Rabin dr Walter Rothschild
The sidra 'Pinchas’ starts in the middle of an horrific episode and it starts in a way that is not only surprising, but shocking – God APPROVES of the impetuous violent actions of Pinchas the son of Elazar, a grandson of Aharon, a Cohen, who has just murdered two people ’in flagrante’ because they were not only of two different genders but also of two different religions. (It would be an interesting topic for discussion, just how seriously either of them has been taking their religion; the Torah also tells us their names and their social status but little about how they met, whether they were in love, whether it was their first time…..) This incident is a major challenge to everyone who has read the story since. Can we understand what is happening? Can we support the actions taken? Do we distance ourselves from it, and if so, how?
To be fair, the incident as described in Numbers 25:6-9 – the verses just before this week’s sidra starts – does not seem to have much to do with romance or eroticism; instead it seems to be a deliberate act of rebellion, a flaunting of their utter disregard of God and of Moses. With Korach there had been a political crisis; now there is a religious crisis. The Moabite and Midianite religion is clearly very attractive to the Israelites who have, let’s face it, spent their lives until now in the desert, in tents, eating manna. Suddenly there are sacrifices – Meat! – and probably alcohol, there is presumably music and dancing and attractive young ladies wearing very little (and wearing even less under the very little they are wearing) and so the Israelites seem to have no difficulty in turning away from an austere, abstract, strict religion which has mainly consisted until now of prohibitions and punishments and future promises. They decide to try out the local gods; Who seem to offer Fun.
Monotheism is NOT easy. The idea that there is only ONE deity who is responsible for EVERYTHING, both the good and the bad in life, in the universe, is often hard to accept. Let us be honest about this. A large proportion of the world is still committed to polytheism or animism, a belief in natural powers in each tree or mountain or up in the sky, a different deity responsible for each aspect of human life. After all, in normal life you would go to a different specialist to have a car repaired or to get your hair cut or your appendix taken out, you would not expect one person to be a skilled specialist in absolutely everything. So it makes sense to assume that there is one god for winning wars and another for making the crops grow or your cows calve and a different one for making sure your wife gets pregnant or protecting your children from illness. You would want to make sure you were in the good favour of each of these, so you would go to their shrine or temple, make a donation or a small gift, either to the priests or to the god him- or herself, make a few gestures, bow down, whatever. We know that in some shrines there was alcohol to drink or herbs to smoke, and in some there was even 'holy sex’, a way of reminding the god not to forget what he had to do.
What with one thing and another there was probably little difficulty in getting a minyan each day. One positive aspect of Polytheism – which is often overlooked – is that it is usually very tolerant of other gods. Somebody who worships five or six gods at the same time has little problem in getting on (religiously) with another person who has another four or five gods. Possibly they can swap anecdotes and recipes and good ideas for sacrifices. The person who already has many gods will not feel so threatened by there being others. Whereas the person who believes there is only ONE God will see in this variety an abomination, a denial of this basic truth.
(Incidentally, this is one of the major theological issues between Judaism and certain forms of Christianity, where – as well as the problem of the Trinity – there seems to be a whole army of different saints and holy people of undefined or mythic status, to whom one can pray for specific issues and problems, rather than to God alone.)
And so it is with Pinchas. But also with the writer of this narrative. He uses very strong language – the Israelites ”commit harlotry / prostitution” with the local girls; they eat of the pagan sacrifices, they bow down to the pagan statues and symbols. The god of the Midianites is described in verse 3 as ’Ba’al Pe’or’ – the verbal root ’Peh/Ayin/Resh usually means either to be very greedy, or to excrete. So this Ba’al is the Ba’al, the Master of Shit. Thus we see sexual and lavatorial terminology (which has nothing to do with the fact that in verse 1 they are in Shittim!) This is described not just as irreligious behaviour, this is disgusting behaviour. So it is no surprise that God notices and gets (once again) very angry.
Here we see (again) a very important, basic principle of Judaism from the earliest times. The intention is NOT to make the Midianites believe in God; it is to stop the Israelites NOT believing in God. The Israelites are – through their birth – members of a covenant, a Brit; If they lapse, they are breaking a contract with God. It is a lifetime contract and they are not offered any easy way out. In this case the Midianites and Moabites and all the others, with their festivities and rituals, are not condemned because they are pagans – No – they are welcome to continue on their own paths, but they are condemned because they are seducing the Israelites away from THEIR true path, the belief in and service of the One God. (Who, let us not forget, warned us in Exodus chapter 20 that He could get very jealous if people turned away to serve any other gods.) God does not want the Israelites to missionise amongst the heathen; God wants the Israelites to stay away from the heathen, not to mix with them, not to mingle with them, not to absorb their customs. God does not want the Israelites to teach the Canaanites how to be good Israelites – God wants the Israelites to stay distinct from the Canaanites and not absorb their customs, their religion and their form of morality. Not to assimilate.
