Zealots, Radicals and Peace


Lessons from Pinchas

In an unprecedented act of sanctioned zealotry, we read in this week’s Torah portion about Pinchas being commended for taking a stand against a public atrocity and killing the perpetrators, consequently saving thousands of lives. Pinchas is subsequently rewarded with the “covenant of peace.”

Of all things, why is peace awarded to a zealous act of killing? What does this teach us about modern day zealotry and its dangers? Haven’t we learned our lessons over history of the grave destruction perpetrated in the name of G-d by religious extremists?!

A specter of radicalism – centered in the Middle East – haunts the world. It began with Israel. It then moved to the secular Western world, beginning with Europe and the USA. By now the dark shadowy cancer of Islamic extremist terrorism has descended on virtually every country in the world, including Muslim nations. Past years have borne witness to brutal killings in Nice, Munich, St. Etienne-du-Rouvray, Istanbul, Orlando, Brussels, Paris, Beirut, Japan, Egypt, Somalia, Cameroon, Dhaka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. And this does not include the ongoing massacres in Syria and Iraq.

Forces are simmering. A one billion plus Muslim population is not complacently waiting for America to sell them Coca Cola and Big Mac’s (even if they were halal meat). The Muslim world is driven by a philosophy and a passionate belief system. Many of its ideas are quite noble and therefore appealing. Beyond all the distortions and the violence, it is not unfair to argue that the core of their belief system is the Divine message of the Bible of sublimating and spiritualizing the material universe.

However, like all strong belief systems, that same Muslim world is also a breeding ground for radicalism. At its extreme there is a powerful movement – no one knows the numbers, but it encompasses many elite, affluent Muslims – that advocates violence struggle against Western secularism. They see Christian and Jewish influences as corrupt forces that need to be vanquished.

Islamic intellectual hero, Sayyid Qutb, one of the primary philosophical fathers of Muslim fundamentalism today (he was executed by Nasser in 1966), has an extensive corpus of writings that advocates the philosophical underpinnings of the Islamic war against secularism. “If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyya (pagan ignorance of divine guidance), and all the marvelous material comforts and high-level inventions do not diminish this Ignorance.” “It is essential for mankind to have a new leadership… It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which positive and constructive, and which is practicable. Islam is the only system which possesses these values and this way of life.”

Do not be seduced by the ideological tone. Qutb then calls for a militant revolution that will, violently if necessary, annihilate the Jahiliya.

This is not to suggest that all Muslims feel this way. But however you want to analyze it, one mistake we should not make is that the Muslim world is indifferent. It has deep passionate beliefs that are not just going away (and should not necessarily go away) because the Western world is uncomfortable with them.

And this belief system is a hotbed of fermenting radicalism, which is giving birth and continues to give birth to thousands (if not more) of faithful individuals ready to sacrifice their lives in their Jihad against a world (in their minds) opposed to G-d.

No one wants to hear this fact because then our battle is just too formidable of a task. How will a Western world, complacent with its comforts, ever face the violent passion of thousands, if not millions, of religious zealots?

Therein lies the powerful message of Pinchas. The Torah clearly and consistently abhors zealotry. When Abraham hears about the impending destruction of the infidel city of Sodom – criminals by all accounts – he doesn’t celebrate or join the attack, even though it was led by G-d Himself. Instead, He argues and implores G-d to not destroy the city. The same with Moses after the Jews built the Golden Calf, openly defying the commandment against idolatry they had just heard and accepted at Sinai. Moses insists that G-d forgive them, and after 80 days he ultimately prevails, evoking the powerful thirteen Divine attributes of compassion, thereby opening the door of teshuvah (return) to all souls – the ultimate power of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

The Torah is filled with the message of love and compassion.

Indeed, this is the entire undercurrent of Torah “Love you neighbor as yourself – is the fundamental principle of Torah,” said Rabbi Akiva. “This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary” (in Hillel’s words).

Indeed, the Torah warns of the dangers of being “more religious” that G-d, acutely sensitive to the fact that people can create “Torah sanctioned” outlets for their own personal aggression. “Erase My Holy Name,” G-d declares, “to preserve peace between husband and wife.”

Never, ever use religion as a weapon. No one ever was commanded by G-d to form a “lynch mob” and kill the infidels. When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea for their obstinate crimes against mankind, G-d rebuked the angels for singing praise: “My creatures are drowning and you sing?!”

