Rabbi Sessler D’Var Torah


Murder in the name of G-d /

The Problem of Religious Fanaticism

Our Torah portion last Shabbat presented us with the quint-essential zealot, a man called Pinchas, who took the law into his own hands, and murdered a fellow-Jew who was steeped in idolatrous practices and immorality.

The Torah is very wary of anarchy, and of people who take the law into their own hands. In the book of Judges, when the narrative seeks to highlight the chronic political instability of the zeitgeist, it resorts time and again to the same statement, as a recurrent leitmotif throughout the book, namely: “Back in those days, each person acted as he or she saw fit.”

In the Mishnah, we find the following teaching: “Pray for the welfare of governments, because had it not been for the fear of the government, each person would swallow/devour his fellow-person alive.”

This is an amazing Mishnaic teaching, as it precedes by more than a millennium and a half, the work of the modern political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who taught us in his book “Leviathan”, that in the absence of law and order, life would be, for all of us “nasty, brutish and short,” and that without law and order, we would all revert back to the state of nature, which preceded the rise of human civilization.

In such a world, cautions us Hobbes, as the paradigmatic political realist that he was, human relationships would sordidly be reduced to the following three words in Latin: “Homo homini lupus” (“man to man is wolf”).

We have all seen how during times in which there is a pervasive collapse of law and order, the human beast emerges from within us, in all its hideous ugliness and moral depravity.

So Pinchas, the chief protagonist of our Torah portion, is on the one hand a hero – the Almighty praises him for his heroic intervention (when Moses was too “shell shocked” to intervene according to Rashi) –  and in exchange for putting his own life on the line and exhibiting such pious dedication, Pinchas is indeed awarded a “Brit Shalom”/ ‘Covenant of Peace.’

But on the other hand, we have some Midrashic sources which exhibit profound ambivalence about the fact that Pinchas acted of his own accord and initiative, and without going through the proper judicial channels (a rabbinic court of law).

According to one midrash, Pinchas was poised to become the next leader of Israel after Moses, but because he acted without rabbinic authority, Hashem tells Moses in this very same Torah portion, that it is Joshua who’s going to take over as leader, and not Pinchas.

I absolutely love that midrash, because I know, like most reasonable people, that often-times, when people take the law into their own hands, all hell can break loose.

Tragically, our world is replete today with extremists who, in the words of Rabbi Sacks: “Kill in the name of the G-d of life, wage [an unnecessary] war in the name of the G-d of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the G-d of compassion.”

Like Rabbi Sacks however, I also know, that the alternative to bad religion is not no religion at all, but rather – the alternative to bad religion is good religion. Humanity tried atheism in the 20th century. Big time. Billions of people lived under distinctly atheistic regimes in China, the Soviet Union, and other parts of the world. The result was two world wars, one Cold War, and more fatalities than in any other century in human history. The 20th century was the most murderous century in human history. And it is also the century in which the word ‘genocide’ was introduced to the human vocabulary, by a Jewish diplomat called Raphael Lemkin, after World War Two.

When the Nazis were murdering a third of our people in the forests of Europe in the early 1940’s, the word ‘genocide’ did not exist yet, hence Winston Churchill’s chilling allusion on BBC radio to what later on came to be known as the ‘Holocaust’, as “a crime that has no name.”

The G-d-less 20th century, only brought about more murderous political idolatry, in the form of the deification of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and other such false gods, who were worshipped by hundreds of millions, and who also seamlessly murdered hundreds of millions of people without any moral reservations. Fanaticism, the 20th century has shown us, is not only a religious danger. In the most recent of times, hundreds of millions were murdered in the name of secular atheistic fanaticism and zealotry as well.

Atheism might well be a legitimate and viable existential option for numerous individuals, but not for all of us. Perhaps not even for most of us. The human being, to quote Rabbi Sacks again, is the “meaning-seeking-animal”, typified by a forceful and deeply embedded longing for the transcendent, for the beyond. Smother this spiritual thirst by way of political oppression, and you will only find it re-appearing, albeit in the distorted and monstrous guise of a totalitarian political monstrosity, as we have seen time and again since early modern times, with the bloodbaths which ensued the French and Russian revolutions.

All this notwithstanding, murderous religious fundamentalism (Sacks does well to define fundamentalism as “the leap from text to application without interpretation”) is still a very serious problem, indeed – it is the most acute political problem of our time.

Zealotry and fanaticism are as ancient as monotheism, and indeed, as the human condition itself.

And yet, I wish to demonstrate, there’s still a very important “positive” lesson to be deduced from the story of Pinchas. Pinchas was a warrior. He shied not away from holding a weapon, and putting his own life on the line. And as a result of taking up arms, Pinchas also won the peace. This is a vitally important and timeless political message.

Let me explain. Amos Oz, one of the most ardent and articulate voices of the Israeli political left, stated numerous times that twice in his life he willingly entered a tank, and went to war. Why? Because “there is one thing that’s even worse than war itself”, said Amos Oz, and that thing is “capitulating to boundless and uncalled-for aggression.”

Amos Oz is right. When Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister of GB in the 1930’s, his appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany only made things worse. And when Churchill finally rose to power in 1940, he was depicted as a “war monger”, a veritable Pinchas if you like. So, we see that the story of Pinchas does carry an imperative and timeless “positive” political message as well, a lesson upon which the very existence and future of human civilization as we know it depends.

In the spirit of Amoz Oz and Churchill, let us remind ourselves that only those who are actually willing to hold a rifle and go to war if need be the case, will ultimately merit the peace.

This is why it was precisely the hawkish Menachem Begin who withdrew from the Sinai in order to make peace with Egypt, and this is also why only a General like Ariel Sharon could pull Israel out of Gaza and evacuate some ten thousand settlers, and only a General Rabin could obtain popular support to try out the Oslo process, and also make peace with Jordan.

Similarly, only a General de Gaulle could bring peace by taking the French out of Algeria, and only a Nixon could go to China.

As you read these lines, remember that the only reason you can read this text in peace now, is because as you breathe, there are literally hundreds of thousands of armed men and women around the world, who are physically protecting you right this very second from ISIS, North Korea, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaida and their likes.

Peace can only be won, maintained and secured, by those who possess the steadfast willingness, strength of character and courage, to plunge themselves into battle, if must be the case, once all other political remedies have been utterly exhausted.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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