Fear, furor and instability can be morally crippling even for a society that strives to be ethical. Some biblical narratives – including the ones in this week’s Torah portion of Pinhas – reveal the horrific role of vengeful killing and violence in ancient societies.
Each case of vengeful killing occurs on a backdrop of fear and furor.
There always seems to be some justification for it – as though violence toward the other will somehow make the pain of past violence done to us more tolerable.
But the Torah and later rabbinic interpretations are quite clear: Killing another human being is forbidden, unless it is in self-defense and even then, only as a last resort. Because each human being is as precious to God as any other, one cannot risk being killed but is ethically commanded to protect themselves. If someone comes to kill you, you must stop him – and kill him if necessary (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 58b).
Yes, if in order to defend ourselves we must kill someone to stop them, it is not only permitted, it is required.
However, in any other circumstance, killing is forbidden and a desecration of Torah and of God. In Leviticus 22, we read: “You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel – I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” This verse is usually interpreted to mean that any good or holy act done by a Jew sanctifies God’s name in the eyes of his Jewish and gentile neighbors, but any negative or profane act done by a Jew desecrates God’s name in the eyes of the public. What any single one of us does reflects on all of us and on God.
In the case of Phinehas in this week’s parasha, his vengeful killings were somehow justified because they put an end to further death (Numbers 25), and thus were understood to be preventative measures. But in this case – as in nearly every case of vengeful killing – the violence emerges on a backdrop of fear and furor, and is intended to end the threat.
Yet it just about never does. In the Torah narrative, just like in recent events, vengeful killings only continue a state of continuous cycle and spirit of enmity and violence.
Must we be trapped in a cycle of revenge and violence? Does the Torah think it’s possible to glorify God or create an ideal society this way? No. In fact, later rabbinic interpretations of Torah are clearly focused on creating an ethical society. The very core of Torah, according to Rabbi Hillel, is the famous statement of ethics: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto any other person. All the rest is commentary, go and learn it!” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) Ethics doesn’t demand a great deal of learning because, as Hillel taught, we know about how not to act from our own human experience.
Another example of the Torah’s concern with ethics appears in commentaries related to another section of this week’s Torah portion. The daughters of Zelophehad are bereft after their father dies but since there is no son, there is no one to inherit his property (Numbers 27). At first it seems as though this injustice will be upheld, as the law doesn’t allow for women to inherit. But they plead their case and God assures Moses that their pleas should be heeded, calling the decision a “decree of justice.” Sometimes the law can repair itself, when there is an authoritative will to repair it. But in other cases, the law isn’t enough.
We are called to be even better than the minimal demands of Torah, because sometimes they are not enough. Whenever possible and wherever necessary, we must even exceed the basic requirements of the law, and “go beyond the letter of the law.” If a society is committed to ethics, it will find ways of protecting the vulnerable and the despised – even if it means extending an interpretation to do so.
The daughters of Zelophehad could have been ignored, but the law could expand in order to include them.
Injustice, violence and revenge can easily come to infect a society, which is why we must be so vigilant and ready to extend the laws of protection and justice so that such forces can be extricated from among us. The tendency toward violence and revenge might surface, especially when tensions and fear are extreme. But a just society must prevent such despicable behaviors from infecting the public sphere.
A just society must be built on the moral fabric, and develop the legal mechanisms in order to ensure that all are protected. Only then will we become a society worthy of God’s sanctification.
The writer is a rabbi and the national director of recruitment and admissions and President’s Scholar of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; she also teaches for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Her column appears monthly.