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Judaism: The Argument Against Extremism

Elijah (Eliyahu) and Pinchas.
Published: Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:38 AM


We live in an age of extremism. 

Whether in “personal expression”, politics, art, music or religion, we seem to be overrun by people who live “at the edges”.  They are angry.  Rapid.  Relentless.  We witness the world roiled by extremists in the Middle East, the Far East, even in Europe. In Africa, “failed states” become sanctuaries for extremists who foist their ideologies on others, most often with cruel and inhumane violence.  We find ourselves stunned nearly to silence by the slaughter of innocents, the desecration of religious institutions, and the destruction of the secular and the everyday.

“Taliban” has become shorthand for this kind of extremism.

While secular religion (pan-Arabism, communism, partisan politics, etc.) can sometimes lead to extremism, often it is faith that opens the door to zealotry.  After all, if the Creator of All asks something of us, can there be any limit to how we should respond?  Should there be?

While some religions embrace zealotry, traditionally Judaism has tended to turn away from zealotry.  And yet, from Jerusalem to Brooklyn, for so many Orthodox kaanaus, extremism, is the name of the game in approach, ideology, methodology and speech.  What has happened to us that we have become used to critical, harsh, unbending and unforgiving actions affecting every aspect of Jewish life.  From whence comes this harshness? 

We live in a blessed, glorious time of Jewish renaissance – with yeshivot and Torah learning thriving, massive kosher supermarkets rooting observant communities, our streets are defined by stately synagogues and homey shtiebels.  And yet, a way that was unknown to us as we grew up has taken hold of hearts and minds.  We knew homes totally committed to everything Jewish and halakhic as prescribed by Shulchan Aruch and Mesorah while still participating in the benefits and goodness available in society at large; homes where there was no color distinctions among Jews; homes where the black hat was not standard, but where gray hats and straw hats after Memorial Day was the norm. 

And yet, we were devout and loving Jews, more focused on what was under the hat and within the heart than the particular garb one wore.

What “defines” the kanai Pinchas these days?  Throwing rocks at passing cars on Shabbos?  Burning an Israeli flag on Yom Haatzmaut?  Insisting that seltzer water have a heimishe hechsher in addition to normative, renowned national certifications?  A refusal to pray in a shul where the Israeli flag is displayed? And this week’s news?

A rebbe blaming the parents of the three murdered Israeli teens for their deaths. The parents are guilty, he said, of “living among known murderers by living in the “settlements,” stemming from the “evil inclination and the desire for Jews to inhabit the entire State of Israel. It is incumbent upon us to say that these parents are guilty.”

The Jewish way is not the harsh and rigid way of kaanus!  God forbid that devout Jews should employ the mindset of the Taliban!

Who was this man Pinchas whose name is claimed as a badge of honor for such heinous behavior?  We know he was the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron, but beyond that, little of his personal life.  What we do know, of course, is his zeal for God; he slew a man on the spur of the moment, without trial or warning, in defiance of all judicial procedure prescribed by the Torah.  In other words, he took the law into his own hands.  He exacted judgment and punishment against all legal, moral, and societal norms. 

Yet, the Lord’s reaction to his act is positive and complimentary.  And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.”

God, not satisfied to praise Pinchas, went on to reward him.  And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.

The people, however, remained unimpressed.  The tribes spoke disparagingly of him.  Have you seen this grandson of Puti, the father of whose mother used to fatten calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and he has dared to slay a prince of one of Israel’s tribes!  The Jerusalem Talmud states that Pinchas’s deed did not meet with the approval of Moses and the elders. One Sage goes so far as to say that Pinchas would have been excommunicated had not the Holy spirit leapt forth and declared, V’hayta to brit k’hunat olam.

In light of Pinchas’ act, how then are we to evaluate other acts of zealotry?  How to know that such an act, rather than unadulterated zeal to advance God’s glory, is not merely murder?  Such judgment is not always easy.  Clearly, the people wanted to excommunicate Pinchas, but the Holy spirit saved him.  

"He turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake among them.”

