The Way of Madness

The idea of one Jew killing another is shocking. Most of us think it never happens — but the truth is that it does. It happens this week in the Torah with Pinchas. After seeing a Jew apparently enticed by a Midianite prostitute, Pinchas runs them both through with his spear.

It happened when the Macabbees saw a Jew publicly bowing down to a statue of Zeus in the town of Modin. It happened during the American Civil War, World War I and when the State of Israel was founded. Most recently, as most of us painfully recall, it happened when a young, deranged Orthodox Jew named Yigal Amir assassinated then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Ironically, it was this week’s Torah portion and the character of Pinchas that some of the most extreme Jews used as a justification for the assassination.

After all, doesn’t God reward Pinchas for his zealotry in this week’s parsha? Isn’t Pinchas granted God’s brit shalom (covenant of peace)? Yes, he is. But to my mind, the Torah is telling us not that God rewarded Pinchas, but that God cured him. God tempered Pinchas’ fanaticism so that he would never kill again.

If you ask me, the best response to fanatics who would kill another innocent human being for their cause was the one spoken by Shimon Peres after Rabin’s assassination. He addressed Amir directly and he said to him: “The Jewish people spits you out.”

That’s the Jewish answer to fanaticism.

Any day now, as the pullout from Gaza and some of the West Bank will begin, we all wait and wonder whether or not the main character of this week’s Torah portion will live again. Will the toxic mix of religion and politics bring forth modern day martyrs and assassins?

I know liberals will dislike what I am about to say, but there is a legitimate Jewish claim to the territories. Hebron is as much a part of the land of Israel as Tel Aviv — even more so. There is ample proof of our right to settle the West Bank and Gaza from Torah to modern Zionist theory. Liberals ought to admit that, from the standpoint of Torah, this land is our land.

But conservatives, hawks and the religious extremists ought to recognize something even more important than our biblical right to the land. Privileging land theology above all else is a distortion of Jewish tradition. As my friend Rabbi Ami Hirsch put it, “Since when did this obligation to settle the land come to define the highest calling of being a Jew?”

In the scope of Jewish tradition, settlement is not the highest Jewish value we are commanded to uphold. Life itself is of higher value. The well being of Israeli society is of higher value. Do the lives of a few hundred Israeli children living in Gaza surrounded by hundreds of thousands of resentful Palestinians count for less in the eyes of God than the ancient precept of settling the land? Do the lives of the soldiers defending them, 18-year-old boys, count for nothing compared to settling the land?

Shame on those parents in Gaza for putting their children’s lives in danger for the sake of land. Shame on them for endangering the lives of other peoples’ children — who have been called up to defend them.

Settling all of biblical Israel is not the highest of all Jewish values. Life and peace are the highest of all Jewish values. If we are to be fanatical about anything, let us be fanatical about life and peace. The way of Pinchas is the way of madness. The Jewish people ought to spit it out.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, 1999) and “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul” (Bonus Books, 2004).