For almost the entire rest of Jewish history – which at this point has hardly started – the Jews will be a small minority in the world. Although some Jews will glorify a minor regional tribal leader like David, they will never have extensive empires like those of the Babylonians or the Assyrians, or the Hellenists, or like Alexander the Great, or like the Ottomans or the Mongols or the Moguls or the Byzantines or the Austro-Hungarians or the Tsars or – heaven help us – the Nazis. They will never spread across entire continents like Christians and Moslems or Communists or Maoists. No, they will remain always a small minority in the world, constantly exposed to the threat of being further diluted and absorbed and swallowed by other, surrounding cultures. In many cases they will huddle together for security, in other cases they will be forced to huddle together by external pressure. There will be ”Jewish areas” or ”Jewish suburbs” or ”ghettoes” and – from time to time – a single small state run by and for Jews.
Since we know this is the case, it seems obvious. But is it obvious, really? This exclusivity? Of course there were periods when Judaism felt more capable of opening up to new members – indeed in the 'New Testament’, in Matthew 23 verse 15 Jesus criticises the Pharisees for being prepared to go to great lengths to convert people. This is ironic, because if it means that Jesus himself, as a good Jew, was opposed to missionising – then why do Christians still missionise in his name? But – well, that is not OUR problem.
Our problem lies in finding a way through this complex issue of a monotheism which is at the same time Inclusive – for we acknowledge that the One God created Everybody, including the non-Jews – and Exclusive – for we have a specific relationship and a specific task to perform, as a People and as individual Jews. Pinchas resolves the issue very brutally – he does not reason with the Midianite, nor with the Israelite, he murders them both very publicly, to make sure that everyone else gets the message. What were these two doing? Not just having sex – this is natural and normal – but using sex as a form of quasi-religious fervour, in public, deliberately at the very door of the Ohel M’ed, the tent where God is to be encountered. Maybe a modern equivalent would be spraying graffiti on a religious building, trying to desecrate it.
In the meantime God has commanded Moses to arrange the public execution of the leaders of the Israelites for weakly allowing this to happen! And Moses has urged the judges (whoever they are) to massacre anyone who has already lapsed and worshipped Ba’al Pe’or. In a way, it is a repetition of the violent events following the worship of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:26-28. So this is a major, major crisis. And yet the only killing we read of is the one performed, not by a judge, not by a soldier, but by a priest, incensed and driven to violence by his fervour and his rage. NOT the sort of person one would normally like to meet. We do not get told this time how many direct casualties there are but the text refers to a 'plague’, a ’Magefa’ which kills 24,000 before it stops, and maybe this is the term for the catastrophe as a whole.
Intriguingly, the Sidra starts in the middle of the narrative, even in the middle of a chapter. It is as though whoever decided upon these things wanted to make sure that we separate the deed from the reaction, to keep them a week apart. Then in chapter 26 it will be necessary to count all the twelve tribes again, for each has lost an average of 2,000 men, plus the Levites. In chapter 27 five sisters appear to register a complaint that, just because their father had no sons before he died, his name is in danger of being forgotten – and a solution has to be quickly found. It is. Following this, Moses is permitted to see the land which he may not enter and he appoints Joshua formally as his successor – consecrated by the priest Elazar, but not himself a priest.
God describes Pinchas as having been ”kineh” for God – ”zealous” or even fanatical – and also ”kiper al-B’nei-Yisrael” – he has ”atoned” for them. He promises him and his descendants an ”eternal priesthood”. He then appoints Pinchas to be in a sense the first military chaplain, to accompany the army (31:6) in the next campaign against the Midianites, but this time armed only with trumpets and ritual objects. Nothing with which to kill on the battlefield.
So there are many issues which are raised in this story and many of them are very, very uncomfortable. A lay leader is not to act as a priest and a priest is not really to act as a lay leader. It is only in very exceptional circumstances that a priest is praised for defending the religion. And even then we have the question: Why did God not kill Zimri and Cozbi, rather than relying on Pinchas to do it in His name?
Then. when we see how many nations have been ruled or are ruled by clergy of one type or another, how the distinction between lay and spiritual leaders is blurred, we see the many dangers which follow such a mixing. One group should deal with the problems of this world, here and now, and the other group should be more concerned with eternity and eternal values. But the boundaries are not always clear and often lay leaders tell the religious leaders to ”keep out of politics” when they are doing something shameful, but then demand ”a blessing” from those same religious functionaries when it suits them. Each side can use the other for its own purposes. We see this often enough. Alas.
Would it have been a different story if God had said, instead, ”I do NOT approve of what Pinchas has just done”? Would we feel better about it? How do WE view this exclusivity? How far would we justify defending our own boundaries in such a manner? There are many, many difficult questions for us to face, when we read these chapters.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild