When I attend other synagogues on Saturday morning and holidays, I look forward to the moment when the Torah is removed from the ark and paraded around the sanctuary. I stand up in honor of the Torah, following it with my eyes around the congregation, never turning my back to it. When it is in front of me, rather than kissing the mantle with my tallit, I bow towards it as I do when I bow towards the ark during the Amidah.
I do not look at the scroll as a sacred totem; rather, I do this out of respect for what is contained inside. What are contained inside are not easy answers to questions regarding daily living – just the opposite, in fact.
The words contained in the Torah are touched by God. They are not God’s words. They are words touched by God, and therefore:
- Deceptively complex
- Challenge our understanding
Come to any of our Torah study sessions on Saturday morning and you will see that the words contained in these verses and the verses themselves do not yield simple truths.
The Torah contains great teachings. It contains ideas of enlightenment that push us to live beyond our needs and desires for the sake of humanity, rather than our own for our own personal benefit. And there are dark passages and characters as well – passages displaying zealotry and applauding violence by God and men. This week’s passage is a perfect example of that – Pinchas. In a moment of zeal and anger, this grandson of Aaron picks up a spear and impales two human beings. The first-time reader is aghast that such a story has found itself within our holy scripture.
Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist teacher, tells the story of a man who had listened to his teachings for many years and finally decided to come to one of Kornfield’s retreats. On the retreat, Kornfield meets individually with the participants to determine their progress in meditation and mindfulness training, so he called this man to meet with him. “How is it going?” Kornfield asked the man.
The man was silent for a moment, then responded, “I am disappointed in you.”
“What have I done?” the stunned Kornfield asked.
“You run around from place to place like an Italian shoe salesman.” – Obviously Jack Kornfield was not practicing the same mindfulness he was teaching his students.
We too, from time to time, find disappointment in our Torah.
God is angered once again at the Israelites, and so brings upon them a plague. Pinchas grabs a spear, rushes into a private chamber, finds an Israelite man, Zimri having sex with a Midianite woman, Cozbi, and dispatches them through the stomach. The plague is immediately halted. God rewards Pinchas with the pact of hereditary priesthood and His Covenant of Shalom/Peace.
By and large, Jewish sources accept and approve Pinchas’ act of zealotry. But, for us, we see an impulsive and murderous act.
Our rabbinic sources go on to celebrate Pinchas by placing him as the leader of the Israelite campaign against the Midianites. Both that and the killing of Cozbi are redemptive acts avenging his ancestor, Joseph, who was sold into slavery to the Midianites centuries before. The rabbis also report that Pinchas miraculously slays Balaam and is one of the two spies sent by Joshua into Canaan before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his Torah Commentary, justifies this story by telling the reading that the Bible needs to be taken in historical context – this is the violence that occurred in the day. He also explains that the reward was not for the slaying; it was for saving the people from God’s wrath.
Notwithstanding the rabbinic support for this story’s inclusion in our holy writ, the Talmud raises the questions: If these two people were in some way violating God’s law, why no warning? Why wasn’t any evidence presented? Why no trial? The answer: Zimri and Cozbi were caught flagrante delicto – during the act. If they had finished, Pinchas would have been charged with murder because he did not bring them to trial.
Despite the justifications by both modern and ancient rabbinic authorities, I am very disappointed in having this story included in my sacred Torah. Zealotry and fanaticism are disturbing facets of religion and, in fact, have no place in religion.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims in Ibrahimi Mosque, justifying his rampage in Hebron with the Purim story of Esther.
In November of 1995, Yigdal Amir used this very story of Pinchas to justify his assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin.
Religion’s sole purpose is to cultivate the soul, as Heschel beautifully stated it, “by cultivating empathy and reverence for others, by calling attention to the grandeur, the mystery of all being, to the holy dimension of human existence by teaching how to relate the common to the spiritual.”Not that I can’t wrestle with it;
- Not that my mind can’t being challenged by it;
- Certainly not because I cannot find something redeeming in it.
The problem is that by virtue of being in our Torah, it is read by some as having authority. It is treated with reverence as being God’s word – which it is not. It can be taken up in ways that are antithetical to religion, to humanity, and to the name of God. We only need to look to the Middle East and to ISIS, who are blaspheming the good name of Islam to see its danger.
Jack Kornfield is a respected teacher, regardless of his flaws. I do not revere Jack Kornfield’s flaws. I dismiss them and learn from the wisdom he teaches in the classroom. In the same way, we do not have to twist and turn to find something redeeming in every story in the Torah. We can dismiss them and still learn from the other wise teachings.
I stand up to honor the Torah because it is a document touched by God. Within its passages are no simple truths. It challenges us, and at the same time it disappoints us. We struggle with the good and the bad, but its every word does not hold us hostage!
The Torah demands that we accept that there are dark passages that are not God’s, but ours. That’s right. Those dark passages and characters are about our darkness, not God’s.
 The Insecurity of Freedom, by Abraham J. Heschel, p. 59.