Parashat Pinchas 5778

Rabbi Dr René Pfertzel – 6 July 2018

Upon seeing some pictures of a recent gathering of Progressive Jews, a friend of mine said: “Wow, Progressive Jews smile a lot!” It never crossed my mind, and then I made some online research, and realized he was right. We do smile a lot on our photos. Are we like “Dopey”, the simpleton dwarf in the Disney movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, or is there something else? I went further, and looked at the religious expression of other groups. You have the ecstatic faces, hands up of evangelical Christians; the cruel faces of the Hamas parading in the streets of Gaza calling for the death of Israel; the dances of whirling dervishes; the bowing downs of worshipping Muslims; the bored and strict faces in some places of worship. There are many was to express one’s religiosity, and ours is to smile when we get together. I am writing these lines before the LJ Biennial in Solihull, but I am sure we will all have smiling faces on photos.

At the beginning of our parasha, Pinchas is rewarded with eternal priesthood for something that he did in the previous one. He saw an Israelite man and a Midianite woman entering the Tent of Meeting (God knows for what!). He followed them and killed them (Numbers 25:6-8). God says, “Pinchas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest has turned away my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them my passion (hb. kin’ati that can also be translated, my jealousy, my zeal) for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in my passion (or jealousy, or zeal)” (Numbers 25:11). Pinchas is granted a covenant of peace, b’rit shalom, and b’rit kehunat olam, a covenant of eternal priesthood.

God’s endorsement of violence is puzzling, to say the least. Rabbis in the Talmud are somehow embarrassed. In essence, they say (Sanhedrin 82b), this is God’s word; we cannot do anything about it. However, should you feel the urge to kill someone who transgresses your conception of religion, please come back first to the Beit Din. We shall deal with it according to ethical principles and legal process.

We do smile a lot, because we feel confident about our version of Judaism. We value community and human beings over religious stringency and religious violence, and we are the opposite of zealots. We value our diversity as a source of richness instead of seeing it as a threat. We are passionate explorers of our tradition, and we have no hesitation in questioning it and dispute it if necessary. Our smiles are our strength. We are not the measure of all things, and we can live with that.

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