Zealous acts are portrayed as noble acts in our tradition. This is illustrated in the story begun last week and concluded in this week’s parsha named for the zealot Pinchas.
Pinchas confronted the Jewish prince Zimri in an act of idolatrous promiscuity with a Midianite woman. He “took a spear in his hand…and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly.” For this he is commended by the Almighty, who says, “Pinchas…was very zealous for My sake…therefore…I give unto him My covenant of peace…because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.”
Clearly, zealotry is divinely approved. Yet, suppose you witnessed such an immoral act about to take place and asked me, your rabbi, whether or not you should thrust a spear through the two sinners. Would I be permitted to encourage you to emulate Pinchas?
The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, tells us that Moses himself was uncertain as to whether this act of taking human lives was permissible. Indeed, the Talmud states that if someone inquires whether or not to commit an act of extreme zealotry, he should be instructed not to do so.
Yet elsewhere in the Bible and in postbiblical writings, we find others who performed similar acts of zealotry. The prophet Elijah, whose story we read in the haftara this Shabbat (I Kings 18:46-19:21) and whom our sages equate with Pinchas, says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord…. The children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant….”
And we read that the high priest Matityahu, from the Hanukka story, “saw a Jewish man about to offer a sacrifice on an alien altar…and he was zealous, and swiftly slaughtered the man…and smashed the altar to bits; thereby, he was zealous on behalf of the Torah just as Pinchas had done to Zimri.” (Maccabees I: 1:45-50)
What a paradox! Three great heroes, all praised highly for their zealotry. And yet, anyone today inquiring of a rabbi or a Jewish court whether to emulate them and zealously harm a sinner would not receive permission to do so.
It is apparent that such acts of zealotry are limited to those whose motives are the purest and who are moved by their sincere desire to restore the glory of God when it is publicly profaned.
This is a most timely lesson. Many Jews today are stirred to protest actions and statements that to them seem blasphemous or immoral. But they dare not act, and certainly not violently; they must be certain their motives are as pure and authentic as were those of Pinchas, Elijah, and Matityahu. And none among us can be that certain. We must conform to an almost opposite Torah value: tolerance.
This lesson is found in the very text that tells of Pinchas’s zealotry. After he commits his violent act, the Almighty concludes His statement of approval with the gift of “My covenant of peace.” Many commentaries emphasize this covenant was given as a corrective to demonstrate that although zealotry is sometimes warranted, the ultimate Jewish value is peace.