Friday, July 22, 2011

Pinhas (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 15 2006, July 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Some Thoughts on Zealotry

This week’s parashah takes its title from Aaron’s grandson, Pinhas, whose act of zealotry and its surprising, if not paradoxical, reward—“My covenant of peace” and “an eternal priesthood” {Num 25:12-13)—form the opening section of this reading. Although I have discussed the meaning of zealotry—both of Pinhas’ specific act, and in general— a number of times in previous years, it seems to me that theme for this year may shed some special light on the subject, and vice versa.

Zealotry—fanaticism, extremism, ideological passion so intense as to lead at times to violent acts—has a bad name in our day and, in many cases, rightfully so. But allow me to be the Devil’s advocate, in an attempt to understand before condemning: the zealot is, first of all, an extreme individualist, one who refuses to accept conventional norms and conventional judgments of situations he encounters, who does not easily conform to bourgeois norms of “polite” attitudes and behavior. He sees life—or thinks he sees, and there at times is the rub—with great clarity, in stark contrasts of black and white rather than in shades of grey. Thus, he may find, as Pinhas did, a dire threat to the moral foundations of society, and be moved to action, in a situation to which everyone else responds with passivity. In the case described here, he saw the combination of sexual debauchery and pagan worship, left unchecked, as threatening to undermine the hard-won fruits of the Exodus from Egypt—all this, while Moses and Aaron stood aside in helplessness and paralysis of the will. The zealot is guided by his own conscience; he may think of himself as a “minority of one” (à la I. F. Stone); he sees the error of conventionally-accepted truths and, at the risk of being considered odd, eccentric, or worse—being burned at the stake for his opinions—he teaches his own truth. One could argue that such heroes of Renaissance science as Copernicus and Galileo were zealots in the pursuit of truth. Moses, when he smote the Egyptian and then had to flee for his life, was a zealot. The Patriarch Abraham, the first iconoclast, was also a zealot, as was Elijah, who is celebrated in this week’s seldom-read haftarah.

The zealot is thus, first and foremost, an individual who has the inner power to somehow neutralize the influence of conventional thinking, to ignore the little voice inside each one of us which asks, “What will the neighbors think?” He knows that there is right and wrong, that one must struggle for the right and “Damn the consequences!” (Gershom Scholem, in a short essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety,” describes an extreme type who is not necessarily “political” or activist in the usual sense: the hasid, as “an exceptional type of man… the radical Jew who, in trying to follow the spiritual call, goes to extremes.” )

In a sense, one of the fundamental mitzvot of the Torah—Kiddush Hashem, “to sanctify the Holy Name”—is nothing other but a call, under certain circumstances, to fanaticism. After all, who but a fanatic willingly lays down his own life for an abstract principle, to refrain from performing an act (bowing down to an idol, kissing the Cross) which, inside oneself, one knows to be meaningless and that one’s compliance is forced by sheer power. And yet, the Jew is called upon to die for Kiddush Hashem when need be, and our martyrs are celebrated among the greatest heroes of our faith.

The problem, of course, is that zealotry may be seriously misguided—and even when not, may obscure the subtleties of c0ompelx moral judgments. Or, for that matter, zealotry may be just plain crazy. There are those people who hear voices telling them to do strange bizarre things. I once met one: in the midst of a meeting with Shlomo Carlebach after a concert, in his hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, a very beautiful, very pregnant young woman suddenly burst into the room, followed by a young man. Shouting, confusion, tears: only after Shlomo calmed them down somewhat and they left the room did he explain the situation: the young man, whose name happened to be Abraham, was convinced that, like his Biblical namesake, he had been commanded by God to sacrifice his firstborn son—that is, to violently abort the unborn infant in his wife’s womb. He was, of course, literally crazy: he had escaped from a mental institution and in due time the proverbial “men in the white coats” came to take him back. Nevertheless: who can prove that that which made Abraham a “knight of faith” made him plain cuckoo?

What is “the King’s Torah”?

A number of readers have asked me to comment about the recent hullabaloo in Israel concerning the book Torat ha-Melekh. First, a few basic facts, for those unfamiliar with the story: about a year ago two rabbis from the West Bank settlement Yizhar, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, published a book entitled Torat ha-Melekh, in which they discuss, on the basis of various Talmudic, midrashic and later halakhic sources, the question: Under what circumstances may one kill a non-Jew? More particularly: may one kill an innocent civilians, non-combatants, in time of war, and under what circumstances? What about women and children? The book (which I must confess I have not personally read, or even seen) evidently cites a broad range of situations in which such behavior are permissible. (The sub-text of the discussion is of course the behavior of the Israeli army during the December 2008 Gaza campaign known as “Operation Oferet Yetzukah” and its aftermath in which accusations were leveled against Israel of having violated international law and basic principles of morality, the report of the Goldstone Commission, etc.; and, perhaps more important, an attempt to justify sporadic violence between West Bank settlers and local Arabs, including violence against Arabs trying to harvest their olive orchards, torching of mosques, etc..) Calls were issued to investigate the book to determine whether its authors had violated the laws against racist incitement to violence. A few weeks ago two prominent rabbis, Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (son of Rav Obadiah Yosef and known posek in his own right), who gave haskamot (a kind of “imprimatur”) to the book, were briefly detained by the police for questioning. In a controversy that generated more heat than light, the “Left” accused, not only its authors, but the two rabbis, of “racism”; the other side, in turn, held a demonstration against the High Court, using such slogans as “The Torah is above the Law.”

