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How is zealotry looked upon in the Torah? Is collective punishment justified? Can we take the law into our own hands?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

In last week’s and this week’s Torah portions (Balak and Pinchas, respectively) we read how the Jewish people were led into sexual immorality by a plan thought up by the evil Balaam in order to make God angry at the Jewish people. Many Jewish men, particularly from the tribe of Simon, were enticed by the Midianite beauties and sinned. (Numbers 25)

They went even further astray and worshipped the Midianite idol, making God even angrier. And to make things worse, Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Simon, took a Midianite woman into his tent and essentially committed an act of immorality in full public view.

Jewish law states that “when a person commits an act of immorality, zealots are permitted to kill him.” No judge or jury required. So Pinchas took his spear, killed the two prominent sinners, and with that the Divine plague that was killing the people ceased.

God was clearly pleased with Pinchas, as the verse says, “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, spared My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake…. Therefore, I shall grant him My covenant of peace.” Indeed, Pinchas was rewarded with a “Covenant of Peace” and he was also made a Kohen (priest).

Another example of zealotry in the Torah is the story of Dinah (Genesis 34). We are told that Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, went out for a walk one day and was abducted by Shechem, the son of Hamor, the local prince. Shechem “took her and lay with her…. he loved the girl and spoke softly to her.” Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, something not even negotiable from a Jewish perspective. Shechem asked his father to go to the Jewish camp, speak with their leaders, and arrange for a way that he could marry Dinah.

Hamor met with Jacob and asked for Dinah’s hand in marriage for his son: “Make marriages with us, give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You will dwell with us and the land will be open for you.” Shechem offered Jacob and his sons any price or condition they wanted.

Their response? “The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah.” They said they would agree to intermarry and become one nation if all the men of Shechem (yes, Shechem was also the name of the city where they lived) agreed to be circumcised.

They agreed. Every male was circumcised. Then, “on the third day, when they were in pain, two of the sons of Jacob…Simon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city and killed all the males. They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. And the sons of Jacob plundered the city and the field, all of their wealth…all that was in their houses.“

Rabbinic literature justifies the mass killing. One reason given is that according to the seven universal laws (the “Noahide laws”), every society must set up a legal system complete with police enforcement. Failure to do so is considered to be the fault of every person in that society. The punishment for violating this law is death.

Shechem was a city where the leader was a rapist who was revered by the population. Likely a very corrupt society. Hence, the mass killing was both permitted and justified according to Noahide law.

Another interpretation is that the attack on Shechem was a legitimate military operation as an act of revenge for the rape of Dinah. In other words, it seems that collective punishment is justified in war.

God’s Wrath Does Not Differentiate

It appears that God endorses collective punishment. Take, for example, the harsh words of chastisement in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, which include clear examples of collective reward and punishment. According to the Torah, when most of society is acting properly, even the wicked enjoys the prosperity and blessing that is aroused. On the other hand, when most of society is sinning, God’s wrath does not differentiate, and the righteous suffer punishment as well.

Another interesting angle to this discussion is the law stating, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” The most common application of this principle is the case of the burglar. As the Torah says: “If a thief is found sneaking in and is killed, there is no transgression of murder…but if the sun shines, it will be a transgression of murder.”

It is explained that it is permitted to kill a thief breaking into your house because it is widely known that a person will not stand idly by while his property is taken. It is assumed that the thief is so committed to his crime that he would even kill the homeowner in the process if need be. Hence, it is considered to be a case of “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”

However, “but if the sun shines, it will be a transgression of murder” means that if the homeowner knows for sure that the thief will not kill him (the example given is a father breaking in to rob the home of a son), then the homeowner may not kill the thief.

Back to zealotry and taking the law into our own hands. This topic is certainly a loose cannon and a slippery slope. To make such zealous moves as discussed above, one’s motives must be pure and sincere. Some people, unfortunately, take pleasure in aggression and violence. But Pinchas did it for selfless reasons and in order to stand up for the honor of God.

Hard to say if anyone nowadays is at such a high level.

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