Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pinchas and Extremism

Pinchas may have been a zealot, but he was no radical extremist.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a) the two are equivalent, and b) that Pinchas serves as the paradigm for both. Contemporary “extremists” (in at least a colloquial sense) on both sides of the religio-political (or politico-religious) spectrum believe this: “right-wingers” because he did what needed to be done in spite of the draconian nature of his action, “left-wingers” because his action, necessary or not, was draconian and therefore ipso-facto radically reactionary. (Some rather enterprising "enlightened" thinkers have termed this action the first example of religious terrorism.)

A further examination of the sequence of events leading up to Pinchas’ confrontation with Zimri will reveal that his action, while certainly zealous and ostensibly draconian, were not the actions of an unbridled extremist. In fact, his action was both religiously and politically calculated, was undertaken only after consultation, and could be successfully executed (literally and figuratively) only through the implementation of an elaborate subterfuge.

The Jews were once again knocking at the door of the promised land...but then the plague of snakes hit, Moshe and Aharon were disqualified from leading the Jews into Eretz Yisrael, and now the populace was engaging in widespread simultaneous promiscuity and idol worship, resulting in another raging plague.

In the midst of all the carnage came one of the pillars of the community—Zimri—to announce his plan to put an end to the plague. Basically he was telling the populace: you idiots. Why do you think you have to engage in the worship of ba’al peor just to liaise with non Jewish women? I’ll show you otherwise.

That’s one political response.

Pinchas, like everyone else, overhears Zimri’s boast and, remembering the halacha of kanain pog’in bo, consults with Moshe, who advises him to carry it out. What happens next—as detailed in the gemara in Sanhedrin—is worthy of any Mossad operation. Pinchas tricks the throng around the ohel moed—where Zimri has decided to make good his boast—into thinking that he is wants to pick up where and when Zimri leaves off. (Possibly the first Biblical example of law enforcement using deception to crack a case.) Hiding his weapon under his robe, he gains entrance and then spears the in flagrante Zimri and Cozbi, who are otherwise engaged and therefore completely unaware of his presence.

The first thing to note is that Pinchas was not only working within the exisiting legal system—he knew that there was a halacha of kanain pog’in bo—he even consulted with his superior first, and then, because he knew the risks involved (if Zimri actually stopped, Pinchas would be guilty of murder; if Zimri turned and killed Pinchas, it would be justifiable homicide), made sure he had all his bases covered. Aside from Zimri, he probably suspected that the cheering crowd outside the tent--obviously Zimri had influenced numerous people that his approach of gilui arayos without avoda zara was the more prudent course—were also aware of the halacha of kanain and were informally acting as Zimri’s security, although there is little or no textual indication as such.

However, is isn’t just Pinchas’ ability to calculate and consult that belies any notion of inborn extremism. One only has to see that the opportunity to actually put an end to the plague was actually unwittingly provided by Zimri, because until he declared his intention, showed up with Cozbi and took her in, everyone was at a loss as to how to stop the plague, because the mass convictions and executions going on were obviously not pacifying the Divine anger. It is possible that Zimri was trying to score political points with his constituency (whomever they may have been) by using his approach to contrast with Moshe’s, who was at a loss to stop the dying. (It is also possible that he had other things on his mind at the time; the gemara is actually rather explicit about what he and Cozbi were doing and for how long.) He almost certainly, however, calculated that no one would “call him on it”; that is, people would liaise without consequence before anyone would carry out kana’in. If not for Pinchas, he might have been correct.

Pinchas’ working within the system, giving Zimri whatever due process he would have deserved (admittedly not much, for Zimri had publicly announced his intent to violate the law and then made good on his boast) and undertaking a risky (though not necessarily suicidal) operation designed to save lives should serve as enough of an indicator that, to paraphrase Rabbi Norman Lamm, while he may have taken an extreme position, he was not taking an extremist position. If that is not enough, however, one must realize that he took this action purely as a reaction; he was precluded from taking any real proactive measures beyond what had already been done in this crisis. Until Zimri, acting as a political opportunist, provided Pinchas with an opportunity of his own.

So—if anyone—on either side of the religio-socio-political divide—thinks that the story of Pinchas provides either a justification for religious extremism, or portrays all religion as ipso facto irredeemably radically reactionary—think again.


Moshe said...

In fact, his action was both religiously and politically calculated, were undertaken only after consultation, and could be successfully executed (literally and figuratively) only through the implementation of an elaborate subterfuge.

Couldn't this describe the actions of most extremists? For example, wouldn't this describe Yigal Amir?

A Cognitive Dissident said...

Yigal Amir did NOT:

1) Consult with anyone. Even if he had asked a shaila and gotten a heter to shoot Rabin--which he didn't--one could not have really said he was working within then system, as Pinchas was when he asked Moshe about kana'in.

2) Engage in an elaborate subterfuge, despite the fact that he took advantage of the fact that no one in security had a hava amina that a yarmulke-wearer posed a mortal threat to anyone.