For Whom the Bell Tolls
This Torah portion is very, very difficult. So much of it is at odds with values we hold dear, such as compassion, justice, and inclusivity… There are even passages that we could call anti-science.
It is as if we hear alarm bells while we read it.
The alarm bell of our modern liberal conscience against a story that seems barbaric, tribal, and even racist.
There are problems even before the beginning: in last week’s Torah portion [final part: Numb 25]. The Israelites settled in the plain of Moab (on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea) and started having fun with the local ladies.
And here’s the first alarm bell. The Torah says that having fun with the Moabite ladies is wrong. The Moabites are described in disparaging terms. According to the Torah, they practised incest and human sacrifices, but contemporary archaeologists have found no evidence of these abhorrent practices. In other words, the Torah considers them evil.
Alarm bell: this is demonisation. Also, the Torah does not want us to mix with them. Nor socially neither -God forbid- in marital unions. Why? We are given no reason, Just do not mix with them, do not socialise with them, do not marry them. And, of course, this is an alarm bell ringing in the space of our modern, enlightened conscience. Because this “don’t marry them” commandment has a name. Racism.
It gets worse. The Israelites are having fun; hence God is furious with the Israelites. What a cruel divinity we have. He does not want us to have fun; He imposes sacrifices and renunciations without telling us why. This is another alarm bell to our modern conscience and inquisitive rational mind.
Then God commands Moses to kill all those Israelites who went astray together with Moabite women. Do you hear this alarm bell? Forget about modern stuff, such as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. God clearly does not think we Israelites are entitled to enjoy these luxuries. God prescribes nothing less than the death of those who transgress His prohibitions. Death penalty: this is another trouble for our humanitarian conscience. This is another alarm bell. Or perhaps 24.00 thousand alarm bell, because this is the number of the Israelite transgressors murdered by their brethren. 24 thousand. Murdered upon instigations by God, and why? Because they dared to hang out with the Moabites.
And now, enter Pinchas, the guy who gives his name to this week’s Torah portion. He sees an Israelite man having a good time with a Midianite woman. Midianite, Moabite thy are all the same. Forbidden unions. So what does Pinchas do? He takes a spear in his hand and murders the couple in the middle of the act. Both of them: the Israelite man and the Midianite woman. Here we hear not one alarm bell but a whole series of them. Pinchas killed two human beings; because they were committing a religious transgression (religious intolerance: alarm bell). And because their union was a forbidden marital union (racism: another alarm bell).
En passant, we learn that God punished all Israel’s people as if they were responsible for these sins. Punishing, yes! with a plague. Here the Torah implies that plagues -such as COVID- are not caused by human imprudence, as contemporary science suggests. No, the plagues -or at least the one described in these Torah portions-are decreed by God. They are God’s decision; they are meant to punish the people of Israel. Can you hear the alarm bells? This bold assertion that plagues and illnesses are caused by human supposedly immoral behaviours is barbaric. It counters both science and mercy.
It gets worse. Because at this point of the narration, Parashat Pinchas (this week’s Torah portion) begins. It begins, and it is a very disturbing beginning. We read God’s words of praise for Pinchas. God praises a man who killed two other human beings out of religious intolerance and racism! Pinchas is a vigilante. He did not even wait for the police (or its equivalent) to carry justice in front of what he considered a crime.
No, Pinchas took the matter into his own hands and acted (violently) without consulting with any authority, without even asking permission from Moses or from God. And for this violent prevarication, dictated by racism and intolerance, God praises Pinchas! This is a massive alarm bell ringing! Is this our God? The God who commanded us not to kill? The God of mercy and compassion?
God says that with his act of vigilantism, Pinchas has stopped the Divine anger from killing all the Israelites. That’s the word part. Was God planning to exterminate his people with the plague? And to stop the plague, it was necessary to murder a couple in love? The alarm bell is ringing!
And as a reward, God establishes a brit shalom, a covenant of peace that will endure forever with Pinchas and all his descendants. The descendants of Pinchas are rewarded for a murder committed by their ancestors! Very disturbing, Another alarm bell.
And then God reiterates the curse against the Midianites. “Remember the plague I have inflicted upon you because you were close, too close to the Moabites. Make sure not to stop your enmity against them”.
God prescribes eternal enmity — this is another massive alarm bell. This is a God that sanctifies religious violence, vigilantism, and murder in the name of faith. A God that aggressively polices the boundaries of race and peoplehood. Is this, we may ask, our God?
It’s all uncomfortable and disturbing for everyone. But especially for us modern Jews. We champion tolerance, freedom of religion, and inclusivity. We believe in the values of pluralism. And this despotic divinity is supposed to be our God? Massive alarm bell. Or, as per the ancient Hebrews saying: oy oy oy…
But, wait a minute. Shall we look at the calendar? Isn’t today the 17th of Tammuz? We are supposed to be fasting. We won’t fast today because it is Shabbat; we will fast (those who fast) tomorrow. Tomorrow a mournful period begins, The period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha beAv.
Tisha beAv is -if you exclude Yom Kippur- the major fast in Judaism, and it is devoted to commemorating the tragedies of our history (Yom Kippur, as we know, is another matter, is about our relationship with God).
Tisha beAv is about us Jews, ourselves, and Jewish history. On Tisha beAv we commemorate the destruction of the First and of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. On the same day, we commemorate all the catastrophes that have afflicted the Jewish people since the loss of independence.