In his Torah Temimah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein interprets this episode in the context of community, “Even in his wrath, zeal, and defiance, he continued to see himself as part of the total community. His separatist response was but a means, not an end unto itself. When extremism becomes an end, a norm, a standard of everyday life, it is to be rejected and abhorred, even as the Sages sought to dismiss the singular action of Pinchas.”

What we learn from this – and from the separation of the narrative over two parashiot – is that such an act of kanaut, even in light of God’s approbation and reward, is not to be tolerated by the people.  Indeed, even in God’s blessing and reward we read a statement that is in direct opposition to Pinchas’ act – peace.  “Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace.”

Why grant the man of passion, force, and intolerance a gift so antithetical to his personality and character? Because, the blessing was not a reward but an antidote!

The sudden urge to respond violently demands a Divine blessing of peace, a “guarantee of protection against the inner enemy lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed.”  Kanaut is unhealthy, unnatural, and dangerous.

According to the Netziv, “In reward for turning away the wrath of the Holy One, blessed be He, He blessed him with the attribute of peace, that he should not be quick-tempered or angry. Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinchas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”

Or, as Rambam posits in Hilchot Deot, “The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions com­mon to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other. Hence our Sages exhorted us that a person should always evaluate his dispositions and so adjust them that they shall be at the mean between the extremes.”

The middle way is the wisest way.  Avoiding extremes is the desired path. 

Rambam prescribes the antidote for one extreme to be the other extreme.  Hence, for Pinchas’ violent act, peace is the antidote.

Kanaut, and peace are two extremes in opposition to one another.  The Ktav Sofer explains that Pinchas, prone to kanaut, needed to move to the opposite extreme of peace in order to regain “the right path which is the normal mean in every class of dispositions.”

That any act of kanaut, even by the most pious and exemplary religious personality, demands scrutiny is supported in Haftarat Pinchas, which focuses on the life of Eliyahu Hanavi.  Indeed, Chazal were of the opinion that “Pinchas zeh Eliyahu”, that Pinchas and Eliyahu are one and the same. Each exhibits kanaut.

As Eliyahu escaped to the desert, fearful of Izevel, God inquired, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” Eliyahu responded: “I have been very zealous (kano kineiti) for the Lord God of hosts.  The children of Yisrael have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thy altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword, and only I am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

What passion! Eliyahu must truly be a zealot for the Lord!  Or, perhaps not.  Chazal convey a somewhat different sense and mood to this dialogue.

Eliyahu: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God . . . for they have forsaken Thy covenant.”

God: “My covenant? Perhaps your covenant?”

Eliyahu: “Thrown down Thy altars.”

God: “My altars? Per­haps your altars?” “Thy prophets they have slain with the sword.”

Eliyahu: “And of what concern is this to you? And only I am left, and they seek my life to take it away.”

What is this?  Eliyahu’s zealous claims are met with disdain and doubt!  What we are seeing is a thorough investigation of zealousness and extreme passion.  What this scrutiny reveals are the questionable motives by Eliyahu.  Eliyahu Hanavi!  Even his kanaut is easily confused with insecurity, inflexibility, and intolerance.  

God rebukes Eliyahu.  He does not seek Eliyahu’s zealousness but rather his compassion for Israel.  His zealousness is inappropriate so God reappears to him in wind, in earth­quake, in fire, and finally in a still, small voice.  Finally, God inquires once again: “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?” And Eliyahu replies as he did before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God.”

Chazal take note of this dialogue. Eliyahu had not changed but God was now seeking to speak words of consolation to him.  “When I descended to give the Torah to Israel, only angels of peace, who sought their welfare and well-being, descended with me.” Thus recalling the wind and fire of Matan Torah, so Eliyahu might recall the good angels and recognize his own negative kanaut.

Then God waited three hours.

Still, Eliyahu remained unchanged, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God.”

At which point God declared, “And Elisha the son of Shefat shall you anoint to be prophet in your stead: and that which you have in mind, you may not do.”

Eliyahu the zealot, whose passions and fervor were determined to be impure and self-serving, was removed from leading God’s children! Pinchas zeh Eliyahu.

