Saturday, June 29, 2013

Zealots are Alone

By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

41st Torah Portion, 8th in B’midbar

Pinchas 25:10-30:1 (168 verses)


            Pinchas is rewarded for killing the Israelite and the Midianite woman who cursed God. Israel fights a war against the Midianites. A second census is taken. The daughters of Zelophekhad force a change in the laws of property inheritance. Joshua is chosen to be successor to Moses.


Pinchas is depicted as a zealot and the Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: ‘If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we are never to instruct him to act. “(Sanhedrin 81b) We have seen throughout history that for some monotheism is given to violence. Because a zealot is adamant that there is one God – and, according to them, only one way to serve God – it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally (and too often), their worshippers. There is a difference between zealousness and passion.

            Too often religious zealousness and passion are seen as interchangeable. One can view the difference between the two as one view a knife. The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder. As I have often taught, the voice of God is not so easily found in the concrete written word. As Elijah in our haftarah observes, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind…  After the earthquake–fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a soft murmuring sound.”  (I Kings 19) We, as the prophet did, must strain to find God’s voice. Zeal represents uncontrolled anger and loud pronouncements. Passion on the other hand is a cultivation of the most meaningful experiences in your life and shaped to a larger purpose.

Does every disagreement have to be seen as a threat that necessitates radical action?  Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers.  A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.

Yehuda Eiger notes that parashat Pinchas is both preceded and followed by double portions – Chukat/Balak and Matot/Ma’asei – and he infers from this that fanatics must live alone in isolation from society. He concludes, “Woe to a generation when the fanatics are joined together!”


  1. Are you aware of zealots in your life      or community? Does the instruction from Sanhedrin make sense?
  2. Pinchas was award a “Covenant of Peace”      (25:12). Is this a reward for his act or a cure for his soul?
  3. Why was Joshua chosen as Moses’      successor instead of Pinchas?