Fifty years ago, on July 16, 1964, on the 8th day of Av, a man at times described as the “grandson of a Jewish peddler” proclaimed that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no viceâ€¦; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
With those words rebounding throughout the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif., and bouncing off the world’s airways, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination.
Rising to the Arizonan’s defense a few months later in a debate at the Oxford Union was no less a champion of “extremism in the defense of liberty” in any form-Malcolm X.
“I believe that when a man is exercising extremism, a human being is exercising extremism, in defense of liberty for human beings, it’s no vice,” Malcolm X said on Dec. 3, 1964. “And when one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings, I say he’s a sinner.”
A little more than two months later, in February 1965, Malcolm X was shot dead by an extremist acting in defense of liberty as the assassin saw it.
Weeks before Goldwater spoke, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were murdered by extremists defending their liberty. Weeks after Malcolm X was assassinated, civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was gunned down.
“Extremism in defense of liberty” brought about the deaths of Yitzchak Rabin and Meir Kahane. It set Baruch Goldstein on a rampage that ended with 29 Palestinians killed and 125 wounded. It is why we now mourn the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel, may the memories of these martyred children be for a blessing. It is why three Israelis, two of whom are minors, allegedly set fire to a 16-year-old Palestinian boy and watched as he agonizingly burned to death. It is why potentially deadly missiles rain down from Gaza on Israeli cities.
Extremism is extremism, no matter how one chooses to characterize its motives. There is nothing heroic about it, and there is nothing honorable about it.
But wait! Torah law approves of just such violent extremism; taking the law into one’s own hands is a virtue. Last Shabbat’s Torah portion proves it. Pinchas, son of the High Priest Eleazar, committed a murderous act of extremism and was rewarded for it by God Himself, who grants him His “covenant of priesthood for all time.”
There is only one small problem with that “reward”: Pinchas already had “a covenant of priesthood for all time” through his grandfather Aaron, to whom God gave the priesthood in perpetuity. The reward was no reward at all.
The Torah at times says something nice when it means just the opposite, like uttering a blessing when a curse is meant. Here, Pinchas is given a reward that is not a reward, because his murderous act was a just that-a murderous act.
He was wrong. Says the Talmud:
“Rav Chisda said: ‘Someone who comes for advice [to a bet din about whether to use deadly force against a person who is committing a sin such as that done by Zimri, whom Pinchas murdered], they do not sanction it.’ It was also statedâ€¦: ‘And not just that alone [but] “had Zimri removed himself [from his public dalliance with a Midianite woman], and Pinchas killed him, [it would have been murder and] he [Pinchas] would have been executed because of him. Had Zimri turned around [to defend himself] and killed Pinchas, he would not have been executed because of him because he [Pinchas] was a rodef [someone who pursues another in order to kill that person].”‘” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 82a.)
True, rabbinic literature is replete with suggestion that Pinchas morphed into Elijah, so favored by God that he was taken up alive to heaven.
Not everyone among the sages of blessed memory hold that view. In a midrash in B’reishit Rabbah (60.3), Pinchas comes under criticism for putting the authority of his office as high priest ahead of the life of Jephtah’s daughter. He could have saved her life by going to Jephtah and telling him his vow was defective and thus not a vow at all, but he refused to do so because Jephtah was an ignorant peasant who was unworthy of a visit from the high priest of Israel.
The midrash then brings as proof 1 Chronicles 9:20, which says: “And Pinchas ben Eleazar had been chief over them in time past; the Lord was with him.” Says the Midrash: “It was not written that he ‘was chief over them,’ but ‘had been chief over them in time past.'” That is, he had been chief, but then he stopped being chief. The Lord abandoned Pinchas because, in his extremism, Pinchas saw the task of saving a girl’s life as beneath him.
Rather than condone extremism, the Torah warns us several times not to “veer to the right or to the left; follow only the path which the Lord commanded you to follow.” (See Deuteronomy 5:29 and elsewhere.)
A nation has a right to defend itself against extremists who seek to harm its people. That is not extremism, but self-defense. To advocate that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” is nothing less than a call for the murder of innocents. It should be condemned, never condoned.