The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Pinchos and terrorism

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  1. A religious zealot who in his determination to rid the world of the wickedness and idolatry of the unbeliever bypasses the rule of law and the judicial processes (even those established by his own religion) and takes it upon himself to impose and carry out a summary death sentence on wrongdoers as a public act of vengeance, following which his god grants him, according to his religion, a reward of a covenant of peace and eternal life.
  2. A chilling description of the behaviour of certain terrorists acting in the name of Islam today.
  3. But is it also an accurate description of the behaviour of Pinchos in last week’s parashah and his reward in this?
  4. Pinchos is a zealot, for which characteristic he is expressly commended and rewarded (B’midbar 25:11).  He acts when the established leaders of the Jewish people consider themselves, deeply regretfully, unable to act in accordance with Torah law to suppress acknowledged idolatrous wrong-doing (25:6-7).  He imposes and carries out a summary death penalty (25:8).  The reward for his violence is a special hereditary bond with God and a promise of peace (B’midbar 25:12-13).
  5. There are of course a multitude of differences between Pinchos’ behaviour and the behaviour of today’s terrorists acting in the name of Islam.  The most significant is that Pinchos confined his anger to those who were directly responsible for performing idolatry in a deliberately provocative, offensive and public manner: the modern terrorists target the innocent along with the guilty.  And he acted only because he knew these wrong-doers to have incurred liability in accordance with Torah law for the death penalty, and that Moses and the elders were incapacitated as a result of righteous self-doubt born of Zimri’s sharp accusations about a superficial similarity of Moses’ own marital circumstances with the contemporary idolatrous behaviour.  Finally, Pinchos was able to trust that his violence on this occasion was motivated only by a proper desire to preserve the dignity of God because he had trained his instincts so that his normal inclinations were to be a true exponent of the love of peace exemplified by his grandfather Aharon.
  6. But a striking aspect of every one of the differences specified above is that in each case Pinchos’ righteousness is not apparent on the face of the Torah but depends on a knowledge of the midrashic and rabbinic constructions of the circumstances of his activities.
  7. There is another striking example in this week’s parashah of a similar notion.  God tells Moses to attack the Midianites (25:17 and 31:2).  But Moses does not perform this commandment himself, but appoints Pinchos as leader of the army (31:6).  The rabbis explain that Moses thought it would be wrong for him to attack the Midianites personally because they had sheltered him on his escape from Egypt (Sh’mos 2:15).  But since when was it for Moses to alter God’s commandment because he thought it wrong?!  I heard Dayan Lopian explain that because Moses knew that the concept of hakoras hatov (gratitude) is a fundamental part of God’s nature, he understood that any commandment from God to Moses had to be construed in such a way as to make compliance compatible with the principle of hakoras hatov (a little like, l’havdil, the operation of section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998).  Once again, then, the humanity of the Torah depends on giving a construction to its commandments in the context of, and subject to, the fundamental principles of Torah justice as expounded by the rabbis.  (As to why the commandment had to be expressed in this way rather than as an express command to send Pinchos, see the Ohr Hachayim on B’midbar 31:6.) (“The spirit of God hovered over the face of the water” (B’reishis 1:2) – in the case of the Torah, often symbolised by water in aggadic literature, one often finds the spirit of God not apparent on the surface but only after contextual elucidation.)
  8. We can learn two things from this about contemporary inter-faith relations.  First, we should remember that the justice and validity of Torah will not always be as apparent to others, who have to rely on the surface text out of context, as it is to us who are able to construe it in the light of tradition and an appreciation of context and background.  Secondly, if that is true of Torah it is likely to be true of other religions as well: when terrorists cite as support for their actions blood-curdling passages from the Koran which appear to admit only of a violent and unjust construction, we should be aware that the true clerics of Islam will be as assiduous in putting those passages in their proper context so as to derive a proper meaning from them, as we are in the case of our own religion.
  9. We enter on Sunday the three weeks of mourning for the Temple.  The Temple was a universal structure, open to and used by all humankind.  And so it will be again.  Different traditions and cultures will come together, as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, under the kingship of God as the final stage of a process which can begin only with each applying the most beneficial and generous construction to each other’s traditions and actions, and each seeking to find and support the best in each other.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

July 21, 2005 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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