Joel Cohen's Question:

Pinchas saw wrong, and he brazenly "righted it." G‑d had come to him, and he did G‑d's bidding—for Moses didn't act to quickly punish the wrongdoing. And for Pinchas' action, that is, for taking vengeance against (for killing) Zimri ben Salu and his Midianite paramour Cozbi bat Zur for sexual promiscuity at the Tent of the Assembly, Pinchas gained from G‑d a "Covenant of Eternal Priesthood." G‑d thus rewarded his zealotry and violent conduct. Simply said, Pinchas was the first radical "Fundamentalist."

Did Pinchas "talk to G‑d" or "hear from G‑d"? Maybe so. Still, the problem with people who claim to have received their instructions from direct intercourse with G‑d is that the conversation ends right there.

Fundamentalists today are also willing to take the law into their own hands, e.g., by eliminating the "infidels," claiming to have received their instructions directly from G‑d (or, as they would call him, Allah). But today's Fundamentalists, although they haven't done it so far, could shove down our throats the precedent of Pinchas: no witnesses, no judge, no trial, no appeal—simply, "G‑d came to me; and He will reward me like He did Pinchas."

Isn't the Pinchas precedent, then, far too dangerous? Or is his precedent distinguishable from what today's Fundamentalists are willing to do "In the Name of G‑d"? And, if so, how?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Many years ago I saw a bumper sticker that read, "G‑d—Save Us From Your Followers." Unfortunately, the history of religious fundamentalism has borne great tragedy and suffering over the centuries. But, you ask, isn't Pinchas the model of a Jewish fundamentalist who took matters into his own hands?

Furthermore, the Talmud uses Pinchas as an example of acceptable fundamentalism, and according to the Midrash, Pinchas is equated with Elijah who also stood up for G‑d and was rewarded with fire descending from heaven.

Yet, if we do not provide a distinction, what prevents fundamentalists from claiming Pinchas as their model? Religious fundamentalism is one of the most complicated subjects in the history of world religion. Each religion instructs its followers to heed the commandments and to spread the word of G‑d, at least to their fellow religionists. So what prevents a religious person from claiming that he is performing a religious duty by killing someone else in the name of religious observance, be that the sexual crime that Pinchas addressed or the debate over the ownership of the land of Israel?

I believe that one distinction between Pinchas and other fundamentalists may be that in the Biblical story nothing goes without repercussion. It was a time when good was immediately rewarded and evil openly rebuked and punished. You collect extra manna, you get notable mention and it all spoils. You collect wood on Shabbat and G‑d openly declares what your punishment is. Plagues break out when people unrightfully complain. Pinchas knew that G‑d would either agree or disagree with his actions. While, according to the simple reading of the text, Pinchas did not consult with G‑d beforehand, the knowledge that G‑d would intervene prevented this example from serving as a general model. G‑d agreed with Pinchas—but don't assume that He will agree with every fundamentalist. And today's fundamentalist has the luxury of never being exposed.

Yet, at the end of the day, this is only the beginning of the answer. Let us all hope that the religious leadership guides its followers to understand the model of Pinchas and to apply it to the narrow case in which it was carried out.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, you left out some crucial details of the story. Let me add some important background to the story – some details straight from the Bible, some from the Talmud – and perhaps you will view it in an entire different light:

The people of Moab hear of the Israelites' miraculous victories, and are determined not to become the next on the list of conquests. Realizing that conventional warfare can not compete with a nation whose breakfast, lunch and supper fall daily from heaven, a nation that spends its days studying and meditating because their material needs are all seen to from Above, they decide to use alternative metaphysical strategies.

The first idea is to hire the most renowned sorcerer of the time to curse the nation into oblivion. This prophet/sorcerer, Balaam, has no luck, and instead ends up blessing the Israelites with some of the most powerful blessings of all time. He informs the Moabites that G‑d is madly in love with this nation that has blindly committed itself to follow Him through thick and thin.

