Thursday, July 14, 2011

Violent Zealots, Liberals, Feminists’ Initiatives & Bid’a. Zimri, Phineas, Noa & Sisters Pinchas 2011

Off the Beaten Path - Image by ZK and Nachman
Responses to unexpected situations can be either open and accommodating or conservative and even violent, but these are not the only options.

I have two motives for exploring this; one is simply to explore the intersection between contemporary perspectives and the stories of the zealot, Pinchas (Phineas), killing a man and the petition by the daughters of Zelophehad not to lose out based on their gender. I am deliberately not presenting a balanced picture that would offset the challenging texts with all the gentle aspects of the Torah, instead I am focusing on what I find difficult. The second motive is a response to the discourse on the part of non-Muslims about Islam needing to be reformed vs. the idea of Bid’a which is a resistance to “innovation” in religion. This is my attempt to understand how my tradition might respond to changed circumstances.

The Situation – Rampant Immorality & Idolatry
Israelite men, in significant numbers had forbidden sexual relations with Moabite women, being called to attend their sacrifices to their gods, eating and bowing to their gods[1]. “The Amonnite and Moabite women were selling all types of spices, the Israelites would eat and drink. An older woman would offer to sell an object at cost. A young girl would call him from inside and offer to sell it for less. He would buy from her on the first day and the second day. On the third day she said to him come inside and choose for yourself, you are like one of the household. He would come in near her and the flask was full of Amonnite wine, (which was not yet forbidden). She said would you like to drink? And he would drink. The wine would burn inside of him and he would say to her, “Listen to me” (A euphemism for sexual relations). She pulls out a form of Peor from her clothes and says. My master, if you desire that I listen to you, bow to this…the wine burned in him and he says to her “listen to me”. She says if you want me to ‘listen to you’ separate yourself from the Torah of Moses, so he did[2].   

The beaten track, the Justice System
Moses responded to this by calling the judges of the people to kill those found guilty of worshipping the god Baal Peor[3]. Most of the dead were from the tribe of Simeon, who were 37,100 less (59,300 to 22,200) in the next census taken[4] compared to the previous census[5]. The tribe of Shimeon went to their leader, Zimri and told him, “they are judging capital cases and you are sitting silently?![6]

Zimri’s response: Accommodation
Zirmri, a clan leader of the tribe of Shimeon tried to save his tribe by making the point that their behaviour was not so bad or unforgivable[7]. He “came and brought the Midyanite (woman) in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire congregation”[8]. He then proceeded to go into a tent and commit the sin with her. Zirmri may have also been motivated by a desire to accommodate the lust of the people within the Jewish camp, if the men want to sin with the women let them do it without them being led to idol worship[9]. This was one harm minimization approach, that was not embraced by Jewish tradition.

Pinchas’ response: Zealous Violence
“Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. He went after the Israelite man into the chamber and drove [it through] both of them—the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach”[10]. Pinchas does not convene a court, but acts as a zealot. Jews today are not guided to act as Pinchas did, still, despite my discomfort with the act of Pinchas, the notion of zealous violence for God is an undeniable part of my heritage.  When 3000 years later, R. Mendel Vechter a former Satmar Chasid was beaten on the streets of Brooklyn for teaching young men Chabad Chasidism, all my tradition can say is that this case did not justify vigilante violence, but it cannot condemn all extra-legal religious violence as a principle.  Jews who value this Torah text can still object to the religious violence of the Taliban, but without smugness.

I find some comfort in the guidance from tradition that Pinchas’ approach was a law that was not taught[11]. It is not a path for everyone. Even Moses chose not to act as Pinchas had because he was concerned that his motives would not be pure because of Zimri’s personal attack against him[12].

The Torah declares a reward of a covenant of peace for Pinchas. On one level it countered the personal attacks against Pinchas by the people[13]. One commentary sees that as a protection against an inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of human being, without due process of law is liable to cause[14]. I think the message of Pinchas is about someone without authority taking action against powerful figures for what one believes to be right.

Justice for Cozbi?
Contrary to the “The goy!? who cares?” attitude expressed in the “Goy’s Teeth” clip (of the movie A Serious Man)[15], there is concern about the legal status of the non-Jewish woman, Cozbi, that Pinchas killed. It is pointed out[16] that there is no evidence that Cozbi was married and her execution is questioned based on the principle that extramarital relations by an unmarried woman is not a capital crime. The justification for her death is deeply disturbing; it is linked[17] to the verse that states that if an animal was used in an act of bestiality, the animal is killed[18] because a person was brought to sin through it.  A respected authority challenges this proposition based on the obvious difference between an animal and a human being[19].

I would suggest there is a possibility that Cozbi was coerced and did not fully consent to the act. Cozbi was propositioned by Zimri, but she refused him. She said, “I am the daughter of a king, my father instructed me not to “listen” (to anyone but) the greatest of them such as Moses your teacher[20]. Zimri falsely claimed that he was greater than Moses as head of a tribe. Of course, Moses was not the leader of one of 12 tribes but of the whole people and Zimri was not the leader of a tribe either, but the chief of one of five clans within the tribe of Shimeon[21]. “Zimri grabbed Cozbi by her plaited hair and brought her to Moses where he proceeded to make his arguments”[22], a clear signed of coercion. Even if Cozbi did consent, it may have been based on false premises no less significant than those in the case of the Arab Sabar Kashur who was sentenced to 18 months jail for gaining consent on false pretences (that he was Jewish)[23].  

