Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
During the tragic episode of Ba’al Pe’or, recorded at the end of Parshat Balak, Pinchas ben Elazar slays the two perpetrators of an act of public defamation. In response to Pinchas’ precipitous actions, God suspends the deadly plague that has already claimed twenty-four thousand Israelite lives.
As Parshat Pinchas opens, God details the divine reward to be bestowed upon Pinchas for his courageous actions.
Through the suspension of the deadly plague and through the bestowal of divine reward, God clearly indicates his approval of Pinchas’ apparent vigilantism.
One could well ask, however, by what right does Pinchas take the law into his own hands? How does Jewish law, in general, view such solitary acts of zealotry?
The halachic verdict concerning Pinchas’ actions can best be described as one of striking ambivalence.
On the one hand, the Talmud includes the circumstances facing Pinchas in its list of situations in which Jewish law permits zealots to enter the breach and summarily execute perpetrators in the very act of their crimes. This legal allowance for zealotry is even identified as one of the few regulations directly transmitted by God orally to Moshe at Sinai.
On the other hand, the rabbis also maintain that this right of zealotry falls into a small, puzzling category of laws described as halacha v’ein morin kein, “law that one may not teach.” Had Pinchas sought halachic advice before acting, he would have been instructed to refrain. Furthermore, had Pinchas’ victim, Zimri, turned and killed Pinchas in self-defense, Zimri would not have been liable for prosecution and punishment. These puzzling legal rulings indicate that, while actions like those performed by Pinchas may be halachically allowed, they are not uniformly halachically embraced.
Midrashic comments concerning Pinchas’ actions reflect a similar ambivalence. The Jerusalem Talmud maintains that Pinchas acted “against the will of the sages,” while Yehuda ben Pazi goes so far as to suggest that only heavenly intervention prevented Pinchas from being excommunicated by authorities of the time.
The complex, seemingly contradictory rabbinic attitude towards Pinchas’ actions rises out of the delicate balance struck by Jewish law as it navigates between two conflicting truths:
1. The halachic system, deeply committed to the deliberate application of the rule of law, can rarely, if ever, condone the decision to move beyond due legal process.
2. A legal system that does not allow for immediate, extraordinary reaction to moments of great exigency cannot survive, certainly not across the course of a turbulent history.
To address the conundrum created by these competing realities, Jewish law creates the category of hora’at sha’a, emergency decrees. This legal category allows for extraordinary extra-legal decisions and actions under exceptional circumstances.
Even actions taken under the rubric of hora’at sha’a, however, require the approval of prophetic or legal authority. Zealotry, such as that evidenced by Pinchas, pushes the envelope one step further. Here, the halacha contemplates the possibility of individual action, precipitously taken, in cases of greatest exigency. The hesitation with which Jewish law approaches such zealous acts is most clearly exhibited in the aforementioned principle, that the rules allowing and governing such acts are halacha v’ein morin kein, law that one may not teach. This principle reflects a startling halachic posture. So ambivalent is the rabbinic attitude towards acts of zealotry that even though such acts are legal, we may not convey their legality even to someone seeking halachic guidance. Were someone to request a halachic psak (ruling) prior to the performance of an act of zealotry, he would be told not to act.
Some commentaries suggest that this halachic hesitation rises out of the fact that zealotry is an allowance, rather than an obligation. Respecting the zealot’s deep visceral reaction to the crime, God allows him to respond. He is, however, not commanded to do so. If the zealot asks for halachic guidance before acting, therefore, he will not be instructed to proceed.
Other authorities perceive the halachic hesitation concerning zealotry as reflective of uncertainty concerning the motives of the zealot. To qualify as a zealot, one “must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God.” Such purity of motive, however, is rare. Most often, other, less legitimate factors influence an individual’s decision to act under the cover of zealotry. The sages of Pinchas’ time, therefore, suspicious of their hero’s motives, move to excommunicate him, only to be stopped by a divine decree attesting to his genuineness.
Some scholars, however, see the complex halachic approach to zealotry as reflective of an even more basic issue.
Zealotry can be acceptable, suggest these authorities, only when it is true zealotry – when the act is emotionally driven, performed in the heat of the moment, without hesitation or calculation. If an individual, at the moment of crisis, pauses to ask for halachic guidance, he is by definition no longer a zealot and therefore forfeits any halachic allowance for his precipitous actions.
An act of zealotry thus emerges as the singular exception to the general rule of Jewish law. To qualify as a permissible act of zealotry, the deed must be performed without, rather than with, halachic consultation. Judgment can only take place in retrospect, as the halacha determines, after the fact, whether or not this individual is a true zealot, justified in his actions.
Finally, another potential objection to acts of zealotry rises, according to some commentaries, from an additional, secondary source.
A zealot is open to criticism, these scholars maintain, not only because of his precipitous actions, but because of the personal danger to which he exposes himself. Rabbi Meir Dan Plotsky, in his commentary on the Torah, Kli Chemda, notes that the Talmudic allowance for zealotry is recorded in the plural. Zealots are permitted to act in concert, this sage maintains, because of the safety provided by their numbers. The authorities of Pinchas’ time, Rabbi Plotsky argues, specifically opposed Pinchas’ behavior because, by acting alone, he exposed himself to mortal danger.
These and other observations in Jewish scholarly literature reflect the deep legal and philosophical complexities raised by actions like those of Pinchas at Ba’al Pe’or.
At the dawn of Jewish history, at a time of great crisis, a solitary man courageously steps forward to defend God’s name. In doing so, he not only responds to the needs of the moment, but challenges us across the ages to confront the place of the zealot in Jewish thought and law.