -- since, after all, for the Rabbis of the Talmud the Oral Law of the Mishna had been given by God to Moses at Sinai. Moses was silent because in his embarrassment, he had forgotten the Mishna.

Reminded by Pinchas of the Mishna, Moses also remembers the commentary of the Talmud -- that if a zealot asks for a ruling, asks for permission for the execution, you don't give it. So Moses is coy: "He who reads the letter should carry it out," he says with a wink. Here is the legalistic approach in all its gory glory.

So Pinchas heads over to the Shimonite encampment, where Zimri and Cozbi are now happily ensconced. The Talmud understands that the entrance of the priest to a company of sinners would be suspicious. Pinchas takes the head off his spear and pockets it, using the rest of the spear as a staff. (From here the Talmud learns the principle that you cannot take an unsheathed weapon -- a loaded gun -- into the study hall.)

Pinchas is stopped by the Shimonite guards. What's the Pharisee doing here with us sinners? Pinchas has a reply: "Who says we Levites don't know how to have fun?" The guards, who would like to believe that real priests do know how to party, let him in.

At this point, Pinchas is dependent on six miracles enumerated by the Talmud. First, Zimri doesn't withdraw -- which, as we said, would end Pinchas' halachic dispensation for murder. Second, Zimri doesn't call out and have Pinchas killed -- which would be his legal right. Thirdly, Pinchas skewers them both in the private parts -- his excellent aim proving to one and all that they were in the act. Pinchas then lifts up the shishkabobbed couple (Miracle #4: They don't slide off; #5: He doesn't knock the tent down) and then holds them aloft. Finally, he is able to escape unharmed by Zimri's followers (miracle #6).

At this point, Pinchas speaks, addressing God:

"For these you killed 24,000 Jews!?"

Pinchas vs. God

It is a harsh challenge; so harsh that the angels want to rush and defend God's honor and eradicate Pinchas. God stops them. Pinchas is judging God. This is what Rabbi Eliezer had taught, concerning the verse in Psalms retelling the story of Pinchas. "And Pinchas prayed" reads the standard translation of Psalm 106:30. You shouldn't read prayed, insists Rabbi Eliezer, but "judged." Pinchas judged God.

And his judgment was the position of Rava at the beginning of this Talmudic passage. For this private crime God is killing the community? Pinchas is challenging God's wrath.

Even to those of us who agree with Rava, finding that position in the mouth of Pinchas comes as an unexpected shock. Is this the right reading of the Talmudic text? The answer comes from the continuation of the passage. The midrashic retelling of Pinchas concludes with Pinchas returning safely to Moses and being honored by God.

The Talmud then begins a curious line of discussion:

"R. Nahman said in Rav's name: What is the meaning of the verse "`A greyhound, and a he-goat, and a king, against whom there is no rising up (Prov. 30: 31)?'"

Using a series of bad puns and gematria, Rabbi Nahman interprets the verse as follows: Zimri went at it 424 times with Cozbi, until he finally tired out and Pinchas sneaked up on him. Imagine: 424 times!

And the Gemara proceeds to add even more graphic detail:

"60 times, until he became like an addled egg., while she became like a furrow filled with water. R. Kahane said: And her seat was a beth seah -- a field requiring a seah of seed. R. Joseph learned: Her womb opening was a cubit."

Why is the Talmud telling us this? Did we really need all this detail?

The answer is that the Talmud is echoing the position of Rava: The sin of Zimri and Cozbi was a crime of carnality. It was about gross appetites, perhaps an excess from which we are meant to recoil. But was it high treason? Was it apostasy?

The Talmud, with these passages, is asking us to echo the words Rava put in the mouth of Pinchas: "For this, for these, O Lord, you kill 24,000 of our people?"

That's our Talmudic mandate: Not to endorse the judgment and execution, but to challenge it.