Pinhas makes us feel uncomfortable. After all, he took the law into his own hands and dispatched the two parties who were engaged in public licentiousness. No matter the sin, our contemporary sensibilities suggest to us that extra-legal actions are never acceptable. Such vigilantism can result in lawlessness. But contemporary Israeli scholar Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli points out that the Torah is uncompromising in its demands and intolerant towards those who violate the law. In effect, the Torah is, like Pinhas, zealous. The Torah is zealous in demanding conformity and punishing wrongdoers. Indeed, Pinhas’ response to sin earns him special commendation and eternal reward (Numbers 25:12).
It would seem, then, that contemporary students of the Torah find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. To lionize Pinhas would mean tolerating extremism – an anathema in times of rampant terrorism. And condemning Pinhas would mean challenging tradition. Fortunately, Rav Yisraeli shows us a way in which Pinhas can be acclaimed for his passion and yet the worst form of extremism can still be condemned.
Rav Yisraeli distinguishes between egoistic extremism and selfless extremism. Egoistic extremism is rooted in the narrow perspective that judges what is necessary and should be vigorously pursued on the basis of what is good for the extremist him or herself. It denies that the perspective of anyone else is of value. In contrast, selfless extremism is entirely different. Selfless extremism judges matters on the basis of what is best for the public of which the extremist is a part. Terrorists are condemnable because they fail to take into account the perspective of the innocent victims they claim and the civilization of which they are a part. Pinhas, however, acted on the basis that the public defamation of the Torah would ineluctably result in public harm: a desecration of God’s name and a decline in societal standards.
The distinction is useful, but not entirely convincing. Arguably, terrorists can claim that they are indeed acting in the best interests of the public – a claim difficult to refute. What is clear is that over Jewish history Pinhas has lost his heroic status, no doubt due to growing ambivalence towards vigilantism.