On Zealotry and the Pursuit of Peace

Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Rabbi Adam Greenwald

Miller Introduction to Judaism Program
American Jewish University

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest learning program for those exploring conversion to Judaism in North America. He also serves as Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. In 2016, Rabbi Greenwald received the Covenant Foundation's Pomegranate Prize in Jewish Education.

Rabbi Greenwald is the editor of On One Foot, an introduction to Judaism textbook and curriculum, in wide use across the US and Canada. He is a Fellow with the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL)'s "Rabbis Without Borders" initiative and speaks and teaches nationwide on issues of conversion, inclusion, and engagement of Jewish millennials.

Prior to coming to the Intro Program, he served as Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, one of America's most innovative spiritual communities. He received his BA in History from UCLA and his MA and ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2011. 

posted on July 25, 2019
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Our Torah portion this week recalls a man named Pinchas, the great-nephew of Moses, who engages in an
act of vigilante violence. The Israelites are in the midst of a plague, brought down by God as penance for
rampant acts of sexual immorality. Pinchas responds by capturing a couple in flagrante delicto, and
executing them-- stabbing the pair of them through with his spear.

The Torah offers Pinchas praise-- he is rewarded for his action with God's eternal covenant of peace, and his
decisive, bloody act puts an immediate stop to further dying. Calm is restored to the Israelite camp.
And yet, we instinctively recoil from Pinchas' brutal zealotry. We have to believe that it is not the only way
that peace might have been obtained. We are horrified by this text of terror.

I believe we are not alone in that horror.

Two thousand years ago, the Sages of the Talmud selected potions from the Books of the Prophets, haftarot,
to pair with our weekly Torah reading. In general, they chose selections that would bolster and amplify the
message of the Torah that we had just read.

Except this week. This week they do something subtle, and – if we are paying sufficient attention -- quite

For this week's haftarah they select the well-known story of Elijah-- another believer in the power of violence
to get his point across. Our reading picks up just after Elijah had personally slain 700 priests of Baal and
Asherah, following a public religious contest at the foot of the Carmel Mountain. Elijah is a man on the run--
chased far into the desert to flee retribution for his righteous killings. He runs as far as Mt Sinai, the place
where all our stories begin, and there he encounters God who teaches him a life-changing lesson.
As Elijah hides in a cave in the mountain, thunder, lightning, whirlwind, and fire pass before him. The entire
mountain shakes with the force of a mighty earthquake. But, the text teaches, God is curiously absent from
any of these violent manifestations of nature's power. Then, finally, comes a kol demama dakka -- a still
small voice, a sound just slightly more than silence. Elijah, who had always understood God to be manifest
in displays of power and dominance, is stunned to realize that God is absent from the fire, from the
whirlwind, from the explosions and the death. God is in the quiet, soft voice that echoes in the heart.
The Rabbis deliberately chose a haftarah that would serve as a radical counter-text for this week's Torah
portion. Pinchas may put his faith in his spear, but Elijah is taught that God is found somewhere else entirely.
Read together these stories place us into a most discomforting tension. At times, it may appear that the only
answer lies in the sword, but that is never where God dwells. Our Sages are teaching us that while violence
may sometimes be necessary-- in self-defense or to combat a great evil-- but necessary is not the same
thing as holy.

We read Parshat Pinchas in the height of Summer, again in the depth of Winter we return to the same
strategy and the same theme:

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah, when we celebrate the military victory of the Maccabees, who descended like
hammers from the hills to wipe out their Greek enemies, we read a Haftarah whose famous words ring out:
"Not by might, and not by power, but by my Spirit alone shall you live."

Our Rabbis were not meek pacifists-- they taught, "when one rises to kill you, kill him first"-- but neither were
they willing to glorify battle or celebrate death. War may have its time and place, but it is always a tragedy to
be quickly overcome. I often think of one of my heroes, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's fallen Prime Minister and the
great soldier of peace. Rabin spent a lifetime leading armies to achieve noble goals, but in his last years said
again and again that any real soldier constantly prays for peace, and that true courage is finding a way to
ensure a future where fewer young men on both sides of a conflict need to give their lives. "Military
cemeteries the world over stand in silent testimony to nation's failure to honor the sanctity of life" he said in
his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "Enough," he said to the Israeli Knesset, "Enough of blood and tears.

Rabin met his end at the hands of a brutal zealot, one who spoke openly about being inspired by the
example of Pinchas. May we instead be students of our Sages, who taught that violence can never contain
holiness, that righteousness is to be found in the voice of conscience that whispers in all our ears, calling us
to find a new way forward together.

Ose Shalom b'imromav hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v'al kol israel v'al kol yoshvei tevel, v'imru Amen
May the One who ordains peace in the Heavens, make peace for us and all God's children, speedily and
soon. Amen.