Who is allowed to be zealous like Pinchas? Are we allowed to use him as a model for extremist, vigilante behavior or is there a rule to cap zealotry?
Who is allowed to be zealous like Pinchas? Short answer: not you. The longer answer follows.
Let’s review the story of Pinchas, as told in Numbers chapter 25. His plot to curse the Jews having failed, the pagan prophet Balaam implemented a plan in which Moabite women literally seduced Jewish men into idolatry, provoking God into smiting the Jews with a plague. Perhaps the most grievous offender was Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, who publicly sinned with Kazbi, a Midianite princess. (I know that a sex offender with a name like “Cosby” seems unlikely but it happened!) Pinchas was overcome with religious zeal and impaled both of the offenders. Not only did this stop the plague – in which 24,000 Jews had died – Pinchas was rewarded by being made a kohein. (Aaron and his sons had been appointed kohanim but any of Aaron’s grandsons already born, including Pinchas, remained Levites.)
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) fills in some of the gaps in the Pinchas story. When Pinchas saw what was happening, he recalled a law that had been taught by Moshe, namely that when such things happen, zealots may take the law into their own hands. Therefore, Pinchas, who was motivated solely by honor for God’s Name, was permitted to do what he did.
You’re not Pinchas.
Let me share an unrelated law with you: The Mishna (Brachos 2:5) teaches that a groom is exempt from reciting Shema on his wedding night. The reason for this is because he’s anxious, and this anxiety keeps him from reciting Shema with the proper concentration. Despite this being the accepted halacha, it’s not the halacha in practice. You know why? Because we don’t have the proper concentration for Shema on any other day, either!
We accept that we’re not on the spiritual level of people in the time of the Mishna, so we don’t skip Shema on our wedding days. This being the case, how arrogant would it be for one to assume that he’s on the spiritual level of Pinchas, to justify killing people?
Not even Pinchas was exempt from having his motivations for killing Zimri questioned. Rashi on Numbers 25:11 explains why Pinchas is referred to as “the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the kohein,” since the Torah doesn’t typically name one’s grandfather. He cites a teaching found in the gemara (Sanhedrin 82b) and in numerous midrashim that the people, upset at Pinchas for killing Zimri, were disparaging him with ad hominem attacks. God added Pinchas’ grandfather Aaron when recounting his name in order to establish his credentials as the grandson of the High Priest, who was a renowned peacemaker.
So that’s something else Pinchas has that you don’t: God Personally establishing that his motives were pure. Yours would still be suspect.
It should be noted that there are numerous halachic parameters to kanaim pogim bo, which is the rule that zealots may take the law into their own hands. (The following are mostly garnered from the gemara in Sanhedrin, Rambam, Raavad and Rema, in no particular chronological order):
* The act that the zealot avenges must be performed in public, i.e., in front of a minyan of ten;
* The perpetrator of the act must be warned by two witnesses of potential consequences while the act is still ongoing;
* The zealot can only act at the time and place of the crime;
* If the perpetrator ceases committing the offense before the zealot acts, killing him is full-fledged murder;
* The offender is permitted to kill the zealot in self-defense;
* If the zealot goes to the court to ask for guidance, he is not directed to kill the offender.
There’s more to be said on this subject. For example, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) notes that the initial reaction to Pinchas’ act of zealotry was to excommunicate him, a consequence that was only forestalled by God’s Personal endorsement of him.
You’ll note that our religious authorities do not enthusiastically embrace people acting like zealots, to the point that it’s what’s called halacha v’ein morin kein – i.e., there may be such a law on the books but you’ll never be instructed to follow it.
I think the reason that our Sages are so unenthusiastic about zealotry is because it requires the zealot to act unilaterally, based solely on his own judgment. Most people don’t have such good judgment. Unlike Pinchas, they’re not motivated solely by a desire to stand up for God. They might personally resent the offender for his misdeeds. They might want the credit they would receive for smiting the offender. There’s an infinite number of mitigating thoughts one might have, any of which would make his act less than pure zeal for God. And if it’s not pure zeal, he’s a hypocrite and his act of “zealotry” is a crime. In fact, the Talmud defines a hypocrite as one who acts like Zimri and expects to be rewarded like Pinchas (Sotah 22b).
Finally, it must be noted that many contemporary authorities rule that the law of kanaim pogim bo doesn’t even apply in the absence of a functioning Sanhedrin. That being the case, one would not be permitted to act as a zealot in this day and age even if one could be sure that his motivations were 100% pure.
So, bottom line, if you see someone publicly sinning in a manner that you consider to be an affront to God, you might be filled with righteous indignation but keep your hands to yourself.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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