Pinchas: The Power of Platitude?

Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Professor, Rabbinic Literature
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

posted on June 14, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Clichés can be meaningful. When spoken between two people who have a wealth of emotion and history, at a bar mitzvah, a wedding, or a funeral, a well worn cliché can be the vehicle for conveying deep and heartfelt joy or sadness. At those moments a cliché is the vessel, honed over many years by a culture, with which to say the things that matter. The vessel itself is not the feeling-it only conveys a feeling. For this reason when clichés are used in a situation in which there is no real feeling or shared history, they ring empty and sound trite.

Clichés can be meaningless. Our popular culture is littered with them. "Out of the box" is one of those that are more or less self-parody by now. However, there was a time when everyone was trying to think out of the box. Just saying the phrase "out of the box" gave an often meaningless suggestion the weight of wisdom, the appeal of being cutting edge. The business book From Good to Great, a book that took in the business and nonprofit worlds in the early part of the last decade, also gave birth to meaningless clichés which passed for wisdom. Despite the fact that many of the companies showcased as models of going "from good to great" are now bankrupt, for a long time it was necessary to "get on the bus." In these situations, clichéd thinking is worse than banal since it gets in the way of actual thought.

Nowadays, "gamechanger" has hit its stride as the cliché du jour in everything from television shows to Bloomberg news. On the other hand, "intersectionality" is still working its way in from the academic discourse of feminism and cultural studies and has not even hit the dictionaries yet. A gamechanger, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is "an event, idea, or procedure that produces a significant shift in the current way of thinking about or doing something." Ten or fifteen years ago, in certain circles, one would have spoken of a "paradigm shift" loosely based on the usage of that phrase in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolution. The idea is to mark the moment when the model that has been used to organize facts into theories and understanding has shifted to such an extent that a completely new theory of the matter is warranted. A gamechanger can be a person or an event which creates a paradigm shift. These terms slide into banality, in part, because we tend to use them with exclamation marks far in advance of when we can truly judge whether or not anything has changed-or that the change has been for the better or the worse.

Two extraordinary events frame this week's Torah portion. The first is the cliffhanger left over from last week. Pinchas kills a prince of the clan of Shimon while Shimon is having sex with a princess of Midian in what seems to be a holy or idolatrous space, the kuba. The murder stops the plague and in this week's portion, God grants Pinchas "My convenant of peace."

At the end of the portion named for Pinchas we meet Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad who demand to inherit their father's share in the land of Israel, since he has died and left no male heirs. Moses brings this question to God who replies: "Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak." A new law is then revealed in which daughters will inherit their fathers when there are no sons.

One is tempted to say that these are paradigm shifts, gamechangers.
In terms of Pinchas' holy homicide, the change in the game is obvious. First, two people are dead, run through in a twist of logistical improbability (magnified in Rabbinic retellings) with one spear. Second, a plague stops because God is appeased. This seems to be an obvious case in which the action of one person focused on righting a wrong, avenging a sin, has actually changed the course of history. The paradigm has shifted, the idolatrous fornication has stopped and with it death from the heavens.

However, one must ask, did the game actually change? Did the paradigm actually shift? Is this the last time that the Israelites sin or that God wreaks vengeance? Not merely in the desert as recorded in Torah, but the rhythm of the book of Judges, for example, is a cycle of forty years of good accompanied by peace, then sin accompanied by Divine vengeance (at the hands of this or that enemy), then a hero and once again peace. The paradigm is so expected that Moses foretells it in his farewell speech to the Israelites. So, Pinchas kills two people to stop a plague which will ultimately continue in other times and other guises.

But what of the daughters of Zelophehad? They won the right of inheritance, did they not? Yes they did. They brought Moses to speechlessness, to the need to seek guidance. God literally revealed new rules. The game was different. This change - minor though it was within the larger spectrum of the patriarchal society which still then controlled women's lives and not to their benefit - stuck.

Why did this change make an indelible impact while Pinchas' dramatic killing for the sake of God ultimately became just another moment in the history of the oft-times tragic relationship between God and Israel? I would suggest that the legal innovation which was brought about by the daughters of Zelophehad changed the way in which Israel thought about women. Women were now closer to being Israelites in that they could, under certain circumstances, own land. This narrative caught, and it was probably amplified in a recurrent loop of action and telling. Women inherited land every once in a while, and people would be more and more used to women aslandowners, and then women were thought of as landowners. The narrative changed. Pinchas did not change the narrative; he played a stock, albeit dramatic, role in an ongoing and unchanging saga.

It takes a long time to actually change a cultural narrative. The changes that stick then eventually end up as part of the transparent context of the way we think. In many parts of the community it is the unremarkable practice to say the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah along with the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the amidah prayer. This now sanctioned practice has become a cliché, a vessel which embodies one result of a struggle to change the story about what women are in the Jewish community. That story, now well worn, is the ground to stand on as we move on to integrating a more robust picture of women into the narrative of the Jewish community so that it too will someday be cliché.

Shabbat Shalom.