The Sin of Tolerance


Rabbi Reuven Mann

In recent years the danger of terrorism by religious fanatics has emerged as the greatest threat to international peace.  Fanaticism of either the ideological or religious kind is now regarded as a dangerous manifestation of a deranged mind.  Civilized nations condemn the zealots who live by a code of hatred for the “infidels” and revenge for those who are perceived to be hostile to their cause.  

At first glance Judaism seems to be very opposed to the notion of retribution.  The Torah prohibits us from “hating our brother in our heart.”  If someone offends us we are not permitted to nurture anger or bear a grudge.  Not that we are expected to simply forgive anyone who abuses us and overlook all insults that are hurled our way.  Such a course would not be realistic for most people.  The Torah recognizes that we have feelings and do not take kindly to unjustified assaults on our dignity.  However, it demands that we confront the offender in a controlled manner and voice our complaint in a calm and intelligent fashion.  The hope is that the offending party will accept rebuke and apologize for his noxious behavior.  If he should have the decency to admit his fault and express regret we should then forgive him and regard the matter as settled.

This week’s parsha, Pinchas, seems to convey a different message.  Pinchas the grandson of Aharon rose up from the congregation and slew the prince of the tribe of Shimon while he was engaged in promiscuous behavior with a Midianite princess.  He acted on the principle of “Kanaim Pog’im Bo” (“zealots may dispose of him”) which grants permission to religious “fanatics” to summarily execute criminals while engaged in certain heinous crimes, without benefit of any judicial proceedings.  The deed of Pinchas was of such merit that it brought to a halt the plague which Hashem had unleashed on the Jews because of their immoral behavior.  Pinchas was rewarded by Hashem who praised him saying that he “withdrew my anger at Bnai Yisrael when he zealously avenged my vengeance among them… and thereby atoned for the children of Israel.”

At first glance this parsha poses a problem.  If anger and revenge are evil character traits why is Pinchas extolled precisely because of his zeal and unforgiving attitude toward Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon?  This shows us that the matter under discussion is not so simple.  Zeal, vengefulness and fanaticism are not evil, per se.  It all depends on the motivation.  If it is rooted in man’s ego, however masqueraded under religious pretenses than it is a sign of moral derangement.  We have become familiar with certain types of criminals who have no social conscience and are unable to empathize with the suffering of others.  Even worse are those who do have a conscience but allow it to be distorted with perverse religious ideals.  These people commit the worst atrocities with the belief that they have served their “deity” and will receive a great reward.

Pinchas was unique.  He was the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon, who “loved peace and pursued peace.”  His intentions were not for personal glory but to remove the defamation of Hashem which had been unleashed by the blasphemous deed of Zimri and which had placed the Jewish people in grave jeopardy.  He acted immediately and courageously purely for the sake of Hashem with no thought of personal concerns.  He was zealous for Hashem, not for himself.  We should constantly strive to cultivate a love of Hashem and an authentic appreciation of the true good.  The more we do so the more we will develop a genuine distaste for evil and a desire to eradicate it.  The verse in Tehillim (Psalms 97) says “Those who love Hashem hate evil”.  This is a lesson which must be constantly remembered in this era of immorality where tolerance for anything and everything, no matter how vile, is touted as the highest ideal.

Shabbat Shalom