Monday, July 19, 2010

Pinhas (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 6-15-06, and at July 2007, 2008, 2009.

“… Who was zealous for his God…”

Not infrequently, we find entire stretches of aggadic elaboration of one particular Biblical story concentrated in one place in the Talmud—if you wish, a kind of aggadic sugya. This is the case with the story of Pinhas with which our parashah opens (or, really, which bridges the closing verses of last weeks portion and the opening ones of this weeks: Num 25:1-15), which appears in Sanhedrin 82a-b.

To summarize: Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, was outraged upon seeing a leading figure, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salu, brazenly engaged in sexual relations with a Midianite woman, Kozbi bat Zur, “in the eyes of all the congregation of Israel,” and Moses and Aaron seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Hence, he took a spear and killed the two of them in flagrante delicto; after it was over, Gods tells Moses that He was pleased with Pinhas’ deed which, among other things, served as a kind of prophylactic, that “assuaged my wrath against the Israelites, by performing My zeal among them, so that I did not destroy them in My zeal” (Num 25:11). Therefore, “I shall give him my covenant of peace” (ibid., 12).

There are several paradoxes involved in the story of Pinhas. (I leave aside the famous teaching of the rabbi of Izhbitz on this incident, one of the most noted places where he articulates his paradoxical doctrine of “transgression for the sake of Heaven”; see on him HY IV: Shelah Lekha; Korah [=Hasidism]): First of all, that he was offered a “covenant of peace” in reward for an act of violence. Second, the verse quoted above, in which variations of the noun or verb kin’ah are mentioned three times is interesting: the idea that a human being averts Divine fury against His people by himself performing an act of zeal—and that God is pleased with this. (Why? If the Divine anger was justified, why was God grateful that He didn’t have to act on it, but that a human being did so instead?).

Third, was Pinhas’ act lawful? Unlawful? Or did it perhaps belong to some ambiguous grey area lying between spontaneous zeal and a strictly halakhic response? This question is one of those considered by our sugya, alongside the hint that the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, are shown as hamstrung, in a certain sense, by the halakhah itself. Finally, what is zeal anyway? How (if at all) does it differ from ordinary jealousy, such as a man might feel on seeing another man “stealing” his woman? How does it differ from anger / wrath / fury?

Rav Hisda said: If he [i.e., a potential zealot] comes to ask, one does not instruct him [to do so]. They also said: Rabbah bar bar bar Hanna said in the name of R. Yohanan: One who comes to ask, one does no instruct him to do so. Moreover, if Zimri were to have withdrawn [from the sexual act] and Pinhas killed him, he is executed on his account. And if Zimri turned around and killed Pinhas, he is not executed on his account, because he [the latter] is a pursuer [i.e., Zimri is considered to have been acting in self defense].…

He [Zimri] took her [Kozbi] by the forelock and brought her to Moses. He said to him: Son of Amram, is this one forbidden or permitted? And if you say she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry the daughter of Yitro [who was not Jewish]?! And the halakhah escaped his memory [Rashi: that his own marriage was before the Giving of the Torah, so the rule did not apply]. They all burst out in tears. Of this it is written, “And they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Num 25:6).

It is written, “And Pinhas son of Eleazar saw…” (Num 25:7). What did he see? Rav said: He saw the case and remembered the halakhah. He said to [Moses]: “Brother of my grandfather: did you not teach us thus when you descended from Mount Sinai: ‘He who copulates with a Gentile woman, zealots [are allowed to] harm him’? He replied: He who dictates the letter shall be its messenger [i.e., you go do it!].

Here, Pinhas’ act is seen as simply acting upon a known, existing halakhah. But, as I explained in previous years (HY I: Pinhas [=Torah]), and as mentioned above, it is a very strange halakhah, one that must be executed spontaneously to be valid at all: if one stops to ask an authority what one should do, one is not allowed to do it. It is a kind of extra-halakhic halakhah: relations with a non-Jewish woman are outside the rubric of incest and other forbidden relations mentioned in Leviticus 18, a kind of sui generis category: it is both more serious (e.g., because a child born to her is not Jewish at all; see Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12.7-8) and less so (because outside of the “normal” rubric of forbidden relations). But the exceptions to the rules are themselves part of the rule: the Oral Torah is seen here as an almost infinite repository of traditions given to Moses at Sinai alongside the written Torah. In fact, the mishnah from which this sugya devolves contains a short list of three transgressions for which “zealots harm him” (m. Sanhedrin 9.6).

But Shmuel said: He saw that “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Prov 21:31). Wherever there is desecration of the Name, one does not give honor to ones master.

R Yitzhak said in the name of R. Eliezer: He saw that an angel had come and was wreaking destruction among the people: “And he rose from among the congregation ad took a spear in his hand” (Num 25:7).

These two answers see Pinhas’ action in a different light: as an act of zealotry, of sacred passion, based on a decision made in an instant, in circumstances which left no room for asking questions, or even for reflecting or clarifying the issues, both because the stakes were very high (if Zimri went unpunished, all the people might think that what he did was acceptable, and would follow in his wake) and because there was no time. He needed to act immediately (while the two were still in the midst of the sexual act, as our aggadah notes further down, all too graphically: “he speared them in his male organ and her female organ”; a bit like God telling Moses at the Sea of Reeds: “Why do you cry out to Me? Just go!”—Exod 14:15). I think that the verse quoted from Pruverbs suggests that there are situation in which too much thinking (“There is no wisdom and no understanding, etc,”) can be a bad thing: there are times in life when one must make a direct, existential decision, before one’s own conscience, and in light of the omnipresence of God. This is very difficult, because in a certain sense, within Judaism Torah is everything; the idea of an extra-normative decision (made by what standard? by what guidelines? By one’s “gut instinct” as to what is right?) is enormously problematic. In this sense, Rav’s solution—that there is halakhah permitting zealots to act thus in this situation, but that Moses and Aaron had simply forgotten it—is very comforting, as it saves the notion of Torah as all-embracing.

All this is doubly problematic because of the nature of his decision: to take human life. And, one must add, it is an approach with very real, contemporary implications: we are all familiar with those who, in the name of religious principles, perform acts of violence to others, whether to protect the sanctity of graves from desecration, to protest against those who engage in “abominations” (knifings of Gay Pride demonstrators), or to insure the right to life of unborn fetuses by bombing abortion clinics. Yet at times, such drastic decisions seem the right one. Hence, our story ends by Pinhas receiving the blessing of peace (albeit a fragmented peace, with a hair-line break in the letter vav); moreover, with the rather strange comment that “he assuaged Divine wrath.”

Postscript (as they say in the midrash): This afternoon I watched a TV program about the subject of zeal (or is it perhaps fanaticism?), in which several of the speakers expressed the view that a truly religious person must be a zealot “because to be religious means to believe in something totally (implying that that excludes something else), and to be ready to act on one’s belief.” It wuld seem from this that the religious person, who believes in God’s unity, must resemble Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, who knows “one big thing,” rather than his fox, who knows “many little things”? But what of the mystic, who sees God’s presence everywhere, in every heartbeat of every living thing, and who knows (rather than just asking, as does William Blake) that the same God who made the gentle lamb also fashioned the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger “burning bright in the forests of the night.”


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