Zeal has a bad wrap these days, and that is understandable. Think of the concepts of zeal / zealousness for a moment.. What comes to mind? Passion? Dedication? Blind devotion? Not all bad. But when we think of religious zeal, what comes to mind is often less positive: Fanaticism, extremism, fundamentalism.
Across all religions, there is a point when zealous faith becomes fanaticism. This is the dark side of all religions, including ours. There is even a responsive reading addressing this in the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah, led in our congregation by the b’nai mitzvah as part of our prayer for gratitude: “For high hopes and noble causes, for faith without fanaticism, for understanding of views not shared, modim anachnu lach (we are grateful to You).”
Having a Jewish zeal for noble causes is, to put it simply, good. But according to Judaism, religious fanaticism / extremism is clearly bad. Except…is it? When we actually read our stories, texts, and anecdotes, the black and white clarity that faith is good and fanaticism is bad is, well, not exactly black and white.
And that of course brings us to Parshat Pinchas. The Torah portion begins with God rewarding Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, with the High Priesthood. But when we check what he did for this reward, our Jewish values (pikuach nefesh / preserving life; ohev et habriyot / loving God’s creations; erech apayim / slow to anger) and modern sensibilities should tingle uncomfortably. Or more likely, run away screaming in confusion.
If you are not familiar with the story, it is a short, self contained narrative in Numbers chapter 25. It is a particularly good one for Torah study, with lots of sex and violence. Essentially, the Israelite men profane themselves by engaging in prostitution with Moabite women, who then use their sexual alure to get the men of Israel to worship the Moabite deity, Baal-Peor. Following this mass sinning of adultery and worshiping another god, Adonai has Moses gather up the ringleaders and impale them on stakes. While Moses is doing that, and the people of Israel are weeping over this whole situation, it gets worse. An Israelite man brings one of the Moabite women into the camp in view of everyone, shows her off to his friends, and takes her into his tent. At this moment, Pinchas decides enough is enough. So, like a rational person, he takes the Israelite man aside and has a private conversation. Actually, wait…*checks Torah*…actually, what Pinchas does is grab a spear and, with a mighty thrust, shishkabob the man and woman together, in flagrante delicto. This pleases God, who as a reward ends a plague (that had started earlier) and declares Pinchas as the next High Priest.
Obviously the sex and violence make this particular Torah story not appropriate for children, and a lively discussion for adults. However, I would argue that the moral of this story (violently murder heretics and God will reward you) is harmful for both. When Jews hear this story in the Torah for the first time, it often shocks them. Not because of the violence or sex, but because of the story’s “moral” implications.
So now, I want to challenge each of us to ask the big question, the big challenge, of this story. It isn’t asking if what Pinchas did was right or wrong. It isn’t even asking if God was right to reward Pinchas (I hope we can all agree that Pinchas’s actions were beyond zealous and were, in fact, extreme).
The question is, where and when is the place for religious zeal in our own lives? Some might say never, because of what it leads to. There is a Jewish concept called siag latorah, putting a fence around the Torah. It’s when you make rules to prevent someone from even getting close to breaking an actual mitzvah (the expansion of milk/meat separation in kashrut over the centuries is an example of this). Here, the argument would be that if we want to avoid Jewish religious extremism, then we should be wary of any zealous Jewish practices, acts, statements, etc.
On the other hand, there are certain parts of our religious practice that exemplify the “more is more” approach. Like experiencing joy at a wedding or bar mitzvah. If we bring a zeal to joy (marbeh simcha), doesn’t that just make even more joy, and isn’t more joy always better? Or another example is tikkun olam, repairing the world. When it comes to social action and social justice, is there even such a thing as too much? Sometimes, I think the answer is no. And sometimes, I think the answer is yes, it is always possible to go overboard, even with joy and even with tikkun olam. After all, isn’t that why we also have Jewish values of restraint, and discipline?
But now we are back to the same question. To zeal or not to zeal? Ultimately, like everything else, from schnapps at the oneg to your favorite dessert, the answer is… it’s good in moderation!