Balaam then offers the Moabites counsel: "Come, I will advise you..." (Numbers 24:14). But – at that point in the narrative – the Torah does not specify the advice that Balaam offered (instead, abruptly switching to Balaam's visions about the future). Not to leave us in the dark, however, later (Numbers 31) Moses instructs the Israelites who waged war against Midian to kill the women as well (an exception to Torah's usual rules of war): "They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice to betray G‑d over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of G‑d." The advice that Balaam offers is, as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) explains at length: "The G‑d of this nation despises lewdness." He therefore devises a scheme whereby the Midianite and Moabite women seduce Israelite men to sin.

The advice works wonders, for lack of a better word. G‑d was angered and sent a plague upon His people—Israelites were dying left, right and center. Not ten, not one hundred, not one thousand. 24,000 Jews died in the plague. G‑d is pretty angry.

G‑d then instructs Moses (25:4) to appoint judges to "hang [the perpetrators] before G‑d, facing the sun, and then G‑d's flaring anger will be removed from Israel." The judges begin doing so...

In the midst of this all, a leader from the tribe of Shimon decides to defend the right of his people to consort with the Midianite women. He will make a public mockery of G‑d's laws by cavorting with a Midianite princess and flaunting his illicit relationship before Moses and the Israelite elders.

Moses and the leaders burst into tears at this brazen and public sacrilegiousness.

"And Pinchas saw," says verse 25:7, "arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand."

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) explains that Pinchas saw the act and was reminded of a law that Moses had already taught—a law that the others had forgotten or didn't have the courage to act upon. He said to Moses, "I learned from you, 'When a Jewish man cohabits with a heathen woman, zealots have the right to strike him dead [while he's in the midst of the act].'"

"Let the one who reads the letter be the agent to carry it out," Moses replied.

Immediately, "he took a spear in his hand…went after the Israelite man…drove it through both of them; the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach, and the plague ceased from the children of Israel."

(Interestingly, this law is quite unusual in that if a person were to approach a Jewish court or rabbi and ask whether he should kill the offending person, the court would instruct him not to do so. It's basically a dispensation for a zealot who does so, not a law that is encouraged. This explains why even after being reminded of the law, Moses did not directly instruct Pinchas to do so.)

Pinchas did not take the law into his own hands. He followed the teaching exactly as Moses had previously conveyed it from the Almighty.

Pinchas was, in fact, a hero. There are times when, though we know what's right, we don't have the guts to live up to our values—especially if it comes at the cost of being mocked by the entire community. Pinchas, a "nobody" up until this point, actually put his life in danger by killing a prince. Zimri was supported by his entire tribe, and they could have easily killed Pinchas (and would have, if not for a sequence of miracles that occurred, as detailed in the Talmud). But Pinchas was not deterred by the danger. What concerned him was the danger facing his people, and he was willing to risk his life to eliminate the threat.

Nobody would have criticized him had he let the situation pass. On the contrary, he provoked much criticism for his deed, and was very nearly ostracized.

What makes this different than fundamentalism? Fundamentalists impose their religion on people who haven't had the same "vision" has they have. The Israelites did not deny that they had all heard the instructions from G‑d at Sinai.

And Fundamentalists act out of hate for anyone who doesn't share their belief. Pinchas acted out of a love for a nation that was suffering a deadly plague.

What are we to learn from this story?

Pinchas was not the leader amongst the Jewish people; Moses, Elazar, and the elders occupied the positions of authority. Yet when the need arose, Pinchas did not wait for the leaders' guidance, but seized the initiative himself.

The same applies with regard to every individual today, for every one of us has a unique contribution to make. With the confidence that comes from the truth of our inner conviction, we must all take the initiative and teach the truth, and not sell our true beliefs short for a pat on the back from the prominent and popular.

For more on this topic, see:

How To Take the Law Into Your Own Hands
The Extremist
The Zealot