Even when King David fought justifiable wars, he was not allowed to build the Holy Temple because of the blood on his hands. His son, Solomon, the man of peace, built the Temple. The Talmud tells us that a Sanhedrin (Rabbinical supreme court) was labeled a “murderous” court if under their tenure one verdict of capital punishment was issued even once in 70 years! Not because they are accused of being biased or corrupt, but to emphasize how abhorrent death is, even when it may be justified.

The only exception of sanctioned zealotry is Pinchas. Why would the Torah allow for the celebration of this one instance of zealous behavior when it knows the risks of how it can be interpreted?

The answer lies in the opening verse of this week’s chapter:

G-d says “Pinchas, the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron the Priest, turned away My anger from the Children of Israel by zealously taking up My cause and thus preventing me from destroying them.”

The additional attribution to his grandfather Aaron the Priest (and not the usual reference to “Pinchas son of…”) is in order to emphasize Pinchas’ personality. Aaron was man of love and peace. “The Mishne tells us “be of the students of Aaron, love peace and pursue peace. Love all creatures [even if they have no other obvious quality except that they are G-d’s creatures] and bring them closer to Torah.”

Had Pinchas been an aggressive personality, had he been an advocate of religious radicalism, that would have boded trouble. Pinchas was a man of peace, a quiet man. Even this act of zealotry was not to kill, but to protect innocent people from being killed. When Pinchas saw that the people were dying as a result of the public atrocity and desecration that Zimri perpetrated, he went against his own quiet nature to defend G-d and save lives. Selflessness, not personal prejudices, was Pinchas’ driving force. The moment personal interests and inclinations are involved, one ceases to be a zealot.

It was actually Zimri, of the house of Shimeon who was the aggressive one, as was his grandfather Shimeon who was rebuked by Jacob for his violent and heated behavior.

What lesson does this have for us today, when faced with the violent passions of thousands if not millions of religious zealots?

Pinchas teaches us an invaluable and powerful message today.

The mistake we are facing today is in two extremes: Either extreme religious radicalism, or its’ counterpart – extreme libertinism, where everything goes. Indeed these two positions actually feed off of each other, thus making them close cousins. Years of abuse in the name of religion have created a backlash and knee-jerk reaction to anything that even “smells” of religious bigotry or imposition. Even if this may be understandable, it still doesn’t make it correct. Often, the reaction born out of an unhealthy situation is equally unhealthy.

What may be even worse than fanatical moral relativism (borne out of religious fanaticism) is passive apathy, or even radical apathy (if that’s possible). As one fellow asked his friend: “What’s worse, ignorance or apathy.” His reply: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

A deep apathy – quite invisible – has arisen as a result of all these battles of extremism on both sides. Some call it the “silent majority,” others the “ignorant masses” ‘(“olam golam” in Yiddish), and yet others the large number of people who live “lives of quiet desperation.” You can add into the mix the cynics that cite the abovementioned reference in Ecclesiastes: “Nothing new under the sun.” Thus it was and thus it will always be.

Comes Pinchas the man of peace and tells us that there is another option: No extremes, no bringing in your own personal prejudices and feelings of aggression or passivity, violence or comfort zones. Pinchas teaches us simple selflessness to protect and defend innocent lives. Zealousness – but in peace.

G-d forbid for anyone to use Pinchas as a model of aggressive to hurt another person even in the name of religious beliefs. Self-defense and protecting other lives is another story. If you are quiet when you see other people being slaughtered, then you are not a man of peace; you are a coward.

What we learn from Pinchas is the exact opposite of killing in the name of religious zealotry. Violence against other people, especially innocent ones, can never be tolerated – no matter what its cause. Any justification of violence, whether it is in the name of religion or in the name of fighting for a cause, is unequivocally deplorable and goes against the laws of G-d. Anger and murder resulting from religious feelings is perhaps the most dangerous of all, because the “holy war” helps mask the venting of personal aggression.

Some prominent writers have suggested that terrorism in Israel can be justified because they are fighting there for a cause, but it cannot be justified in other parts of the world. It is laughable if it weren’t so tragic to suggest that terrorism is acceptable in one region but not in another. Imagine someone arguing that he can “understand” Nazi atrocity against Jews but not against Americans… If violent terrorism is “acceptable” (or more pc: “reprehensible but understandable”) in Jerusalem, than it becomes “acceptable” – and just a short step away – from violence in London, Paris, Moscow, New York and Beijing.