The First Crusade in 1096 (speaking of religious violence…). The expulsion from England in 1290. The expulsion from Spain in 1492. The First World War — was the starting point of a series of tragedies that claimed many Jewish victims throughout the 20th Century CE. All these catastrophes, and some of the most tragic moments of the Shoah, are commemorated on Tisha BaAv, and the Jewish victims are remembered on that day. Tisha beAv is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar and will be in three weeks’ time.
The 17th of Tamuz is the anniversary of the first breach of Jerusalem’s walls; we begin the Three-week preparation for the observance of Tisha beAv. There are various ways to observe the Three Weeks; if you want to know more, feel free to ask the Rabbi; he’s very knowledgeable about that. There are many local traditions, also known as minhagim, from which you can pick and choose. I want to make this point here: on the 17th of Tamuz, we read in shul Parashat Pinchas (which apparently endorses religious violence and vigilantism). But also begin to think of the long series of catastrophes and tragedies that fell upon the Jewish people and us throughout our history.
These tragedies, these persecutions, and these catastrophes have all a common cause, according to the teaching of the Rabbis. Sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Divisions internal to the Jewish people. Ideological divisions, theological divisions, class divisions, political divisions. Contrasts that are never solved spiralled and became a permanent source of bitterness and hate. According to Rabbinic theology, sinat chinam, internal divisions are the causes of exile, diaspora, and persecution.
You don’t like the Rabbi’s explanation of the causes for persecutions? Do you think that it’s non-consistent, historically speaking? Do you believe we Jews have been persecuted, and are persecuted, for other reasons: such as nationalism, capitalism, communism, or whatever other ideology? The cause of antisemitism is elsewhere, the economy, the class system or -why not- meteorology? Fine. All fine. But at least you should recognise that internal divisions and strifes do not help the Jewish people. On the contrary, they make easier the work of annihilation that our enemies pursue through history.
Wait a minute. We have read a story of religious violence, vigilantism, and crimes committed in God’s name. The Torah celebrates a guy who committed a double murder. That was an ancient story.
But as per the present and the future: we ought to fast and mourn. That’s strange. Aren’t we supposed to celebrate a triumph over our enemies and at least the end of the plague? According to the calendar, we are not. This is very strange.
What’s going on?
I want to make a bold suggestion. We do not celebrate the story read in the Torah because, in the period following the calendar, we mourn all the victims of signet chinam, of baseless hatred. Including those mentioned in the story of Pinchas. We mourn the thousands of Israelites murdered because someone thought they had committed irreparable crimes and deserved to die. We also mourn and fast against the perils of vigilantism, taking the law into your own hands and not trusting the justice system. One cannot but think to America about what is being revealed by the investigations about the January 6 insurrections. That was an insurrection by those who do not trust the system, who think the system is irremediable. That was a rebellion by people taking the law into their hands; that was vigilantism.
Whether we choose to fast or not, our mourning is about that: a permanent warning against the peril of vigilantism, of not trusting the process, of just wanting to act violently and immediately.
But that is also, by the way, the behaviour of those Israelites who engaged in relations with the Moabites. The Torah is very eloquent on the public dimension of these transgressions. They were performed publicly, in the public squares, in symbolic places such as in front of the Tent of Meeting. One suspects that the purpose of these transgressions was not to have fun but something more serious and challenging. To defy the Law. Those people were doing the Law by themselves and rejecting any religious rule. Is it a chance that the Israelite transgressors are all males? What about their wives? Are they at home (kept at home, I mean) while the men are having fun with the local ladies? And are we sure it is only fun? Was not there also an element of rebellion? Against Moses’ authority, against God, or is it against the whole Israelites’ enterprise, against the project to journey toward the Promised Land? True to be told, on both sides, the pro-Pinchas and the pro-Moabites, there seem to be people who take the law into their hands. On both sides, there seem to be vigilantism, prevarication, In Rabbinic words: baseless hatred, sinat chinam.
How will the story of Pinchas be read in these weeks? I am sure there will be those who -like every year- point out the transgressions of those Israelites that allowed themselves to be seduced by the Moabite women.
We’ll hear -from some Orthodox- tirades against sexual immorality and other kinds of practices that should be avoided even in the bedroom. And on the other side, from most Liberals, we will hear speeches against modern Pinchas, disquisitions about religious violence committed in the name of the Jewish God, tirades against the policing of boundaries, and of course, against the very concept of boundaries — the “not in my name” kind of shpiel.
It will be a reciprocal shaming and accusation. “You Reform are immoral and have all sort of unregulated unions even with Moabite women!” “You Orthodox are patriarchal. toxic masculinity all over the place and dangerously violent like Pinchas!”
Both sides will try to derive justifications for the repetitive series of reciprocal accusations from the same Torah portion.
We will have missed, another time, the opportunity to discover what we all Jews have in common. To discover or to remind ourselves that the various tribes of the Jewish people share a history, a destiny, a faith and a method of learning based on dialogue.
It is a pity because the invitation to look at what we have in common is in our calendar. Right in front of our eyes, if only we could look beyond today. This period of time should help us to reflect. It warns against the dangers of baseless hatred, enduring divisions, and consequences. I wish we stop ignoring these warnings.
I hope all the Jews will hear the alarm bell.