Parashat Pinchas:Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side

The actions of Pinchas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron have been a real problem to commentators on bible from earliest times. The Israelites were sinning, committing idolatry and cavorting with the Midianite women and God had ordered the leaders of these people to be killed. But Pinchas, apparently roused to zealous fury by the sight of an Israelite man with a Midianite woman who were shamelessly transgressing in full view of Moses and the weeping frightened people waiting by the door of the Tent of Meeting, thrust a spear through the misbehaving couple.

It was summary justice, conducted without any of the due process of warning, without trial where both sides of the story could be told, without witnesses speaking, without the judicial process that would protect the accused and offer mitigating outcomes. Pinchas’ action was simply outrageous, contravening all the rules set up to protect society.  Put simply he murdered two human beings because he was ‘zealous for God’. He is the icon of proponents of violence in the name of religion.

But while God may seemingly reward Pinchas (and also the people as the plague is suddenly stopped), the ambiguity of the text and many responses of tradition make clear that violence in the name of God is unacceptable. The third century sage Rav condemned him, saying that the judgement on the two people he had killed was only to be made by God, and while the action might be within the parameters of law given on Sinai, “God who gave the advice should execute the advice”.  In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read that “Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men”, and of the comment by  Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi who says that Pinchas was about to be excommunicated for his action and that this was only averted when God intervened to save him.  God’s declaration that this zealousness and its murderous outcome was done without any personal motivation whatsoever, done only for the honour of God, was what saved Pinchas from the legal process about to take place, but even then it is understood that only such absolute purity of motive is acceptable, and only God can know the full motives of any heart.

Zealousness or vengeance on behalf of God – it is a problem that has never left religion.  God says that Pinchas was “vengeful/zealous/carrying out My vengeance  for My sake (be-kano et kinati     בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם).

קַנָּא is an attribute of God, albeit one that moderns find problematic. We know, because bible tells us, that the plague on the people was an aspect of divine קַנָּא, also that God introduces Godself to the people at Mt. Sinai as “El Kana” (Exodus 20:4). And whatever the difficulty we might have with knowing that God is not only love, not only sweetness and light, but that God is complex and contains within divinity the full spectrum of possibility, it seems to me that in the way this text is written, as well as the majority of rabbinic responses to it, we are made to understand that this attribute is one that should properly be left to God. For who among us is so pure of heart that we can know that there is no other motive, no selfish desire or egoistic drive mixed in with our religious zeal?

Violence and vengeance is part of the human psyche.  The book of Genesis tells us that Cain (whose name  קַיִן echoes the sound קַנָּא, although it comes from the root meaning acquisition rather than vengefulness) murdered his own brother in anger when his own hopes were frustrated. He too was given something by God – the mark of Cain placed on him to protect him from those who would hurt him. Within ten generations of Cain the earth is filled with wickedness and violence, so much that God was sorry that s/he had ever created human beings (Genesis 6:5ff) and wanted to blot them off the surface of the earth, saving only one family, that of Noach, who was relatively less wicked than others. God told Noach “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen 6:13)

From the beginning of bible, it is clear that when God made human beings in the divine image, this included the shadow side of that image. It becomes the job of religion not to excise that which cannot be eliminated, but to recognise it and to find ways to constrain it, limiting the driver of zealousness to the point of making it impotent, making it impossible for people to act from this belief/feeling.  Hence the Talmudic narrative which clarifies that Pinchas is defended by God because uniquely he has entirely pure motives for his act, with no personal impetus whatsoever.

Talmud also contains the idea that “the [torah] scroll and the sword came down from heaven tied together” – a teaching by the 3rd century Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’in. It derives from the Rabbinic idea that Torah was a complete and perfect work even before it was given to the Israelite people at Mt Sinai, and ties it together with the idea that violence/vengeance was also one of the earliest actions demonstrated in humanity. It is often quoted to suggest that both are necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, but in fact the statement of Rabbi Eleazar goes on:- “God said to Israel, ‘If you observe the Torah that is written in the one, you will be saved from the other. If you do not, then you will be destroyed/injured by it”

The teaching is clear however: Both violence and religion are intertwined and archetypal in people, but the work of religious tradition is to try to separate them, not to allow the violence which is endemic within us to overpower us, but instead to follow the will of God in order to subdue this first and primal response.

When God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace, he is not rewarding him for an achievement, he is constraining him from further violence, just as the mark of Cain is constraining others from further violence.

The problem we face today is how to constrain those who feel zealousness for God, of whatever tradition and whatever religion, so that they understand that, in the words of the final song of Moses, Ha’azinu, God says  לִ֤י נָקָם֙ וְשִׁלֵּ֔ם “Vengeance and Recompense is Mine”.

It is not our work to punish or avenge in the name of God, we leave that to God. But it is our work to educate ourselves and each other that acts of violence in the name of religion or in the name of protecting the honour of God are unacceptable, beyond any parameter in this world, and will not make the perpetrators religious martyrs or otherwise glorified. Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side, from acting on our anger and from narrowing our perspective so we no longer see the humanity of each other. If it is not doing this, then it is religion that needs to evolve in order to fulfil this function.  And that is a job for people – not God – to do: And if not now, when?

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.