Passion and zeal are not the same things

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Rabbi Melanie Aron

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.

Pinchas is the poster child for Jewish zealotry. At the end of last week’s parshah, he rises up in rage and kills an Israelite and his Midianite partner. At the beginning of this week’s portion, Pinchas is given a “covenant of peace.” He is a dramatic figure, but is he a Jewish hero?

Our tradition’s discomfort with Pinchas is visible in many ways. The Torah portion may be named for him, but within it, Joshua is named as Moses’s successor. Further, is the covenant of peace a reward or an instruction to Pinchas to moderate his behavior? Some even suggest that his story is broken between two Torah portions in order to minimize its impact.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Zevachim 101b), it is suggested that Pinchas was important as a peacemaker between the two and a half tribes that wanted to settle on the east side of the Jordan and the remaining tribes of Israel. This is a very different picture of Pinchas. In the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 9:7), we are told that the elders wanted to excommunicate Pinchas because of his behavior, recognizing how dangerous it was to have an individual prone to vigilante violence within the community. Only God’s testimony protected him, while also making this an exceptional case not to be duplicated by others.

Passion can be a driving force for creativity, but even the rabbi of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Moshe Taragin (2019 YU Torah Online) warns that ”zeal can easily morph into hostile zealotry, coupled with strident judgementalism and dangerous dismissiveness and negativity…someone who hurls a stone at a Shabbat violator has crossed a terrible red line and also violated multiple halachot.” Unfortunately, worse things that throwing stones have been justified out of a particular vision.

Maimonides promoted what modern Hebrew calls the “shveil hazahav,” the golden road, what he called, “haderekh ahemtzaee,” the middle road, with regard to many qualities. I find his views instructive to us today.

In the Rambam’s ethical guide, Shemoneh Perakim, he advised that we take the path of moderation in all things, and in his commentary on Pirke Avot, similarly advised us to avoid extremes, particularly in anger. This was picked up in Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th-century guide written in Spain, which tells the reader, “never to remove himself to the extremes.”

Ovadia de Bartenura, an Italian scholar of the 15th century, similarly advised us to take the middle path, that we not veer to one of two extremes. Similarly, one core principle in the Musar literature is to bring every character trait into a balanced place between extremes.We need some degree of passion, of energy and commitment in Jewish life, but ardent zealotry and extremism has been dangerous in the Jewish past and is dangerous today. ■

Rabbi Melanie Aron is a Washington rabbi and rabbi emerita of Congregation Shir Hadash,
Los Gatos, Calif.

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