Fake Zealotry

7 Jul

One story in the Torah that I could certainly live without is the the one that concluded last week’s Torah reading, and begins this week’s reading.

And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.

And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand

And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. (Numbers Chapter 25)

It is not a pleasant story…Pinchas the grandson of the peace-loving Aharon – takes the law into his his own hands and acts with great zealousness.  He takes the lives of the two public sinners, which apparently brings an end to a plague that had brought about the deaths of some 24,000 Israelites.  Pinchas’ act of violence is praised, he is extended God’s special covenant of peace for his actions.

I say that I could live without this story, because I believe it is sorely misunderstood, over and over, generation after generation, by Jews and Gentiles alike.

Each and every generation reads this story and tries anew to understand the message.  Unfortunately, in the State of Israel today, this is not only about wrestling with an age-old textual difficulty, we are living with a whole community of Pinchas wanna-be’s who are taking to the streets in communities all over Israel – particularly of late in Jerusalem – to demonstrate on behalf of the holiness of the Shabbat.

For the past few weeks it has been the controversy over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat near the old city for the purpose of offering tourists (mainly Gentile)a place to park when they come to tour Jerusalem on Shabbat.  As I write these words, the haredi community is preparing to once again protest en masse in violent public demonstrations that lead to the arrest of a number of the protesters, the injury of protesters and security forces as well.

The Talmud makes it clear that  zealotry of the type displayed by Pinchas is not to be countenanced.

The Elders of Israel sought to excommunicate Pinchas until the Holy Spirit hurried and said: “It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expatiation for the Israelites. (Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7)

In other words, the rabbis came out condemning Pinchas for his actions.  (Whether this actually happened or not, the terminology used by the rabbis of the Talmud here demonstrates their strong aversion to zealous acts) Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God.

In such a case, who can tell whether the “zealot” is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he is actually acting for some other reason?  That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not God testified that his zeal for God was genuine.

What really motivates the zealots of Jerusalem?  Why is it that if they are not screaming “Nazi” at Israeli policemen, you might find them burning trash in the middle of their own neighborhood streets?

In 2002, Menachem Freidman of Bar Ilan University wrote in an essay entitled Violence in Haredi Society that ” violence  in haredi society results from the fact that it is internally divided and lacks a powerful and accepted leadership with the authority to make binding decisions on the fateful questions confronting it. These conditions afford various zealots the latitude needed both to use violence and to obtain the required protection and support among the various autonomous and competing Torah authorities. In this respect, rather than being directed outwardly at the secular population and its “religious” supporters, haredi violence and zealotry are directed inward, against those political leaders—and even great Torah authorities—who commit the cardinal sin of seeking a modus vivendi with the surrounding Jewish secular society.”

Perhaps this explains why in a survey conducted this past week, haredim themselves DO NOT think that these protests are liable to minimize desecration of Shabbat by the secular world, and on the contrary, just lead to more Shabbat desecration.

What we are seeing on the streets of Jerusalem then is just another form of fake zealotry where people claim they are doing one thing, while in reality, they are doing something else.

And for this reason, in my opinion, Israeli society needs to take steps to “excommunicate” such protesters – to ostracize them and the shallow leaders who send them out to disgrace the city of Jerusalem, the Jewish people, and the God of Israel.  There is no room for further respect of their superficial religiosity.  It must be condemned from the highest places in the religious world – (it is interesting that although the former chief rabbi of Israel – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau – condemned the activity- the current chief rabbis did not)

These fake zealots have created for themselves a “righteous” platform from which they spout their resentment of something that we Israelis hold dear – the existence of the modern State of Israel that strives to find answers to the many complex issues associated with the maintenance of a modern state.


5 Responses to “Fake Zealotry”

  1. Andy Curry Friday, July 10, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    Dear Rabbi Schwartz:

    Well reasoned and written. I sometimes wonder, though, as with “Reverend” Fred Phelps of Topeka, whose followers are so zealously against homosexuality that they picket military funerals – if strong condemnations and sanctions do not feed the beast. Condemn, or ignore?

    Shabbat shalom,

    • Morey Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 8:46 pm #


      Thanks for your comment. Frankly, my preference would be to ignore it, but modern orthodox people like myself run the risk of being lumped together with these fanatic elements when we don’t speak out. In addition, the chief rabbis often speak out on issues, so when they are silent on other issues, the silence is deafening.

  2. Eva Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    Dear Rabbi
    This is indeed a problem, not only for Israelis but for Jews in the diaspora. This week I read an account from an Australian female journalist covering these demonstrations who was surrounded and spat on. How do we answer anti Israel/semitic views when these horrible things happen?

    • Morey Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 8:51 pm #


      Thanks for your post.

      The best answer in these situations is to explain that Israel like most other nations on this earth has among its citizens extreme fringe elements that look to bring great attention to themselves by acting in ways of which the vast majority of the country and the Jewish people worldwide do not approve – and frankly, find to be an enormous embarrassment.

      It is not an excuse – just an unfortunate reality.

  3. Yanki Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    I have taken part in many protests in my day having lived thru VietNam etc. and none of them remain non-violent!
    I do not agree with the Haredi fanaticism yet on the other hand I do agree with making a statement in favor of Shabbat!
    This may be a justified move on the part of the municipality but it changes the ‘status quo’. By doing that the municipality has opened the proverbial pandora’s box.
    As a modern Orthodox Jew I want to stand up for Shabbat (not by keeping it only in ghetto like communities) yet I want to allow others to ‘worship’ in their own manners, accross the spectrum!
    How do we do that?

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