The Nazi terror made it abundantly clear that injustice in one place is injustice everywhere. Hatred to one race is hatred to all. And the biggest revelation of all: Indifference to violence and brutality against one group of humans is indifference to brutality against all humans. We are in this together – for bad and for good. Churchill put it best: “Appeasement in time of aggression is feeding the crocodiles in the hope that you will be eaten last.”

On the other hand, Pinchas teaches us, just because religion has been abused and used to perpetrate atrocities we shouldn’t fall to the other extreme of not fighting for any values. We must never lose sight of right and wrong, but at the same time we must learn from the past how to fight for it with selfless passion, not with violence.

We face today a major confrontation between religious and secular forces. In the Middle East and spreading through Asia, Africa and Europe, this battle is only accelerating. September 11th was a reminder to America of the festering forces at work.

To borrow a phrase – a specter is haunting the world. Not the specter of communism but of making our peace with G-d.

Leaders rise in times like this. A new vision is needed. Or is it a timeless vision that simply needs to be rediscovered?

What is needed today is passion – but guided by humility. G-d – but guided by love and compassion.

A specter is hanging over us – the specter of freedom. The violence perpetrated around the world today offers us an unprecedented opportunity to wake ourselves up from complacency and embrace a zealous battle for justice and truth.

We need a zealot today. Not a murderous zealot but a zealot of peace. A true Pinchas that will rise and defy conventional thinking.

Today we are called to join forces in a zealous and passionate against all form of extremism and violence, including those perpetrated in the name of religious zealotry. To counter the passion of misguided souls ready to blow themselves up, we need to zealously defend and promote the Divine principles of justice and peace – and all in the spirit of unity and love fueled by selflessness.

Nations of the world, communities across the globe, need to zealously unite with one powerful message: We will not tolerate or accept any form of violence, not in Jerusalem and not in London. Religious beliefs must be used not to fight wars, but to promote spiritual values, to establish laws that respect basic human rights and allow for diversity.

We must demand of the Muslim world – and for that matter of the Christian and Jewish world, as well as of all religions and creeds – to embrace the principles established by Abraham, father of all nations, to promote the deepest values of virtue and integrity, all with love and inspiration. To fight the pagan forces of the universe, not with violence, but with spreading light and warmth.

And on a personal level, we must counter the forces of “baseless hatred” that tear apart communities, with unconditional and zealous love and pursuit of peace. By fostering and intensifying unity and peace/shalom, we will eliminate the cause that destroyed the Temple and bring on the building of the Third Temple speedily in our time.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
14 years ago

You have centered the whole truth; to hate death is where are heart needs to be. For the oppsite is life abundant and the way of life abundant is to stand between death and life; for there is no free ride in life. To give to another unconditionaly is the command; first you have to give to yourself unconditionaly that you will now the value (Sacrifice) of giving. Lester

14 years ago

Having the raison detre of Israel LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF hung in signs and banners over all the roads and highways of Jerusalem and Israel, in all relevant languages may be a solution to spreading peace.

14 years ago

I really like and agree with most of your article. However, the way you talk about the incident with Pinchas makes it sound as if this is the only incident of violence sanctioned by G-d, and thats far from truth. What do you do with G-d telling us to wipe out the various Cananite nations, and becoming angry when we leave some women and children alive? The radicals of the Muslim world seem to be doing just this. Surely the Rabbis did everything they could to limit G-d sanctioned violence, but the Torah itself certainly has many more problematic incidents of this than just Pinchas.

Chaya Gross
14 years ago

We must ask ourselves what happened to Jewish leadership, then as now, that it took Pinchas to turn Hashems wrath away from His people? Each parsha is meant to teach us something timely and so too this one. Our challenge is to dispel the need for a Pinchas and for each of us to find what unites us as opposed to what divides us. We must start amongst our own. For me the Holtbergs Moishie was Pinchas. Mumbai was the madness that the world has come to tolerate, and the ultimate sacrifice of the Holzbergs hyd whose selflessness was documented over and over again is what brought the Jewish people together in a most unprecedented way. But, have we learned the lessons we needed to learn?
After that tragedy, I wrote a letter to the vaad haRabbanim of Chabad in Eretz Yisrael calling upon them to reestablish the leadership role that Chabad has had since its inception. Begin to understand that we must unite in spite of our deep differences and work to spread the light amongst the gentiles of the world. We must spread the 7 universal laws to all mankind, they are waiting to be taught. If as we claim, the Rebbe is the Rosh, then where are we? We have lost sight of our incredible responsibility as Chassidim of the Rebbeim of Chabad to bring the geula. How? First and foremost by giving honor one to the other, so G-d forbid, we dont share the fate of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Then we must go out in force and spread the 7 Noahide Laws, which state clearly DO NOT KILL, DO NOT STEAL,CREATE COURTS OF LAW ETC. Only by practically teaching the gentiles, whether Muslim or Xian,or pagan, that there is ONE G_D and this is what HE taught us to teach you. Today it is not enough to reach out only to Jews, we must also reach out to non-Jews because our brothers and sisters and deeply entrenched amongst the nations of the world. By educating the gentiles to become Bnai Noach, they will bring the Jews back.
What does it mean to be a light unto the nations? It means to spread G-dliness to world now more than ever. We must do so passionately and immediately to avoid further tragedy, Enough wake up calls, Pinchas forces all of us, to act now.

