There is a rather well-known Jewish joke about a new rabbi who is terribly frustrated by the endless arguing in his congregation. Half the shul claimed that the shul’s tradition was to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments and the other half said it was the shul tradition to sit. Not being able to take the fighting any longer, he decides to contact the previous, older rabbi. He explains the situation in great detail: how half wants to stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments and the other half wants to sit. He describes the endless arguing. “Nu,” he asks, exasperated, “what is the shul’s actual tradition?” The older Rabbi sadly responds: “Arguing, that’s the shul’s tradition!”
Parshat Pinchas opens with part two of one of the ugliest episodes in the Torah. The Israelites, traversing the desert en route to the Holy Land, encounter the nation of Midian. One of the Israelites later identified as Zimri – a leader of the tribe of Shimon – blatantly takes a Midianite princess for immoral purposes. Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron (the High Priest as well as Moses’ brother) picks up his spear, enters Zimri’s tent, and impales the couple in mid-copulation.
This act of Pinchas’ is highly praised by the Torah, and as a reward for violently murdering the perpetrators of this interfaith sex act (or meting out justice, depending on your perspective), Pinchas is rewarded and given the priesthood for himself and his progeny for eternity (Numbers 25:13). So apparently, violent zealotry is the Torah’s most important qualification for serving as principle officiant of God’s Holy Temple.
But how do we reconcile this with our many traditions that proudly proclaim the Holy Temple as only a place of peace? The Torah orders us, in two places (Exodus 20:22 and Deuteronomy 27:5), not to use metal tools in the construction of an altar to God (in order to distance the service of God from anything even remotely connected to violence, explain the Rabbis). Solomon in constructing the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was similarly careful not to use any iron tools (I Kings 6:7), an extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, task!
Is it possible that the Holy Temple which represented the epitome of non-violence such that it could not even be built with tools (which only bore a resemblance to tools of violence) could be serviced by a priesthood earned as a result of an act of extreme violence? And utilizing an actual tool of violence?
The truth is that this extraordinary contradiction, or argument, is imbedded in the very fabric of our tradition. Those who believe, as I do, that the path to God is primarily through peace and non-violence can find much support in our tradition. But conversely, those who believe that God requires his people to defend his honor zealously and even violently can also claim that the Torah is on their side.
To the question: Is Judaism a religion of violence or of peace? The only honest answer is -yes!
So we, the Jewish people, unfortunately, are destined to argue this question eternally. Perhaps the best one can hope for is that each camp will acknowledge the truth claims of the other camp. Or, even better, join together in a world view that incorporates the fire of zealotry leavened by cool-headedness and maturity.