As I see it, the central issue is: Does Jewish law draw a distinction between the value of the life of a Jew and that of a non-Jew? And, if so, what does this mean, and what practical implications are to be drawn from this, if any? I will discuss these issues, including texts and translations, in the second half of this article.

First, some general, introductory remarks: Is there only one, cut-and-dry halakhah on these (and other) questions? As I understand it, the halakhah is—and always has been— a dynamic, dialectical system. Among other things, there has always been a tension between codification, pesak, giving one single answer to any given question, and a more open-ended, dialectical approach (this was one of the reasons why Rambam’s great code, the Mishneh Torah, was criticized when he first wrote it). More generally, one of the issues that emerges in this and similar controversies is the conflict between a literalist, fundamentalist approach to halakhah, and one which takes into account historical development and change—but more on that another time.

Thus, for example, R. Menahem Hameiri, the great halakhic anthologist of 14th century France, author of the encyclopedic Beit ha-Behirah on the Talmud, whenever interpreting a passage portraying Gentiles or idolaters in negative terms, took pain to emphasize that this only applies to the Gentiles who lived in those days, but that the non-Jews of his own day, who accept civilized norms of ethics and behavior, are to be treated differently; moreover, even if not so, darkei shalom, the maintenance of peaceable relations with the outside world requires this. And, I would add: if thus regarding Medieval Christians, who believed e.g. in the Trinity, all the more so the Muslims, whom everyone would agree are pure monotheists (whatever other deeply–rooted differences, partly religiously-inspired, we may have with them).

The main point: as many religious Zionist thinkers have observed, perhaps the most important halakhic challenge faced by the Jewish people today is that all those areas deriving from the reality of a sovereign Jewish state—legislation, the nature of the courts, economic planning on a state level, international relations and diplomacy and how that impacts on decisions made, army, warfare—are only minimally -developed in the traditional halakhic sources. There are many areas of halakhah which have been actively observed by Jews throughout generations, such that the halakhic literature of the rishonim and aharonim are filled with substantial discussion, textual analysis, responsa relating to various practical questions which may serve as precedents—but these relate primarily to the areas of personal observance (issur va-heter), family life, civil law (contract law, damages, partnerships, etc.), or questions relating to the synagogue and the round of the week and the year. By contrast, those areas related to the life of society as a whole (which would include the questions treated by Torat ha-Melekh) are not highly developed, for the simple reason that, already in the earliest formative period of the Rabbinic tradition, Jews did not have political sovereignty. Hillel and Shammai lived during the reign of Herod, when Judaea was de facto a satellite or protectorate of Rome—and the situation only get worse after his death. Thus, discussions about courts administering the death penalty or engaging in warfare were largely theoretical, made without real responsibility for their consequences.

Maimonides — motivated partly by messianic considerations, partly by a deep-seated belief in the integrity of the Torah as an entirety, including those laws not operative in his historical age — was the only major authority to include these subjects in his great halakhic work, Yad ha-Hazakah or Mishneh Torah. Thus, he includes detailed laws of the Temple, of purity and impurity, of agricultural laws applicable only in the Land, and, most germane to our subject, “Laws of the Sanhedrin,” and “Laws of Kings and Their Wars” (Hilkhot Melakhim u-mikhamoteihem).

Some religious Zionist thinkers have addressed these issues, explicitly stating that the creation of a Jewish state would require a major intellectual revolution in halakhah. Thus, Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, who lived in the United States during the first half of twentieth century, wrote a multi-volume halakhic treatise entitled Malki ba-Kodesh, in which he addresses a wife gamut of issues that would be raised by the creation of a Jewish state. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, both as Chief Rabbi of the IDF and of the State, addressed many issues, particularly those relating to Army and warfare in a Jewish state. Rav Yehudah Gershuni also wrote on some of the larger “meta-issues” relating to state and halakhah. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a thinker who was not himself a halakhist, wrote passionately of this need—and no doubt there are many others who could be mentioned. But in recent decades many of those writing about these issues have tended to be highly ideological and rather narrow in their purview.

Finally, before turning to the substance of the issue itself, a brief comment about Rav Lior’s arrest: there was something a bit odd about investigating him simply because of giving a haskamah to the book; such letters of commendation do not necessarily imply that the rabbi writing it approves of its contents, or has even perused them thoroughly, but simply that he knows its author to be an observant and a learned Jew. But on another level, what is happening now is too little too late. At the time of Rabin’s assassination, nearly sixteen years ago, there was some much talk about various rabbis having encouraged the assassin, Yigal Amir, and providing him with halakhic–ideological justification for his act—one of the most traumatic and divisive events in the history of the State— by stating that Rabin was a rodef, one who endangered the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Rav Lior’s name featured prominently among those rabbis whom Amir consulted—but nothing was ever done about it. There was too much pressure from religious circles who regarded rabbis as somehow above interrogation by the police, even if their (at time, highly influential) actions may well have been tantamount to “incitement “ to criminal acts. In my opinion, even if a person who is clothed in garments of Torah fosters rebellion against the duly elected leaders of the sovereign state of the Jewish people, he must be treated as such, despite his rabbinic office. In the same way as the President has been tried and convicted for rape, and a host of ministers and Knesset members have been tried and sat in prison for various white collar offenses, so too a rabbi is not above the law. In that respect, perhaps his arrest, if only for a brief interrogation, was good thing.



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