14 years ago

Ive gotten into trouble by attempting to explain Shabbat rock throwing. I say I understand it but I dont think its right.
This, in itself, tends to end the discussion right there. What some dont understand is the Shabbat is so important to the rock throwers, that they also miss other strong contributing factors,,, and that in fact, the rock throwers are people too, and capable of being at fault.

these rock throwers are attempting to establish a point that otherwise wouldnt be considered – no driving on Shabbat. In todays materialistic world, theres little reason to stop driving unless one understands the principals,,, that Shomer Shabbat is critically important.

and so the point is demonstrated by demonstrating Shomer Shabbat is critically important – the message is unfortunately lost in translation,,, because no good will existed in attempting to communicate.

its a peculiar situation for the rock throwers,,, they desperately want a city which is Shomer Shabbat & they know the drivers dont acknowledge.

Norman Siller
14 years ago

Interesting article & comments. But many, while talking of getting along with others & teaching them jewish values seem to forget that others have their own & thus different value systems. While The major world religions all espouse love thy neighbor, this motto seems to get some restrictions to it: namely as long as my neighbor believes like me. Islam teaches that it is the one true religion and others are not to be tolerated anywhere in the world. So if your neighbor is different, he must be converted. Judiasm looks to teach the world about the one creator and for the nations of the world to learn to be what the jewish moral values are. Not to necassarily become jewish per say, nor a prosylite. If Judiasm was like islam, Kings David, Soloman and the others that followed would have waged war & converted the rest of the world when they were all powerful, not just Eretz Israel. This is what islam in general seeks to do; convert the world to islam. Be it by peaceful means or violent means. It means to not just change the world but convert it! And this is the real threat of islam. Pinchas acted to save the many Jews who otherwise would have died in a plague, whether they were as zealous as him or not. His act of killing was without thought to himself. It was for the good of bnei Israel. Most Islamic terrorists act to elevate themselves, never mind another teaching of islamwhich is to kill the infidels (non-believers) wherever they are.

Paul Cook
7 years ago

Agreed Norman and well said. Any Muslin who follows the Qur’aan and Sharia law is radical. The Qur’aan espouses hate, murder, torture, intolerance and elevates people who perform these deeds to heroes. Rabbi, I think you underestimate the numbers. The attacks will become more frequent (daily already) with greater numbers of people maimed and murdered.

7 years ago

In 2008 I found myself in the waiting room of an ICU, waiting while my 63 year old mom underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure on her brain from a subdural hematoma. There was a group of muslims in traditional garb running around doing everything they could to be of comfort and Service to the rest of us. When the elderly mother of the family brought me pillows and a blanket I spoke with her for a moment. I explained my woes and inquired of hers: her son had been married that day-wedding festivities-he drowned in the hotel pool and was braindead. She was waiting for her son to die on his weddingnight…AND SHE WAS SERVING ME. That woman’s immitating Avraham Aveinu moved me to pray for my mom, my first in fifteen years…Hashem Saved both our lives that night. May the children of Avraham Aveinu learn to excercise Love and Kindness, not violence.

6 years ago

Everything is governed by the creator. Everything must be balance out. The secular and hedonistic western world wants nothing to do with the creator. He will bring order back. Islam is just a balancing force that comes from the one and only. Nothing in this world comes without Is permission.

But we dont have to that way. We only need to bring the creator into the center of our lives.

I am not advocating islam or any other religion. I am simply stating that there is a governing force in the universe. The laws of the universe should not be tampered with.


The Meaningful Life Center