Healing from inadvertent fanaticism
By Rabbi Pam Frydman
Tonight, I would like to speak about fanaticism in the Torah. Now, when we see fanaticism in our own lives, we can say no, we don’t want it. But when it says in the Torah that God rewarded fanatical behavior, we are suddenly faced with a different set of problems.
What is happening today can be embraced or shunned. Some couples make sure that the diamonds they buy for their engagement rings are not harvested through slavery, and there are also people who choose shampoo and other grooming products to avoid the products that are tested on animals. We can vote with our feet and our pocketbooks to avoid things that involve extremism such as human slavery and animal torture.
But what do we do when we see fanatical behavior in the Torah and God seems to support it? It says, in this week’s Torah portion, that a man named Pinchas turned back God’s wrath so that God did not destroy the Israelites after an incident when the Israelites were practicing idol worship. At first glance, it seems that what Pinchas did turned back God’s wrath, and what he did was to kill an Israelite man named Zimri and a Midianite woman named Cosbi while they were engaging in sexual behavior as part of idol worship. Then God went on to say that because of what Pinchas did, God granted a Covenant of Peace between God and the descendants of Pinchas.
Pinchas was the grandson of Aaron, the High Priest, and the grandnephew of Moses. When Aaron died, his son Eliezer became the High Priest. While Eliezer was still the High Priest, his son Pinchas killed Zimri and Cosbi.
According to the Torah, Zimri brought Cosbi into the assembly of the Israelites. Pinchas took a spear in his hand, he followed Zimri and Cosbi into a chamber where they had gone, and he killed them with the spear.
I am a bat Kohen, the daughter of a priest. My father, and his father before him, were proud kohanim, proud priests. Being a Kohen was as important to my dad as being a Jew, and for my dad, being a Jew was everything. How do we understand that the fanatical act of killing two human beings is the reason that my family, and so many other Jewish families, get to carry on the priesthood until today? How can we justify it? How can we remain silent and not speak out?
The sages have debated this for centuries, and the opinions are all over the map. Rabbi Shimson Raphael Hirsh said that, “Anyone who wages war on enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth” even while they are engaging in war.” According to Rabbi Hirsch, Pinchas did the right thing by killing the couple while they were engaging in idol worship.
However, it says in the Talmud that, “if Pinchas had asked a rabbinic court whether it was permissible to kill Zimri and Cosbi, the court would have told Pinchas, “that the law may permit it, but we don’t follow that law!” So, as far back as the Talmud, the rabbis already thought that Pinchas should not have killed Zimri and Cosbi.
So why do we still honor the priesthood today? And perhaps more to the point, why are we directing our prayers toward a God who determined that the priesthood would be awarded for the killing of two human beings?
According to the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the priesthood was not given to Pinchas as a reward, but rather, to protect Pinchas from his own destructive impulses. According to the Ktav Sofer, Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Shmuel, God gave Pinchas the priesthood, because serving as a priest would be an antidote to help Pinchas to cure himself of his violent temper that had led him to kill Zimri and Cosbi when they were engaging in sexual behavior during idol worship.
According to the Ishbitzer, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite Cosbi were actually soul mates, and their soul had been connected all the way back to creation. According to the Ishbitzer, Pinchas not only killed two people, but he killed a couple who were meant for each other.
When we step out of our comfort zone and judge someone for what we think is going on, this Torah portion comes to remind us that we can never be sure about someone else’s action, and we can never know for sure if the glory bestowed upon someone is really a reward, or whether it is antidote to help them heal from their own excess.
 [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a]