Zealotry: How Far To Go
Pinchas is not an overly popular figure in Jewish life and among his own
generation. The people of Israel were angered by his act of violence in
killing the head of the tribe of Shimon without giving the matter due
judicial process. It is because of this type of murmuring that the Lord
Himself, so to speak, blesses Pinchas personally and grants him the gift
of priesthood and of peace.
Pinchas’ motives are challenged by the people but they are vindicated by
God. But it takes God himself, so to speak to quiet the objections to
Pinchas and his behavior. And it is noteworthy therefore to emphasize that
we do not find any other further act of holy zealotry mentioned in the
Torah or approved of by Jewish tradition
Pinchas and his behavior become the exception and not the rule in Jewish
life and tradition. Zealotry is a very difficult characteristic to gauge
correctly. How much are personal quirks involved in such zealous
behavior? Jewish history and society is littered by the victims of
religious zealotry who were felled by personal attacks clothed in the
guise of religious piety and zealotry.
The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking
others. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas
in killing Zimri. Because of this, it is obvious that only God, so to
speak, could save Pinchas from unwarranted criticism and public
disapproval. But in so doing, God, again so to speak, warns us of the
dangers of zealotry. He will not step in again to rescue the zealot from
public and historical disapproval.
We meet Pinchas again later in Jewish history, again at a moment of
personal tragedy. He is the High Priest and head of the Sanhedrin at the
time of Yiftach, the judge of Israel. Yiftach has made a foolish vow that
whatever or whoever comes forth first from his house to greet him upon his
return from the successful war that he waged to save Israel from the
oppression of Bnei Ammon will be sacrificed to God.
The daughter of Yiftach, not knowing of her father’s vow, rushes out of
the house to welcome home the returning hero. Eventually Yiftach fulfills
his vow and kills her on the altar. This entire horrible story could have
The rabbis in the Talmud tell us that Yiftach could have had the vow
annulled retroactively by appearing before Pinchas and his court and
requesting such an annulment. But ego and hubris interfere, even at the
cost of the life of one’s own child. Yiftach refuses to humble himself –
after all he is the leader of Israel – to appear before Pinchas and ask
for the annulment.
Even though Pinchas is aware of the vow, he also refuses to lower himself –
after all he is the high Priest and the head of the Sanhedrin – to travel
to Yiftach to effect the annulment. As the Talmud ruefully observes,
because of this display of personal pique and ego, an innocent person is
killed. Pinchas’ reputation is therefore tarnished by this incident.
Perhaps this is another reason that we do not find the zealotry of Pinchas
repeated and complimented again in the Torah.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org