This very same zealous, ruthless, and passionate Eliyahu-Pinchas was blessed and endowed with eternal peace, and who ultimately moved to the opposite extreme to become the harbinger of peace and tranquility. “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet . . . and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”

Indeed, Eliyahu became the angel of peace. The very passion and zealous­ness he possessed was reversed to a passion of peace, compromise, merit, and resolution. All matters of doubt and uncertainty will “be resolved upon Eliyahu’s arrival.” Yehei munach ad sheyavoh Eliyahu. This holy man of unbending truth and conviction sits in all Jewish homes as the Sabbath ebbs away to count their merits!

Eliyahu the prophet, Eliyahu the Tishbi, Eliyahu the Giladi . . .

As the day of contentment slips away, provide relief to your people.  Send the Tishbi…

Therefore, Eliyahu the Kanaai, who previously pas­sionately and uncompromisingly sought God’s stern judgment of His children, now passionately, lovingly, and unceasingly sits and counts their merits.

As every male Jewish infant is welcomed to the brit with the call of Baruch Habah, the mohel promptly recites the first verses of Parashat Pinchas. Since Chazal associate Pinchas and Eliyahu as one and the same, it is customary to recite these verses which contain God’s pledge that Pinchas be given the brit-covenant; Hineni noten lo et briti shalom. Then the baby is placed on the kisei shel Eliyahu, on the Throne of Eliyahu, whereupon the mohel says: “This is the Throne of Eliyahu the prophet, who is remembered for the good.”

The custom of setting the Throne of Eliyahu is said to be based on a passage in the Pirkei de R. Eliezer. After fleeing from the wrath of King Ahab, Eliyahu declared to God that he had zealously defended the Divine honor against sinners who neglected His brit, a reference to Israel’s neglect of the mitzvah of circumcision. God replied, “By your life, henceforth Jews will per­form circumcision only when you see it with your own eyes.”

Again, God rebukes Eliyahu and rejects his kanaut.  It is unacceptable even for Eliyahu to blame the whole nation for the neglect of some sinners. This kanaut is useless.  The Midrash records this dialogue between God and Eliyahu, in which God instructs Eliyahu to be present at every Brit Milah.

“You know,” Eliyahu said, “that I am zealous for Your name. What if the father of the infant will be a sinner. I will not be able to tolerate it.”

God promised that He will forgive the father.

“And what if the mohel will be a sinner?”

“I will forgive him, as well.”

“And what of the guests. If they will be sinners . . .”

God assured him that they too would be forgiven.

This, says the Midrash, is implied in the statement Pinchas zeh Eliyahu. Of Pinchas it is said, Tachat asher kineh l’elokav vayechaper al bnei yisrael. Since his natural inclination is one of zealousness and intolerance, he must perforce be present at such occasions where his level of tolerance would be put to the test, for it would be impossible to contemplate all who are present at the brit to be sinless. In lieu, therefore, of the kanaut exhibited by Pinchas/Eliyahu, Eliyahu the peacemaker, the seeker of merit, must appear so as to cause kaparah for all Israel. This kaparah is effectuated not simply by Eliyahu’s anonymous presence. Rather, the mohel declares: “Eliyahu, messenger of the covenant, behold, yours is now before you, stand at my right and be near me.” In order for Eliyahu to prove that he is there with compassion, sensitivity, and mitgefiel, having left his zealousness and passion behind, he must stand on the mohel’s right and be near him with a shared sense of responsibility. That attitude undoubtedly will be mechaper al bnei yisrael.

Eliyahu joins with the father at the brit to share not only in responsibility, but also in the infant’s pain. When hatred subsides, judgmentalism dissipates, extremism disappears, moderation re­surfaces, and unity, respect, love, and civility increases, Eliyahu will join the Father in Heaven in the final redemption.

Until then, we will “expect a feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status. . . . We will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed.”

Let those who would proclaim their zealousness, their inflamed passions and rigidness as righteousness take note.  Pinchas is Eliyahu!