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August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
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The Argument Against Zealotry

We live in an age of extremism.

Whether in politics, art, music, religion, or even just “personal expression,” we seem to be overrun by people who live at the edges. We witness the world roiled by extremists in the Middle East, the Far East, even in Europe. In Africa, failed states become sanctuaries for extremists who foist their ideologies on others, most often with cruel and inhumane violence. We find ourselves stunned nearly to silence by the slaughter of innocents, the desecration of religious institutions, and the destruction of the secular and the everyday.

“Taliban” has become shorthand for this kind of extremism.

While secular religion (pan-Arabism, communism, partisan politics, etc.) can sometimes lead to extremism, often it is faith that opens the door to zealotry. After all, if the Creator of All asks something of us, can there be any limit to how we should respond? Should there be?

While some religions embrace zealotry, traditionally Judaism has tended to turn away from it. But for so many Orthodox Jews from Jerusalem to Brooklyn, kana’ut – zealotry or extremism – is now the name of the game in approach, ideology, methodology and speech. What has happened to us that we have become used to unbending and unforgiving actions affecting every aspect of Jewish life? From whence comes this harshness?

We live in a blessed, glorious time of Jewish renaissance. Yeshivot and Torah learning thrive, massive kosher supermarkets serve our communities, stately synagogues and cozy shtiebels line our streets. And yet, a derech unknown to us as we grew up has taken hold of hearts and minds. We knew families totally committed to everything Jewish and halachicas prescribed by Shulchan Aruch and our mesorah while still participating in the benefits and goodness available in society at large; families where there were no color distinctions among Yidden; families where the black hat was not standard but where gray hats and straw hats after Memorial Day were the norm.

At the same time, we were devout and loving Jews, more focused on what was under the hat and within the heart than the particular garb one wore.

What defines kana’ut these days? Throwing rocks at passing cars on Shabbos? Burning an Israeli flag on Yom Ha’Atzmaut? Insisting that seltzer water have a heimishe hechsher in addition to normative and trusted national certifications? Refusing to pray in a shulwhere the Israeli flag is displayed? Urging men and women are to use separate sidewalks?

The Jewish way is not the harsh and rigid way of kana’ut. God forbid that devout Jews should employ the mindset of the Taliban.

* * * * *

Who was Pinchas, whose name is claimed as a badge of honor for such behavior? We know he was the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron, but beyond that, little of his personal life. What we do know, of course, is his zeal for God; he slew a man on the spur of the moment, without trial or warning, in defiance of all judicial procedure prescribed by the Torah. In other words, he took the law into his own hands. He exacted judgment and punishment against all legal, moral, and societal norms.

Yet God’s reaction to his act is positive and complimentary. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.”

God even went on to reward him. And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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