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No Violence in the Name of God

Torah Talk on Pinchas 5779

The internet news feeds and our media are filled with reports of religious extremist violence and attempted violence. Two American synagogues were shot up by Anti-Semites in the past year, murdering 12 congregants. Two mosques in New Zealand were brutally attacked and 51 people slaughtered because they were Muslims at prayer. In Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 259 people were massacred by radical Muslim terrorists trying to suppress Christianity. Iran seeks a nuclear weapon in the name of Islam.

So how does Judaism face the issue of religious violence in its own ranks?

This week we read the Torah portion from the Book of Numbers, named after a man called Pinchas whose story really began at the end of last week’s portion of Balak.

The situation is familiar: for the umpteenth time the people of Israel have been disobeying the Torah and worshipping other gods. This time the apostasy reaches epidemic proportions, and even the elite leadership of the people begins to sample the religious wares of the Midianites and Moabites.

Finally, one of the princes of the people challenges the authority of Moses publicly by taking a sacred prostitute into his tent while the whole assembly watches.

As Moses and the other elders stand by in shock, unable to respond to this chutzpadik act, a young kohein, a priest named Pinchas, steps forward. He kills the wayward prince and his consort with a spear and breaks the spell of the evil religious practice.

For this act he is rewarded by God, which seems to validate his violent vigilantism.

But there is more to the story than meets the eye. For Pinchas’ reward for killing the couple is a berit shalom, a covenant of peace. Neither he nor any of his descendants is ever again permitted to go to war, or to carry a spear. He must minister to the needs of the Tabernacle, the rituals of the altar and purification and sacrifice, and he must never engage in any more acts of violence. He has broken the Israelites’ latest fascination with paganism—but never again will his level of religious violence be tolerated. It must instead be sublimated to serve the needs of the community. This is an ongoing lesson about the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Judaism has always refused to countenance the kind of religious insanity that led to the Crusades, or to jihad, or to the Inquisition and its public burnings, or to any kind of religious terrorism. In spite of the occasional anomaly, our religious fervor is never designed to lead to violence. We are committed, fervently and firmly, to the same berit shalom, the covenant of peace, that God places on Pinchas. We must seek always to channel our fiercest dedication to the service of peace.

Religious passion and fervor are essential elements of a truly spiritual life. But religious violence is immoral, not-Jewish, and in the Torah is expressly forbidden.

We can pray that all other religious traditions will come to see it this way, too. And this week we pray that our own Jews, including those most observant members of our people, remember this essential lesson as well.

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