A more palatable story is one about five sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad who challenge the assumption that only men could inherit a portion in the land and God agrees with them[24]. Initially they were given the run-around, first going to Moses to be told to speak to leaders of hundreds, only to be told that this is a difficult matter that only Moses can deal with. Eventually they approached them all at the same time. Moses is so taken with their argument that he wished to advocate for them before God but he is told that they are right and don’t need an advocate[25].  

Much is written about the tactical and legal wisdom of the five women. “Their petition followed a razor-sharp line of reasoning that incorporated all the relevant laws and principles, and even formulated the proper decision. This is why Scripture says, “And Moses brought their judgment before G‑d”—their judgment, not their question, for their petition included the legal argument and its ruling[26]”. Despite their brilliance, their hard earned inheritance later becomes a problem for their clan leaders worried about land being lost to the tribe[27]. A solution is found in them marrying within their tribe[28].

I think it is useful to note that this case does not suggest that the law can be changed in response to feminist arguments, but rather that in response to their complaint the existing but not yet revealed law was uncovered. “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly” is explained as God saying: “[As they spoke it,] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.”[29]. On the other hand, perhaps there are many other liberalising laws ‘on high’, waiting to be uncovered.

Around the time of the Enlightment, an idea was introduced in Judaism “ חדש אסור מן התורה” anything new is forbidden [30]. It can be argued that this stance was itself a great innovation and deviation from a more responsive tradition of interpretation. In Islam, they have a concept of Bid’a, which I am told is opposition to innovation in religion. From what I am told, traditional Islam has always been responsive to new situations through interpretation of existing laws rather than “innovation”. As a Jew, raised within the orthodox tradition, it makes sense to me that if the assumption is that our religion comes from God, conservatism would be one natural response. Yet, there is some room for human initiative, but within serious constraints.   

[1] Numbers 25:1-3
[2] Sifri 25, cited in Rashi
[3] Numbers 25:5
[4] Numbers 26:14
[5] Numbers 1:23
[6] Talmud Sanhedrin 82a
[7] R. M. M, Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, (1978) Likutei Sichos, Vol. 8, Kehot, Brooklyn, NY, p. 164, further elaborated by Kalmenson, M,
[8] Numbers 25:6
[9] Nachshoni, Y, (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Bamidbar, Artscroll, Brooklyn NY, p. 1115, quoting R. Raphael Katznelbogen, that in the debate between R. Sonnenfeld and R. Kook, R. Sonnenfeld said that Zimri claimed to be acting for the sake of heaven…A similar approach is taken by R. Ari Kahn,
[10] Numbers 25:7-8
[11] Talmud Sanhedrin ibid
[12] Attributed to Chasidic sources in Nachshoni, Y, (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Bamidbar, Art Scroll, Brooklyn NY, p. 1113,
[13] Rashi,
[14] Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in Ha’amek Davar, as quoted in Leibovitz, N., Studies in Bamidbar, Pub. Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, p.331
[16] Ohr Hachayim,
[17] Ohr Hachayim (end of Balak, further details in his commentary are more confronting), Maimonides, Laws Issurei Biah, 12:10
[18] Leviticus 20:15
[19] Magid Mishnah on Maimonides, Rabbi Vidal di Tolosa, 14th century, Laws Issurei Biah, 12:10
[20] Sifri
[21] Rashi to Numbers 25:14 s
[22] Talmud Sanhedrin ibid
[24] Numbers 27:1-7
[25] Abarbanel
[26] Anaf Yosef commentary on Ein Yaakov, Bava Batra 119b, cited by Schneider, S,
[27] Numbers 36:1-12
[28] This solution caused its own problems for a descendant of the clan of Gilead, Jephthah, as discussed in my post,
[29] Rashi to Numbers 27:7; Targum Yonatan ibid.; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.; Sifri ibid cited in Schneider
[30] Attributed to the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1838


  1. From GD Facebook:Interesting about the daughters of Zelophehad having to marry within their own tribe to protect the property of their father and keep it in the tribe. This is what drove the practice of cousin marriage which is still common in some Muslim societies.

    As for Pinchas behaving like a zealot and killing Zimri and the Moabite woman, Cozbi it is odd that he was left in peace. While Zimri may have been subject to the death penalty the killing was extra-judicial and apparently forbidden. The same applies Islamically but I guess all faiths have their zealots who act in the name of God but don't follow the path required of Him.

    What really concerns me is on the one hand Zelophehads daughters were able to receive just treatment but no such justice applied for the wrongful killing of Cozbi. I assume Jewish law views her treatment as unjust just as Islamic law does. Here again we have the problem with many religious followers. They only apply the law in the interest of people who share religion and deny those outside their religion the just treatment required.

    Really the true measure of a religion is not in how it treats its followers but in how it treats those who aren't particularly if they are under the control of the followers.

  2. thanks GD for the feedback. A few key points.
    1) Agree that justice must be pursued regardless of the faith of those involved. The danger of discrimination is one we must be on guard against.
    2) The view in the oral law was that while Pinchas acted without court sanction, his act was appropriate. It is called a "Halacha V'ain Morin Kain", a law that is not meant to be given as a ruling. ie. it is correct but scholars are forbidden to guide a spefic person to act on the law that allows the killing. Maimonedes, makes it clear that the killing of someone like Cozbi was lawful
    3) The Covenant of Peace was offered by God, not a person in Numbers 25:12.
    4) The idea that Cozbi was coerced in part is one interpretation, not in the actual text of the Torah iteself. Another interpretation has Cozbi being taken by the hand. Even according to the view I cited, she was keen on the sin in general, just wanted to sin with a different person.
    5) A more general view would see Cozbi as a spiritual predator, part of the campaign to lure Jews into sin and idol worship.
    I still find the treatment of Cozbi problematic, while accepting that the Torah view is that her death was justified.